Today’s New York Times Op-Ed section is a gold mine of insight on the situation in Afghanistan-Pakistan and the problems of dealing with the Taliban. Articles by Olivier Roy, Graham Fuller, and Seth Jones provide in one narrow space more informed insight on the problems and possible solutions — no, feasible ways of dealing with the problems — than I have seen. Thanks to them — all of them quite familiar with Afghanistan on the ground — and to the Times for providing these comments at such a critical time. I hope our congress bothers to read them. RLC
December 4, 2009
Then There’s Pakistan and the Pashtun
By OLIVIER ROY
FLORENCE — President Obama is betting that sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will rapidly change the balance of power in the field, erode local support for the Taliban, give breathing space to the Kabul government to clean up its act, allow humanitarian aid and development to reach the countryside and possibly bring some war-wearied Taliban to the negotiating table. Al Qaeda would thus be deprived of any sanctuary, and the U.S. mission there would be accomplished.
In essence, the president announced a short-term military surge in Afghanistan to lay the ground for implementing a long-term political agenda — one first put in place by the Bush administration in 2002 — that focuses on good governance, fighting corruption, training a professional police and promoting economic and social development.
Since the political project has failed over the last eight years, the logic goes, only military action can revive the conditions for it. So everything depends on a military progress in counterinsurgency.
It is true that, at a time when the Taliban are on the move and the Kabul government embodies more than ever a failed state, nothing can be done without a military surge. The Taliban smell victory and have no interest in negotiating. The only alternative is to leave or to escalate the fighting.
The idea seems to be to use tactics that worked in northern Iraq: playing traditional tribal leaders against extremists, offering them incentives and hoping that the large strata of the population who don’t share the radicals’ agenda will turn against them.
In this perspective, the corrupt and distrusted Kabul government is more a liability than an asset, which means that the American and NATO troops would have to be politically involved at the local levels instead of handing over the keys to Kabul once the field has been cleared.
For such a policy to work, the Taliban insurrection must be correctly understood and Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan must be at least neutralized.
The Taliban insurrection is both an ethnic and a social movement. The Taliban embody both a Pashtun irredentism and a shift in the traditional tribal system. The insurgency is limited to Pashtun-populated areas; in Pakistan, too, the “liberated Islamic areas” are all Pashtun. Non-Pashtun Islamic militants choose other ways to act.
The issue of Pashtun frustration at being shut out of power has not been ignored by the Western powers. They supported the dismantling of the ethnically non-Pashtun Northern Alliance forces that took Kabul in November 2001 — a rather easy task after the assassination of their charismatic leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.
But now the non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan have no more military means to protect themselves from a Taliban comeback, and they cannot rely on an Afghan National Army. Thus the quandary is how to placate the Pashtuns without weakening further the other ethnic groups whose fears of a Taliban comeback make them the best allies of the NATO troops.
President Hamid Karzai was appointed largely because he embidied a traditional Pashtun identity. He appointed Pashtun governors and has played on Pashtun traditions. Yet this has been to no avail because the tribal aristocracy he represents has lost its roots in the tribal areas.
In northern Iraq, traditional tribal leaders happily answered Gen. David Petraeus’ opening toward them to get rid of the threat of non-Iraqi Al Qaeda fighters who ignored or even tried to suppress them. But in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan, traditional leaders of this kind have almost disappeared. They have been replaced by a new elite of young madrassa-educated Taliban, more connected to Pakistan and the Gulf than to the West.
What of the role of Pakistan? If they find a shelter in Pakistan, the Taliban could easily escape the brunt of the two coming years of a military surge. They can expect that the U.S. will be unable to bolster a counter power in the Afghan tribal belt or strengthen the Kabul government. So they just have to wait.
Pressure on Pakistan will yield very little — the arrest or the killing of some Taliban leaders or Al Qaeda cadres.
Until, now the Pakistan Army has used both Taliban and Islamist militants as a proxy tool of its regional policy of “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India. It still wants a Pashtun Islamist government in Kabul.
This complex and dangerous cooperation between the army and the Taliban was based on a deal: The Taliban, Afghan or Pakistani, might push their agenda in Afghanistan or in the northwest territories in Pakistan, but should not contest the leadership of the Pakistan Army. Islamabad is off-limits.
The Taliban broke this deal when they made a foray from their Swat stronghold through Buner in the direction of Islamabad. The army had no choice than to counterattack. But the objective of the Pakistan Army is not to destroy the Taliban. It is to bring them back into the fold after a red line has been crossed.
As long as the Pakistan Army does not consider its campaign against the Taliban as a matter of life and death for itself, it will not help in any serious way with the American and NATO agenda in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been fighting through proxies in Afghanistan for more than 30 years. It can wait for American and NATO troops to leave the region.
As far as I can see, only finding a way to alleviate Pashtun frustration in Afghanistan and getting Pakistan to give up its decades-old policy of supporting Islamists in power there will change anything fundamental. Unless a broader and more coherent policy is defined that includes these elements, 30,000 additional U.S. troops plus more from NATO are not going to make a difference.
Olivier Roy is a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and the author of “Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah.”
Tribune Media Services
December 4, 2009
Take the War to Pakistan
By SETH G. JONES
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S decision on a timetable for withdrawal of American troops only makes official what everyone here has known for a while: the clock is ticking in Afghanistan. The Taliban have long recognized this, and many captured militants have reminded their interrogators that “you have the watches, but we have the time.”
As we quicken the pace, the top American commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has repeatedly noted that there are many issues to focus on: building more competent Afghan Army and police forces, adopting more effective anticorruption measures and reintegrating “moderate” Taliban and other insurgent fighters into Afghan society and politics.
But perhaps the most difficult issue is largely outside of General McChrystal’s control (and got short shrift in President Obama’s speech at West Point): undermining the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan. Thus far, there has been no substantive action taken against the Taliban leadership in Baluchistan Province, south of the Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan. This is the same mistake the Soviets made in the 1980s, when they failed to act against the seven major mujahadeen groups headquartered in Pakistan.
This sanctuary is critical because the Afghan war is organized and run out of Baluchistan. Virtually all significant meetings of the Taliban take place in that province, and many of the group’s senior leaders and military commanders are based there. “The Taliban sanctuary in Baluchistan is catastrophic for us,” a Marine told me on a recent trip to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, across the border from Baluchistan. “Local Taliban fighters get strategic and operational guidance from across the border, as well as supplies and technical components for their improvised explosive devices.”
Like a typical business, the Taliban in Pakistan have an organizational structure divided into functional committees. It has a media committee; a military committee; a finance committee responsible for acquiring and managing funds; and so forth. The Taliban’s inner shura, or governing council, exerts authority over lower-level Taliban fighters. It is composed of the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, his principal deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, his military commander, Abdullah Zakir, and roughly a dozen other key leaders. Many Taliban leaders have moved their families to Baluchistan, and their children attend Pakistani schools.
Mullah Baradar is particularly important because he runs many of the shuras involving senior Taliban commanders, virtually all of which are in Pakistan. “Omar is reclusive and unpolished,” one Taliban figure recently said to me, “and has preferred to confide in a small number of trusted advisers rather than address larger groups.”
Yet Pakistan and the United States have failed to target them systematically. Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps forces have conducted operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas to the north, and the United States has conducted many drone strikes there. But relatively little has been done in Baluchistan.
The United States and Pakistan must target Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. There are several ways to do it, and none requires military forces.
The first is to conduct raids to capture Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. Most Taliban are in or near Baluchi cities like Quetta. These should be police and intelligence operations, much like American-Pakistani efforts to capture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Qaeda operatives after 9/11. The second is to hit Taliban leaders with drone strikes, as the United States and Pakistan have done so effectively in the tribal areas.
The cost of failing to act in Baluchistan will be enormous. As one Russian diplomat who served in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan recently told me: “You are running out of time. You must balance counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan by targeting the leadership nodes in Pakistan. Don’t make the same mistake we did.”
Seth G. Jones, the author of “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,” is a civilian adviser to the American military.
December 4, 2009
Stretching Out an Ugly Struggle
By GRAHAM E. FULLER
Many decades ago as a fledgling C.I.A. officer in the field, I was naïvely convinced that if the facts were reported back to Washington correctly, everything else would take care of itself in policymaking. The first loss of innocence comes with the harsh recognition that “all politics are local” and that overseas realities bear only a partial relationship to foreign-policy formulation back home.
So in looking at President Obama’s new policy directions for Afghanistan, what goes down in Washington politics far outweighs analyses of local conditions.
I had hoped that Obama would level with the American people that the war in Afghanistan is not being won, indeed is not winnable within any practicable framework. But such an admission — however accurate — would sign the political death warrant of a president to be portrayed as having snatched defeat out of the jaws of “victory.”
The “objective” situation in Afghanistan remains a mess. Senior commanders acknowledge that we are not now winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan; indeed, we never can, and certainly not at gunpoint. Most Pashtuns will never accept a U.S. plan for Afghanistan’s future. The non-Pashtuns — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc. — naturally welcome any outside support in what is a virtual civil war.
America has inadvertently ended up choosing sides in this war. U.S. forces are perceived by large numbers of Afghans as an occupying army inflicting large civilian casualties. The struggle has now metastasized into Pakistan — with even higher stakes.
Obama’s policies would seem an unsatisfying compromise among contending arguments. Thirty thousand more troops are less than called for and will not turn the tide; arguably they present more American targets for attack.
They will heighten traditional xenophobia against foreigners traipsing through Pashtun villages and homes. It is a fool’s errand to persuade the locals in Pashtun territory that the Taliban are the enemy and the U.S. is their friend. Whatever mixed feelings Pashtuns have toward the Taliban, they know the Taliban will be among them long after Washington tires with this mission.
The strategy of the Bush era envisioned Afghanistan as a vital imperial outpost in a post-Soviet dream world. That world vision is gone — except to a few Washington diehards who haven’t grasped the new emerging global architectures of power, economics, prestige and influence.
The Taliban will inevitably figure significantly in the governance of almost any future Afghanistan, like it or not. Future Taliban leaders, once rid of foreign occupation, will have little incentive to support global jihadi schemes — they never really have by choice. The Taliban inherited Osama bin Laden as a poison pill from the past when they came to power in 1996 and have learned a bitter lesson about what it means to lend state support to a prominent terrorist group.
The Taliban with a voice in power will have every incentive to welcome foreign money and expertise into the country, including the Pashtun regions —as long as it is not part of a Western strategic package.
An austere Islamic regime is not the ideal outcome for Afghanistan, but it is by far the most realistic. To reverse ground realities and achieve a markedly different outcome is not in the cards and will pose Obama with the same dilemma next year.
Meanwhile, Pakistan will never be willing or able to solve Washington’s Afghanistan dilemma. Pakistan’s own stability has been brought to the brink by U.S. demands that it solve America’s self-created problem in Afghanistan. Pakistan will eventually be forced to resolve Afghanistan itself — but only after the U.S. has gone, and only by making a pact with Taliban forces both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan itself.
Washington will not accept that for now, but it will be forced to fairly soon. Maybe the Pakistanis can root out bin Laden, but meanwhile, Al Qaeda has extended its autonomous franchises around the world, and terrorists can train and plan almost anywhere in the world; they do not need Afghanistan.
By now, as in so many other elements of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. has become more part of the problem than part of the solution. We are sending troops to defend troops that themselves constitute an affront to Afghan nationalism. Only expeditious American withdrawal from Afghanistan will prevent exacerbation of the problem.
Afghans must themselves face the complex mechanics of internal struggle and reconciliation. They have done so over long periods of their history. The ultimate outcome is of greater strategic consequence to Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, India and others in the region than to the United States.
Europe and Canada have lost all stomach for this mission that is now promoted primarily in terms of “saving NATO” for future (and obsolescent) “out of area” struggles in a world in which Western strategic preferences can no longer predominate.
In a counterbalance to the mini-surge, Obama wisely establishes a date for genuine withdrawal in 2011. The surge may just be worth it if it enables Obama to put the U.S. military and Kabul on notice that time is quickly running out to demonstrate genuine political and military progress.
So the ugly struggle continues with little prospect for genuine improvement. There are no good choices. Obama has only kicked the can down the road.
Only with immense luck will his real goal — creation of the minimally acceptable terms for an American withdrawal — come into sight, providing a tiny fig leaf to mask what will essentially constitute a strategic American failure that was inherent nearly from the beginning in America’s global military response to the challenge of 9/11.
Graham E. Fuller is a former C.I.A. station chief in Kabul and a former vice-chairman of the C.I.A.’s National Intelligence Council. He is author of numerous books on the Middle East, including “The Future of Political Islam.”
Tribune Media Services