A View From Israel: The Afghan conundrum

After WikiLeaks revelations, experts doubt the US-led coalition can thwart the Taliban insurgency unless Pakistan makes fighting terrorism a serious priority.

December 3, 2010 14:50
Map of Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Following September 11, the US, together with NATO forces and the Afghan Northern Alliance, launched Operation Enduring Freedom, a military campaign in Afghanistan aimed at toppling the Taliban. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 which states: An attack on one member nation is an attack on all. Then-president George W. Bush called it the “War on Terror.”

Over the last nine years, a wealth of problems has plagued the US in its hugely complex war in Afghanistan, including high military and civilian casualties, last year’s famous dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal over disparaging remarks he made to Rolling Stone magazine, Afghan government corruption, voting fraud and recent revelations that for months the coalition had been negotiating with a Taliban imposter.

As part of the ongoing US-Pakistan strategic dialogue, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi met in Washington last month despite concerns about Pakistan’s ties with militants and recent revelations that Iran has been supplying Afghan President Hamid Karzai with bundles of cash. Clinton announced a further $2 billion in military aid citing “mutual security challenges.” She said, “The United States has no stronger partner when it comes to counterterrorism efforts against the extremists who threaten us both than Pakistan.”

But diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks this week show that Pakistan actually supports terrorist elements both in its own country and in Afghanistan.

Although Pakistan identifies both al-Qaida and the Taliban as existential threats, government institutions still support the Taliban for a number of reasons.

According to the documents, Pakistan believes the Taliban will prevail in the long term and continues to define India as its number one threat.

Pakistani officials believe that if militant groups were not attacking in Afghanistan, they would seek out Pakistani targets.

Pakistan views the Taliban as a potential asset against the influence of India in Afghanistan once the US withdraws. The US consequently considers this a global danger, as terrorist elements in Pakistan may attempt to gain possession of nuclear weapons.

In 2001, the US-led coalition was ill prepared for the huge task to which it had committed itself. The intent to minimize casualties and limit overexposure to local communities out of cultural sensitivity backfired.

Military analysts claim the coalition was far too focused on creating a “light footprint” and lacked “hard power,” an overwhelming surge of manpower and presence to eradicate al-Qaida and push out the Taliban by sending in thousands more troops and insisting on enhanced Afghan National Army (ANA) involvement. It also failed to couple military force with diplomatic “soft power,” doing little to engage tribal leaders in dialogue and including Taliban leaders, in particular, in negotiations. According to one analyst, the coalition simply “underestimated the magnitude of the task of creating a functioning state.”

US POLICY-MAKERS and military officials say it is crucial to take regional stability into account as well. President Barack Obama’s trip to India last month highlighted some of the differences between Pakistan and India. While India lobbied the US not to supply Pakistan with military aid other than with counterterrorism weaponry, Pakistan complained that the need for a heavy military presence on its eastern border with India has left it without the necessary troop numbers to fight the Taliban in the west.

WikiLeaks documents show that the US does not consider it possible to counter al-Qaida in Pakistan without first addressing the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, bringing about a stable civilian government in Afghanistan and reexamining the broader role of India in the region. The documents highlight Pakistan’s fear of a pro-India government in Afghanistan that would allow an Indian proxy war against Pakistan from its territory.

While Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, claims to reject extremism in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks documents show that it provides at least some support to the Taliban to facilitate attacks against International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) there. Gen. David Petraeus has often made it clear that Iran poses a “major state-level threat” to regional stability in the area of US Central Command operations.

The Taliban are strongly respected by ethnic Pashtuns and their strict interpretation of Shari’a law has led them to outlaw anything secular. This includes radio, television, movies, music and art. Photography, soccer, chess and kite flying were all at some point banned too.

With the absence of education during the years of Taliban rule, and with the flight of millions of refugees throughout two decades of conflict, young men turned militant in the hopes that they would find purpose and live a better life. The result is that thousands of men have grown up with the Taliban’s radical jihad approach and by filling the ranks, sustained the Taliban’s ability to fight.

US efforts to eradicate Taliban strongholds in 2001 succeeded only temporarily, as in recent years the Taliban have reappeared as an active enemy force within Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Although the US has increased drone operations in Pakistan, their success has proven difficult to measure since Pakistan’s government is reluctant to cooperate fully and some Taliban fighters now shave their beards to better conceal themselves among innocent civilians.

Other periods in Afghanistan’s history were devastating to its political structure and economy, but the Taliban’s effect on Afghani society likely had, according to some, the deepest and most devastating psychological impact on the general population.

Because of this, experts say, Afghanistan’s reconstruction must focus, at least in the short term, on the extensive social destruction caused during the Taliban era and the rehabilitation of Afghan society.

A lot has changed in nine years. Counterinsurgency (COIN) is the new civil-military war strategy designed to get the military working with the Afghan populace through small Provincial Reconstruction Teams which focus on reconstruction and development. PRTs also work to convince villagers to accept the authority of the Afghan government over the Taliban and ISAF are busy training the ANA to eventually assert authority in all provinces.

There has been considerable improvement in Afghanistan’s progress toward stability, and rehabilitation efforts have shown signs of success. Thousands of fighters have been disarmed and millions of children have returned to school.

There has been economic improvement and the government has witnessed a steady flow of domestic revenue.

Part of the improvement is a direct result of security sector reform (SSR) which centers around five main issues: military reform, police reform, disarmament and demobilization, a counter-narcotics campaign and judicial reform.

To ensure successful SSR, many political and military analysts believe support of the Taliban in neighboring countries must come to an absolute end. Global jihad is a major concern, they say, and the war in Afghanistan cannot be won solely there but must include an ongoing offensive in neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban maintain a stronghold, primarily in North Waziristan.

As in other countries such as Somalia and Rwanda, the US has implemented a program of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, known as DDR. In Afghanistan, the program has disarmed thousands of fighters, demobilized hundreds of militias and reintegrated former fighters into civilian life through vocational training and job placement.

President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, a former restaurant owner in Chicago, said in meetings with coalition members that what is needed are “similar large-scale, laborintensive projects that would provide jobs to the people and keep them from being recruited by the Taliban.” Many experts agree that economic and political stability depends on the ability to eliminate the opium trade, the largest in the world.

Afghanistan provides approximately 90 percent of the world’s opium, most of which is processed to make heroin and is then transported through Iran or Pakistan.

While this allows farmers to earn a living, it has destroyed the economy and destabilized the government. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, corruption and drug trafficking feed upon each other and undermine development efforts in Afghanistan.

Until recently, the US has operated on the assumption that arresting drug traffickers and eradicating crops would resolve the opium problem and had even resorted to dropping bombs on huge piles of opium seeds.

But the Associated Press, referencing a cable leaked by WikiLeaks, reported on Tuesday that “Karzai freed dangerous detainees and pardoned suspected drug dealers because they had connections to powerful figures... The cable, which supports the multiple allegations of corruption within the Karzai government, said that despite repeated rebukes from US officials in Kabul, the president and his attorney general authorized the release of detainees.”

However, the US administration does seem to have changed its tactics. At the 2009 G-8 meeting in Italy, US envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke announced the US would phase out support for crop eradication and use the money to work on interdiction, rule of law and encourage farmers to grow alternate crops such as saffron and pomegranates. Expanded agricultural cooperation, seen as vital to the future of Afghanistan and other countries in the region, could lead to rural development, employment growth and higher income levels for farmers.

According to another classified document released this week by WikiLeaks, Ahmed Karzai suggested that the coalition pay mullahs to preach against heroin, which would reduce demand for poppy cultivation. However, according to another document released at the same time, Karzai is “widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”

Petraeus’s strategy is much the same as McChrystal’s, since Petraeus was heavily involved in the original planning and McChrystal implemented many of his suggestions.

What has changed in the last six months is the combination of increased COIN operations with improved diplomatic efforts.

With assurances that they would not be arrested or killed, senior Taliban leaders were escorted last month by NATO forces from Pakistan into Afghanistan for talks with the Afghan government and which included the US demand that Taliban fighters lay down their arms, cut ties with al-Qaida and respect the constitution.

At a press conference at the end of the NATO summit in Lisbon last month, at which an exit strategy and transition to Afghan control was one of the key topics, Obama said, “My goal is to make sure by 2014 we have transitioned... certainly our footprint will have been significantly reduced.” But a withdrawal in 2014 is unlikely, according to many experts, since the Taliban show no sign of fatigue and, as The New York Times recently reported, the US military announced it would be sending a company of tanks to southwest Afghanistan, bringing a “much-needed armor presence to an asymmetrical fight.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said the Taliban can “forget it” if they think NATO is planning to cut and run.

With the last nine rough years in mind, analysts are hesitant to make predictions about an exit date, but with an upcoming US policy review this month, admit that if the US can foster an India-Pakistan agreement and manage to suffuse Afghanistan with enough “hard power” to maintain security, it will allow the maneuverability needed to advance “soft power” political, social and economic reforms.

Related Content

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis
August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance


Cookie Settings