10-11-2012, 08:10 PM
Waiting for the Taliban in Afghanistan
This is a very serious article, with huge implications for Afghanistan, India, Pak, China and US. Its a very lengthy one too, because it explains and discuss in depth the situation. I highly recommend everyone to take some time out and read it to understand the complexities. I am posting some random excrepts for your consideration.
The proliferation of damaging incidents—the desecration of corpses, burning of Korans, murder of civilians—point to U.S. troop exhaustion. Furthermore, the Afghans’ rejection of the foreign presence is so great that the coalition no longer has any political capital. The withdrawal has therefore become a necessity, rather than a choice, with the alternative being to engage in an increasingly brutal military occupation.
In the end, the withdrawal is the result of a failed strategy, and the coalition is leaving behind a situation that in some respects is worse than it was before 2001. For over a decade, Western objectives have been undermined by wishful thinking and a misunderstanding of Afghan society. Even the much-heralded surge, as planned in 2009, never had a chance to reverse the momentum. The surge’s effect was limited militarily and disastrous politically, as its unsustainable cost led the coalition to set the unilateral withdrawal date, constraining its ability to negotiate with the insurgency.
Moreover, the insurgency has not been radically weakened by the recent military operations; it remains a vital threat to the Kabul government, particularly because there is no sign of a reduction in Pakistani support for the Taliban. In fact, the withdrawal will automatically translate into a Taliban advance, particularly in eastern and southern areas, such as Helmand, where the insurgents are contained only by the constant efforts of coalition forces.
Finally, the influence the United States has over the regional players is decreasing; Washington will have no leverage over Pakistan in the next two years because of the logistical necessities of the withdrawal and the unstable military situation in Afghanistan. This in turn will make Afghanistan a staging ground for fights between regional powers, as it was in the 1990s. Today, Iran, India, and Pakistan sponsor competing Afghan political forces and heightened regional competition on Afghan soil is likely.
- a situation that recalls certain aspects of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal that resulted in the progressive isolation of government-held areas. In both cases, foreign powers attempt to impose a social model of modernization that is not acceptable to the local population, apart from the urbanized elites.
The targeted eliminations of thousands of Taliban had only a transient, local impact because the insurgency’s leadership lives in Pakistan under the protection of the Pakistani army and has not been directly affected by the strikes. Moreover, mid-level leaders have been quickly replaced, which indicates a healthy level of institutionalization. While the caliber of these leaders has probably declined, their loyalty to the organization can only be stronger, given that their affiliation with the Taliban is increasingly their only source of legitimacy. It is also Taliban policy (as it was in the 1990s) to regularly replace district and provincial leaders to avoid the establishment of strong local players and problems of corruption.
More than a military organization, members of the Taliban make up a political party, which explains their attention to management of the population, via the legal system and taxes, for instance. The coalition forces were not capable of dismantling this shadow government, so the core of the organization was preserved.
Increasingly, people are developing exit strategies. Regardless of what they tell their diplomatic contacts in Kabul, the political elite are preparing to go into exile, scrambling to obtain foreign passports, moving their families to Dubai, and shifting massive amounts of money abroad. The sharp decline in high-end real estate prices in Kabul signals that disengagement is the most common attitude. In addition, the new Afghan middle class, whose existence is directly linked to the Western financing and support, is not politically mobilized and will not be a factor in the transition process. No organized segment of the urban population is ready to support the current government in the coming crisis.
Keeping all of this in mind, how great a shock should be expected? Afghanistan has 398 districts, and on the basis of inherently approximate assessments, I believe that about a quarter of these could fall totally—that is, including district capitals—under the insurgency’s control in two years.13 These estimates are rather conservative; that is, they are based on situations in which the Taliban already occupy a position of strength.
Instead of supporting the insurgency and providing the Taliban sanctuary on Pakistani soil, Islamabad could in theory take an active role combatting insurgents on its territory. Such a reversal of Pakistani policy could deal a severe, even fatal blow to the Taliban and remains the most certain way to stabilize the Afghan regime. But a change in Pakistan’s policy has been announced regularly for the past ten years, and it has never taken place. Indeed, the Pakistani military never ceased its support for the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami, another insurgent group, and became an increasingly difficult U.S. “ally.” It is highly improbable that change will come in the future for several reasons.
The security cost would be enormous for Pakistan, particularly if the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani jihadist groups were to join forces for offensive operations in Pakistan. Given the highly unstable situation on the border and the Pakistani government’s inability to (re)establish civilian authorities after military operations (in Waziristan for example), the consequences would be grave. The Pakistani army would need to become more heavily involved along its western border with Afghanistan even though its priority is India.
Further complicating matters, the Pakistani army is convinced that India is taking an offensive position in Afghanistan, supporting anti-Taliban groups and Baluchi tribes calling for independence from Pakistan.14 Indian policy is interpreted as a strategic threat to Pakistan.
The notion that the insurgency is composed of local groups without a national strategy has by now been discredited, but the role of the so-called Haqqani group and Hezb-i-Islami is still being discussed. The Taliban are by far the most important political-military organization and the only one to operate on a national scale. This is a military conflict and the logic is for one organization to acquire a military monopoly. Some divisions do seem to exist. The Taliban have a competitive relationship with Hezb-i-Islami but enjoy a huge military edge. Hezb-i-Islami is also double-dealing, working actively both with Karzai and the insurgency. But that situation is not a threat to the strength of the insurgency. Furthermore, portraying the Haqqani group as independent of the Taliban, on the same level as Hezb-i Islami, is misleading and—more important—has no practical significance.
It seems unlikely that northern political factions could unify politically and militarily to become a player on the national scene. One recent attempt to unite the north into a nationally recognized body has made little progress.
Afghanistan was supposed to become a long-term ally with permanent bases that could exert pressure on Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia (the competition with China being implicit). The rebirth of the Afghan state would promote both effective counterterrorism and the indefinite presence of U.S. bases, thus altering the regional strategic equation. For that, further state building was required. One of the consequences of state building was that the Taliban steadily became the main enemy, while al-Qaeda largely disappeared from the Afghan scene. The war against the Taliban was justified by their alliance—whether tactical or more fundamental, depending on the interpretation—with transnational jihadist groups.
Now, the Afghan state is too weak to guarantee the country’s security or to serve as a channel for U.S. influence.
Far from offering greater autonomy to American policy, counterterrorism is a technical instrument that increases reliance on local allies.
Furthermore, counterterrorism operations are a source—probably the most important source—of anti-American sentiment in the region. Whatever the real level of civilian losses incurred during the operations, the general perception is clearly one of indiscriminate strikes against the population. This is important, because this sentiment facilitates recruitment for jihadist movements and to a certain extent paralyzes the Pakistani government.
First, limit drone strikes to jihadist groups and primarily al-Qaeda. Using drones against the Taliban is counterproductive.
Second, avoid anything that could limit the ability of the next administration to open negotiations with the Taliban when they will be in Kabul. Putting the Haqqani group on the U.S. terrorist list was counterproductive in this regard.
Third, define a long-term regional policy since the current situation—three contradictory approaches toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India—is not sustainable.
Washington should also avoid over-the-top declarations about the necessary convergence of Indian and U.S. interests and define cooperation on more pragmatic grounds. In the broader view, the U.S.-Indian relationship is more important to counterbalance China, but counterterrorism policy requires a certain measure of collaboration with Pakistan. A careful approach focused on a medium-term deal with the insurgency is quite different from the current Indian policy. India is intent on supporting the Afghan regime until the end, hoping that an ongoing civil war in Afghanistan will distract the Pakistani military from the eastern front. The U.S. focus on its enemy defined in a very narrow sense means that India will be in a somewhat uncomfortable position vis-à-vis the United States in the next few years.
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