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Afghanistan: victory talk, regional tide

A seductive narrative of military progress in Afghanistan is spreading among United States analysts. The real story is more complicated.
Paul Rogers
25 March 2010

There has in March 2010 been a cautious drumbeat of optimism about the United States’s military effort in Afghanistan. A series of briefings from senior military figures has begun to suggest that real progress on the ground is being made. A number of articles from astute observers confirms the picture of a turning-point having been reached (see Fareed Zakaria, “A Victory for Obama”, Newsweek, 22 March 2010)

The more hopeful atmosphere among American strategists and analysts in the early spring of 2010 draws in particular on two developments: the apparent expulsion of Taliban elements from the centre of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province (which in turn anticipates a probable move to take control of the city of Kandahar city in coming months); and the Pakistani security forces’ capture on 8 February 2010 of a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and some of his close associates.

At first sight, these two events do indeed support the argument that the United States and its Nato/International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) partners are making significant advances. It is appropriate then to assess them in the context of the broader military picture in Afghanistan and the region.

An embedded enemy

The first piece of evidence for a turning tide is the steady advance of American forces on areas where Taliban militias operate in Helmand. This fuels the consistent perception that the Taliban is a both a homogenous and an “external” entity: an integrated grouping which enters a region from elsewhere to occupy territory. The argument, which underpins much of the military analysis of recent operations, generates the conclusion that Taliban units can be or are being “expelled” from parts of Helmand; and that their comrades who must have similarly moved in to take control of most of Kandahar city can and must also be evicted.

The mindset at work here is both enduring and notably impervious to contrary evidence. Its lineage can be traced to the mid- and late-1990s, when the view took hold among western agencies that the Taliban was composed of a network of militants trained in Pakistani madrasas who had then “inflitrated” across the border. The implication is that the Taliban are not ordinary Afghans but in essence outsiders; and that the US-led coalition is engaged less in counterinsurgency than in a fight to liberate much of Afghanistan from foreign (or at least non-local) forces.

However, both experience on the ground and what is known of the longer-term history of the Taliban make this case hard to sustain. A truer understanding of the movement needs to take into account the mujahideen struggle against the Red Army in the 1980s, a decade before the name “Taliban” emerged to describe the new formation. A valuable source here is a new Taliban “memoir” which both describes a fascinating personal trajectory and reveals the deep Islamist motivation that from the start fired the anti-Soviet campaign (see Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban, C Hurst, 2010).

The evidence of Abdul Salam Zaeef’s account is that the mujahideen may have tended to live at a certain distance from the society around them - but they belonged fully to Pashtun society and were in no way “outsiders”. By the early 1990s, as much of Afghanistan was descending into rampant and brutal warlordism, they formed the core of an expanding Taliban movement. True, some militants did join the struggle from Pakistan and elsewhere - including the nucleus of what became al-Qaida - but the Afghan Taliban were always far more “embedded” in or close to their own communities than the dominant western perception assumed.

The point is very relevant to the current campaign in central Helmand. There, many Taliban militants have indeed been dispersed into local communities - but (rather as they retreated from Kabul in November 2001) they have not been “defeated” in the conventional sense of that term. The same logic applies to the image of Kandahar city as a Taliban stronghold which will have to be besieged and “taken”; for if Taliban elements are immersed in the city’s very social fabric, the notion of defeat and eviction makes very little sense (see "Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection", 8 October 2009).

This suggests that the apparent political willingness among some western governments to envisage negotiation and compromise with “moderate” sections of the Taliban may be a more realistic way forward than the dream of vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield - if indeed this proposal were to be accepted on the other side (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “War and peace: A Taliban view”, Asia Times, 26 March 2010). Some respected analysts (such as those associated with the International Crisis Group) take a different view, arguing strongly that certain designated leaders at least - such as Abdul Ghani Baradar himself - be brought before the International Criminal Court to answer war-crimes charges (see Candace Rondeaux & Nick Grono, “Prosecuting Taliban War Criminals”, International Herald Tribune, 24 March 2010).

An interested region

The second piece of evidence adduced for optimism about the Afghan war is the newfound activism of Pakistani security agencies against members of the Afghan Taliban. This includes the detention of leading figures in the Quetta shura in northern Balochistan, and the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (see Shibil Siddiqi, “’Strategic depth’ at heart of Taliban arrests”, Asia Times, 24 March 2010).

The Pakistani operations have been interpreted as a welcome shift by the Pakistani army and the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) towards greater collaboration with US/Nato forces in the “anti-terrorist” struggle.

Here again, as with the perception of the nature of the Taliban, there is a misunderstanding. Pakistan’s fundamental calculation is the need to maximise its political influence in a future Afghanistan (see Shaun Gregory, “Pakistan and the “AfPak” strategy”, 28 May 2009). This would give the country its much-vaunted “strategic depth” to counter the regional superpower of India, and provide a buffer against Russian and other intrusions to the north and west. The Islamabad elite is particularly concerned about the close relationship that the Hamid Karzai regime has developed with India, including enhanced links with Indian military intelligence (see Kanchan Lakshman, “India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure”, 11 July 2008).

Pakistan’s military worries too that the Afghan president is reaching out to elements of the Taliban, perhaps even in ways that go further than what his United States overlords would wish. A pro-Indian Karzai regime that is dealing with the Taliban is simply not something that Pakistan can accept. In this light, the real aim of Pakistan’s policing actions is not to aid the United States and far less to help Karzai: it is to gain more leverage over the Taliban.

These considerations of national interest also cast the US-led military operations in Helmand and elsewhere in a very different light. The US and it coalition partners are - following the new strategy outlined by Barack Obama in his West Point speech on 1 December 2009 - continuing to build up their troop-strength towards a total of around 140,000 on the ground; but this “surge” will not be the real dynamic of change in Afghanistan (see “Afghanistan: new strategy, old problem”, 3 December 2009).

Rather, Afghanistan’s future will be decided by the evolving interaction between (principally) Kabul and Islamabad, with other regional powers - Delhi certainly, but also Tehran, Beijing and even Moscow - playing a role and seeking advantage. The US/Isaf’s massive financial and military commitments lead western states naturally to regard themselves as the masters of Afghanistan’s destiny; but the hard reality is that emerging regional geopolitics are consigning the west more and more to the sidelines (see Harry Reid, “We are doing all the fighting but China will win the peace”, Herald [Glasgow], 25 March 2010).

This regional dimension accentuates the United States’s predicament. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the proclamation of approaching victory in a grinding war has often been followed by further reversals. And behind the noise and smoke of combat, other interested parties are quietly reordering the “grand chessboard”. A conflict now approaching its tenth year has more surprises to come.

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