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The AfPak endgame

Behind the escalation of United States cross-border raids into Pakistan and of Taliban attacks on coalition tanker-convoys lie the cold political reality of an unwinnable war.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 October 2010

The problems for the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, both military and political, continue to mount. The expansion of military operations into Pakistan is also having a blowback effect which, proclaimed tactical successes notwithstanding, presents increasing perils to the coalition.

The United States military commander in Afghanistan, General David H Petraeus, and his political masters in the Barack Obama administration have effectively centred their strategy on accepting that the war is unwinnable in the conventional sense; and that the best that can be achieved is a negotiated withdrawal.  The main component of their approach is the military surge, whose purpose is to establish a position of strength that can be the foundation of the best deal possible (including with the Taliban, or elements thereof) to cover a withdrawal (see "Afghanistan: wind of change", 9 September 2010).

Therein lies the problem: both because any such advantage on the ground is proving impossibly elusive, and because none of the coalition’s local partners can be relied on to cooperate in political terms. The latter point is highlighted by reports of negotiations between senior officials of the Hamid Karzai government and the Taliban over ending the war (see Karen De Young et al., “Taliban, Afghan Leaders in Talks, Sources Say”, Washington Post, 6 October 2010).

The spreading war

The war is not going well. The escalation of operations around Kandahar increases the salience of cross-border support for the Taliban. This does much to explain the considerable surge in armed-drone attacks - with twenty-three in the last month alone - as well as in cross-border helicopter-raids, one of which killed two Pakistani border-guards and obliged the US to issue unprecedented statements of regret (see Jane Perlez & Waqar Gillani, "U.S. Apologizes as Attacks in Pakistan Continue", New York Times, 6 October 2010).

An important aspect of the raids is the killing of German and British citizens - people who have been targeted as suspected paramilitaries.  In effect, Nato is eliminating its own citizens in the absence of any legal process whatsoever. This may seem a reasonable action from a strict counter-terrorism standpoint, but there may turn out to be substantial legal implications and there will undoubtedly be a radicalising impact within the Pakistani diasporas in both countries.

Indeed, the reaction across Pakistan is one of the most significant features of what is happening.  The Pentagon and CIA may feel that taking the war to western Pakistan - and adopting a more critical stance towards the country’s government -is justified; but this is provoking anger among a people that sees its sovereignty being taken for granted.

The enemy’s fuel

The depth of the coalition's problems can be seen close to the Khyber pass, where a backlog of tankers on the Pakistani side is becoming easy prey to paramilitary attack.  The escalation in the Taliban’s attacks on tankers is a notable aspect of current combat; more than forty vehicles were destroyed on 6 October 2010 alone. The most striking of this series of bombings occurred in an operation on 4 October, when twenty fuel-tankers were destroyed just outside the capital city of Islamabad (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Carryings on up the Khyber Pass”, Asia Times, 5 October 2010).

The main story here may seem  to be that security is lax so close to the seat of power; but more relevant (and neglected) is that Islamabad is virtually a twin city to Rawalpindi - headquarters of Pakistan’s army and a veritable garrison town, yet where paramilitaries are able to stage audacious raids (see Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state", 12 April 2007). 

An ability to strike near the heart of the Pakistani military’s power-base is a potent indication of current political realities in the country. In a similar way, the slowdown in tanker-traffic is very revealing of the larger realities of the war: both a tactical success for the Afghan Taliban, but in a perhaps surprising way also a problem. To understand why it is worth noting three of the Taliban’s main sources of funding.

The first is the movement’s local supporters and the routine small-scale commercial protection-rackets it operates. The second is aid from abroad. It seems that - though it is hard to obtain precise figures - much of the financial support for the Afghan Taliban comes from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other western Gulf states, typically via the Sarai Shahzada money-market in Kabul.

The third is the Afghan opium-trade, which accounts for perhaps 10%-15% of Taliban finance (see “Addiction, crime and insurgency: the trans-national threat of Afghan opium”, UN Office of Drugs and Crime, October 2010). The trade has become particularly with a change in processing methods in the last decade, whereby the great proportion of raw Afghan opium is refined inside the country into heroin and morphine (which are far more valuable than the paste).

The last winter

These funding sources tend in much public commentary to overshadow a further and very significant one, which may seem extraordinary: the Pentagon itself. This is because of the safe-passage guarantees the Taliban provides for the many supply-convoys that keep the United States war effort operating (see Louis Imbert, “The Taliban's secret weapon: security”, Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2010).

The numbers are staggering. Around 6,000-8,000 convoys each month (that is, at least 200 every day) supply a network of around 200 military bases, with private companies providing security (one of the key routes is the Kabul-Kandahar road).  This can translate into $2,000 worth of security per container for a journey of a few hundred kilometres; a single deal, the “host trucking contract” of March 2009, was alone worth $2.16 billion.  Louis Imbert quotes a transport-union chief saying that up to half of the “security” revenues  ends up in Taliban hands.

Again, the circumstance may appear farcical: the Pentagon financing its own enemy. So it is worth remembering the situation after the attempt – in the so-called Operation Moshtarak - to secure the town of Marjah in central Helmand province, from February 2010 (see "Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed",  11 February 2010).

In the wake of the fighting, US marines were quick to initiate a “hearts and minds” policy that included offering compensation to families of civilians killed and to owners of damaged property damaged (see “The AfPak war: failures of success”, 23 April 2010). In the event, the Taliban were so embedded in (and even part) of local communities that its militants were able to get some of the compensation for themselves - a useful aid in supporting their war against the marines (see Richard A Oppel Jr, "In Marja, Taliban are rolling back the U.S. tide", New York Times, 3 April 2010). 

That example, and the more recent case of inadvertent American funding of the Taliban through unavoidable protection-networks, needs to be put in the context of the conflict’s other core political aspect: Pakistan's determination to prevent a Taliban defeat as a way of ensuring its strong influence in a post-war Afghanistan. Together, these factors are among the strongest evidence that the Afghan war cannot be won. 

 The fighting will continue through the autumn and winter of 2010-11, a period when there may be major political upheavals in Pakistan. The Barack Obama administration’s much-promised review of the war will also be published in these months, perhaps in December. As each week passes, it becomes increasingly likely that this will involve a fundamental rethinking of the whole strategy.  In the tenth year of the war in Afghanistan, reality might at last begin to prevail. 

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