Editor’s note: This piece first appeared as the December 2009 cover story of Townhall Magazine. To subscribe, please click here.
Three months after declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and 10 months after launching the then-highly touted “AfPak” strategy, President Obama has come full circle and is now re-evaluating U.S. policy on Afghanistan.
Back on Aug. 17, during a speech given to Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama laid out the case for a vigorous effort in Afghanistan. He indicated that al Qaeda, and the Taliban who harbor them, are a vital threat to U.S. national security.
“Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again,” Obama said. “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting; this is fundamental to the defense of our people.”
Today, the administration seems unsure whether the Taliban are even a threat, and some advisors are implausibly arguing that even if the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, the Taliban would not welcome al Qaeda there.
As Obama contemplates the path forward in—or out of—Afghanistan, the harsh reality is that the security and political situation is nearing its nadir. Seven years after being driven from power, Mullah Omar’s Taliban have clearly regained the initiative. But regardless of U.S. and NATO setbacks in Afghanistan, the United States has a vital national security interest there. A reinvigorated Taliban in Afghanistan would threaten neighboring countries in central Asia and lead to the further destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is battling its own mounting Taliban insurgency. And the abandonment of the Afghan people to the brutal predations of the Taliban would tarnish the United States’ reputation in the Muslim world and beyond.
SITUATION REPORT: WHERE ARE WE?
Once thought defeated during the early stages of the war, the Taliban have made a dramatic comeback. While the Taliban and their allied extremist groups were previously active only in southern and eastern Afghanistan in areas bordering Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt and Baluchistan province, the terror insurgency has metastasized nationwide.
Once-peaceful provinces in the Afghan North and West, such as Baghlan, Kunduz, Balkh, Herat and Badghis, now contain districts that are fully or partially under Taliban control. In the Afghan West, much of Farah province is considered a virtual no-go zone, while violence has spiked in Nimroz province.
In Central Afghanistan, the Taliban have threatened the capital of Kabul by establishing strongholds in Kapisa, Logar and Wardak provinces.
The vital roadway from Kabul to Kandahar is under Taliban siege. In the summer of 2006, I traveled this road in a single, low-profile armored pickup with a contractor friend of mine. Today, such a trip cannot be made, as the Taliban control stretches in the provinces of Ghazni and Zabul and prey upon traffic when the military or police are absent.
Of the 356 districts in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, 133 are considered to be extremely dangerous, and 13 of those are considered to be under the control of the Taliban. The Taliban operate “shadow governments” in 30 of the 34 provinces, and claim to control or strongly influence more than 70 percent of the rural areas. These shadow governments are the Taliban’s government-in-waiting. The Taliban collect taxes, hold court to settle land and property disputes, mediate tribal conflicts and dispense justice. The shadow governments are formed where the central Afghan government is weak and are a direct result of the corruption that is endemic throughout the country.
The Taliban resurgence has been recognized by none other than Gen. Stanley McChrystal. “If you’re not winning, you’re losing,” he told the Wall Street Journal in June, referring to NATO and the Afghan government’s efforts in conducting a counterinsurgency.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
So how has the current situation in Afghanistan come to pass? Many of the problems today can be traced to fl awed U.S. and NATO perceptions of the status of the Taliban after the invasion; the Taliban’s regrouping in neighboring Pakistan; corruption in the Afghan government; and failures in the reconstruction efforts.
After the United States routed the Taliban and al Qaeda forces during the fall of 2001 and the winter of 2002, U.S. officials were overly optimistic about the prospects of building an Afghan state free of terror influences.
Confident of victory, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts had been defeated. “The Taliban are gone,” he told CNN’s Larry King. “The al Qaeda are gone.” President George W. Bush repeated this rosy assessment in 2004: “The Taliban no longer is [sic] in existence.” Various accounts from U.S. intelligence officials claimed that two-thirds of al Qaeda’s network had been destroyed. The successful election of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan’s first democratic national election sparked optimism that Afghanistan was pulling itself out of the darkness and moving forward.
But the reality is that the core leadership of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies slipped the U.S. offensive in 2001 and 2002 and sought shelter across the border in Pakistan. Licking their wounds, much of the Taliban shura, its executive leadership council headed by Mullah Omar, fled to Quetta in Pakistan and regrouped. Al Qaeda’s leaders also fled into Pakistan. A core group sought shelter in the tribal areas, while other al Qaeda leaders and operatives dispersed into Pakistan’s major cities.
From Quetta and the tribal areas, the Taliban and al Qaeda plotted and then executed the Afghan insurgency. Training camps were opened and fighters were recruited in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Funding for the effort fl owed from wealthy Arab donors based in the Persian Gulf as well as the lucrative drug trade fueled by Afghan poppies. More than 90 percent of the world’s opium is estimated to originate from Afghanistan. The Taliban seized on the opportunity to link up with the drug syndicate and fuel the narco-insurgency.
The Pakistani Taliban provided bases for the rise of the insurgency in the Afghan South and East. By 2004, the Pakistani military, pushed by the U.S. government, launched military operations against the Taliban in the tribal agency of South Waziristan. The South Waziristan Taliban warlords were openly sheltering al Qaeda and allied movements such as the Islamic Jihad Union, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. The Pakistani military raised tribal militias and backed them with the ineffective paramilitary Frontier Corps to battle the Taliban. For two years, the military suffered a string of humiliating defeats that ultimately ended in “peace agreements” that expanded the Taliban’s grip on the region.
In 2006, the Taliban declared Islamic Emirates, or kingdoms, in North and South Waziristan, and the movement caught fi re in northwestern Pakistan. By the spring of 2009, all seven tribal agencies were under effective Taliban control and much of the wider Northwest Frontier Province was either under Taliban control or heavy Taliban influence.
While the rise of the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan is often portrayed as a problem unique to that country, nothing could be further from the truth. As these Taliban commanders carved out their fiefdoms, they also pledged their support for the jihad in Afghanistan and even against the West. The Pakistani Taliban commanders often send units to fight alongside their Afghan brothers against NATO forces. Taliban and al Qaeda camps are used to train operatives for strikes in Europe, the United States, India and elsewhere. Attacks and plots in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Denmark, Belgium and India have been directly traced back to Waziristan.
One Taliban group, known as the Haqqani Network, straddles both sides of the border. Based in North Waziristan and led by the capable anti-Soviet mujahedeen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, the group has waged an effective battle against Afghan and U.S. forces in Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces, as well as in neighboring areas. The Haqqanis have carved out safe havens in these Afghan provinces.
The rise of the Taliban in Pakistan has long troubled NATO and Afghan officials. The existence of the Quetta shura was pointed out by a senior British military officer in 2006. The U.S. and Afghan governments have issued appeal after appeal to the Pakistani authorities to take action against the Taliban in their midst.
But the requests have been repeatedly ignored and the existence of the Quetta shura denied. The Pakistani government and the military, as part of their strategy to maintain a “strategic depth” of anti-Indian Islamists on their bench as well as exert influence in Afghanistan, ignored the problem and, in some cases, supported the Taliban.
The Pakistani government to this day operates on a concept of “good Taliban”—the extremists who operate only in Afghanistan—versus “bad Taliban”—the extremists who have advocated the overthrow of the Pakistani state. This wrong-headed notion has led to the deterioration of both the Afghan and Pakistani states, as the artificial distinction ignores the fact that these groups cooperate with each other and al Qaeda even if they may disagree on the utility of conducting attacks in Pakistan. For instance, the largest percentage of al Qaeda leaders killed in U.S. covert airstrikes in Pakistan is found in the tribal areas operated by a “good Taliban” leader. Ultimately, these groups share the same goal of carving out an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and central Asia, and also hope to strike against the West.
While the Taliban have expanded their control and their influence, the Afghan government has been plagued with a crisis of legitimacy, and NATO and international groups have squandered opportunities to fill the security and reconstruction void. President Karzai is often mocked as the “Mayor of Kabul” who is concerned only with favoritism to his political allies. Services in Afghanistan, a country that has been at war since the late 1970s, are largely nonexistent even after eight years of a Western presence. The controversy over Karzai’s alleged attempt to steal the presidential election in August frustrated Afghans and the international community alike. Corruption among the police as well as local and national government officials is rampant.
Meanwhile, NATO and the United States have under-resourced Afghanistan from the outset. Operating on the assumption that the Taliban and al Qaeda had been defeated in Afghanistan and that nation building would be easy, small numbers of forces were deployed in largely peacekeeping roles, while a sizeable U.S. force remained independent of NATO to conduct counterterrorism operations. Even now, there is still no unity of command or comprehensive strategy between NATO and the United States. NATO forces have operated under “caveats,” which allow different countries to set their own rules of engagement. For example, some countries prohibit the deployment of their units to hot zones, and other countries will not allow their forces to patrol at night.
Both NATO and the international community of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, have wasted enormous sums of aid money on meaningless or ineffective projects. Large contracts are awarded for projects that are often never completed. The Afghan people stew as they see the West falling down on promises to rebuild their country, and are resentful.
WHO IS THE ENEMY?
As the Obama administration debates how to right the ship in Afghanistan, a dangerous theme has emerged in U.S. policymaking circles. The Taliban, the theory goes, is merely a local, nationalist Afghan resistance movement that seeks to regain power in the country and has no interest in participating in al Qaeda’s global jihad against the West. This theory assumes erroneously that if the Taliban regain power, they will dump al Qaeda and deny the terror group a safe haven.
In an effort to divide the West and spur a U.S. and NATO withdrawal, the Taliban have recently crafted their propaganda to further this impression. Mullah Omar himself has even said that the Taliban have no aspirations of harming neighboring governments.
This dangerous theory has now taken root among influential policy makers, many of whom are advocating cutting back on U.S. troops and shifting to a largely counterterrorism approach that would rely primarily on Predator strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas, accompanied by special-operations raids. U.S. forces would also shift to mentoring and rapidly building up the capacity of Afghan forces, reducing the active combat role in the country. This strategy is being championed by Vice President Joe Biden, among others.
But the Biden plan is predicated on a misunderstanding of the nature of the enemy we face in Afghanistan. Often lost in the debate is the fact that al Qaeda received shelter in Afghanistan from Mullah Omar and the Taliban from 1996 up until the groups were ousted in 2002. Mullah Omar was given the opportunity to turn over Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s cadre after the 9/11 attacks but declined. It is telling that Omar made a conscious decision to sacrifice his Islamic Emirate rather than turn in his terrorist allies.
Since 2002, al Qaeda’s ties have only solidified with Omar and the Taliban as well as with the Haqqani Network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, two other major Taliban-affiliated groups. Significantly, the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have adopted al Qaeda’s tactics. Suicide bombs and roadside bombs are now prominent in the Taliban’s arsenal.
Pakistani Taliban leaders openly state they have sworn allegiance to Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda leaders, such as Siraj Haqqani and Ilyas Kashmiri, the mastermind behind terror attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mumbai, India, have also declared their allegiance to Omar. Kashmiri, a Pakistani jihadi who formerly focused his activities in India-held Kashmir and has since joined al Qaeda, told a Pakistani journalist that Mullah Omar has granted permission to attack outside Afghanistan.
“We folks have taken oath from Mullah Omar, and we consider him as Ameerul Momineen [leader of the faithful],” Kashmiri said. “We have absolute permission from him to go to any place and engage ourselves in jihadi activities.”
The U.S. Treasury Department placed a $5 million bounty on Siraj Haqqani, who is viewed as the most dangerous Taliban leader in Afghanistan. Siraj is considered one of bin Laden’s closest Taliban allies. He actively recruits foreign suicide bombers and has been directly implicated in suicide attacks against the Indian Embassy in Kabul, as well as more than a dozen deadly attacks against the capital and in eastern Afghanistan. He also hosts al Qaeda training camps in North Waziristan in Pakistan.
Ceding Afghanistan to the Taliban and al Qaeda would be a major and unprecedented boon for terror recruitment, fundraising and propaganda.
A defeat for the West in Afghanistan would provide Islamist extremists with both a military and propaganda victory. It would lead to the re-establishment of new al Qaeda bases in the area. The United States would again be seen as “a weak horse,” in bin Laden’s own words. And al Qaeda and the Taliban would tout the victory as the fulfillment of prophecy. After its defeat in Iraq, which al Qaeda claimed was the central battle in Jihad, al Qaeda shifted its rhetoric to seeking victory in the Khorasan, a region that encompasses large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran. The Khorasan is considered by jihadis to be the location where they will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle is to take place in the Levant—Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
THE WAY FORWARD
So while the situation in Afghanistan is dire, this is no excuse to abandon the effort. We forget that in late 2006, pundits from across the spectrum wrote off Iraq as a lost cause. But President Bush bucked the conventional wisdom, fired Secretary Rumsfeld, replaced the commander in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus and implemented a new strategy. Al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies, the Mahdi Army, and other Iranian-backed Shia terror groups were dealt a major defeat. While the insurgency in Iraq is by no means over, it has been driven to the periphery of society. The Iraqi government has been given the time and space to work out some serious political issues. Whether it will succeed will not be evident for years, but the Iraqis have been given the chance to settle their conflicts through the political process.
It is no secret that Afghanistan is not Iraq; the challenges in Afghanistan are in many ways far greater than those in Iraq. Can the warlordism, corruption and tribal pettiness that are endemic in Afghan culture be overcome? Even if political and security gains are made within Afghanistan, what happens if the Pakistani government cannot or will not bring their Taliban to heel? These are valid questions, but are ones that certainly cannot be answered if we do not try.
Gen. McChrystal has issued a comprehensive plan to turn the situation around in Afghanistan. The report, first leaked to the Washington Post in September, was delivered to the Obama administration in late August.
McChrystal’s common-sense plan is simple: implement a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy (in layman’s terms, focus on protecting the people, as opposed to killing the Taliban); raise local tribal security forces to provide protection against the Taliban in the remote areas; split low-level Taliban fighters and commanders from the entrenched leaders; fix Afghanistan’s corrupt government and provide services that have been long denied; focus on rapidly building the Afghan Army and police forces and partner with them; continue to hunt al Qaeda; better resource the effort with troops; unify the NATO command and eliminate or reduce the caveats that hamper efficient and effective operations; and better integrate the international community’s reconstruction efforts.
Some parts of this plan are controversial, particularly the addition of tens of thousands of troops. Reports indicate McChrystal has requested between 10,000 and 80,000 additional troops to reinforce the already 68,000 U.S. and 30,000 NATO troops in country. Domestic support for a massive buildup of U.S. troops is low, having already sent an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan this year. NATO countries are not likely to help shoulder the load. Canada has committed to withdrawing at the end of 2011, and Britain, Holland, Italy and Germany have each debated a drawdown in forces.
The update to the rules of engagement, which govern the way U.S. troops fight, is also a source of contention. U.S. forces are encouraged to disengage if there is a chance of civilian casualties. While this is a wise tactic in a counterinsurgency where the people are the prize, such orders have allowed Taliban forces to escape to fight another day. With an estimated 25,000 Taliban fighters in the ranks, an effort must be made to take them on head on. In many areas in the South and East, the Taliban attack in large formations of hundreds of men, and they must be beaten to break their will to fight.
Regardless of these issues, McChrystal’s plan offers the best chance at success. Whether President Obama will adopt McChrystal’s plan, choose Vice President Biden’s plan, or opt for a hybrid of the two, remains a mystery. Reports indicate he will deploy an estimated 40,000 troops; four brigades of combat soldiers to shore up the South, East and West, and an additional brigade to serve as trainers to the Afghan Army and police. Unlike the “surge” of troops in Iraq in 2007, this buildup would not take place over a short period of time but would begun next spring and would take a year to complete.
What is clear is that the United States rightly chose to take down the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring al Qaeda and has both legitimate national security concerns as well as a moral obligation to see the conflict through.
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