COMMENT: Afghanistan: a labyrinth —Ali K Chishti - Thursday, August 05, 2010

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All groups in Afghanistan have been linked with al Qaeda, one way or the other. Moreover, al Qaeda’s ideological virus has already spread and not talking would mean the US would be bogged down in Afghanistan indefinitely, something no one wants

The New York Times recently reported, “Despite deepening pessimism back home and disarray in the top American military ranks, officials insist that the build-up of soldiers in Afghanistan is beginning to show results.” It gave an example of a number of top Taliban leaders being caught (130 over the past 120 days) and the increasing number of the Taliban reconciling with the army. Apparently, the newspaper forgot the new counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy adopted by the NATO and ISAF in Afghanistan. COIN involves rebuilding society and keeping the population safe, while boosting the local government’s efficacy, training a national army and fighting off insurgents. ‘Killing’ and ‘capturing’ insurgent’ leaders is hardly the main focus of COIN. In fact, it was General McChrystal who was reported in The Washington Post, September 21, 2009, as saying that his call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasise protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling the territory. He said, “Inadequate resource will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.” Interestingly, General Petraeus, who was the architect of COIN strategy, is now in charge of Afghanistan where his emphasis would not be ‘killing’ but ‘build-talk-restore-leave’. An American friend at the Department of Defence (DoD) has another view, that the targeted killing is “somehow part of COIN and not an alternate”. According to him, the effort has been alive and goes back to 2007. The number of drone attacks has now tripled compared to the Bush years and signal that the White House is pursuing a ‘kill-talk-kill-rebuild’ strategy. In fact, it was Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation who made a similar argument that although we cannot shoot our way to victory, it does not mean we ignore the kinetic dimension and our advantages: air superiority, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) technology and fusion. COIN, as the new civilian hawks at DC think, “is not just about passing out soccer balls, it is also about taking scalps...selectively”.

On our side, the doctrine of ‘strategic depth’ is being revived. It seems we have not learnt any lessons from the past. There were reports (Al Jazeera) that President Karzai, for the first time, allegedly had direct talks with Sirajuddin Haqqani, our ‘strategic asset’ in North Waziristan. However, CIA Director Leon Panetta rejected the assertion that any of the main components of the insurgency are ready for “meaningful reconciliation”, something Hilary Clinton agreed with. It would be great if Mr Panetta defined what ‘meaningful reconciliation’ is. The perception in Washington and Kabul seems to be that the more senior and dedicated Taliban they take out, the more they increase the Taliban’s desire to reconcile, a flawed theory which needs to be corrected in light of the Pashtunwali, which stipulates revenge.

The US’s problem with the newfound love between Karzai and GHQ is, ‘Why are we not in the middle of things?’ Previously, it was Pakistan’s complaint. Reports that Mullah Omar has been in Pakistan’s custody since March were somewhat validated by a top US investigator and military journalist, Carl Prine, who commented that “he [Mullah Omar] had always been on ISI payroll”. Hilary Clinton on her visit said similar things about bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, a perception that holds weight, although it shows how much mistrust there is between the two nations that had been allies since the 1950s. Then there are Pakistan’s strategic assets, the Haqqanis, whom the GHQ wants to keep as part of its sphere of influence in eastern Afghanistan, something the US disagrees with, since the Haqqanis have traditionally been close and more embedded with al Qaeda.

All groups in Afghanistan have been linked with al Qaeda, one way or the other. Moreover, al Qaeda’s ideological virus has already spread and not talking would mean the US would be bogged down in Afghanistan indefinitely, something no one wants. Setting up preconditions before the talks might not solve problems too. Traditionally, the approach of seeking unconditional surrender had never worked, as you cannot expect the militants to lay down their arms and suddenly agree to an Afghan constitution, nor could the Haqqanis, who had been around in Afghanistan since the 1970s, fade away. It has to be give and take (minus al Qaeda) that everyone would agree upon. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently estimated the strength of al Qaeda to be around 60 to 100 only. Remember, the two main goals of the US in Afghanistan were: i) to prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing safe havens; ii) to make sure Afghanistan does not undermine Pakistan’s stability. Bear in mind that all counterinsurgencies had ended through talks and the whole perception that targeting and thinning out the best Taliban and making a deal with the accidental guerrillas would never work in Afghanistan, nor could a ‘meaningful reconciliation’ ever take place within the timeframe after the start of direct action.

Remember, the Taliban and the Haqqanis have demands too: a) an end to foreign military forces presence in Afghanistan; and b) a new constitution draft. The US should understand that any talks have to start by talking with people in power, and being willing to make concessions about governance issues. Something has to come out soon as the clock is ticking and the US has only a year left before the start of withdrawal. With the recent fate of Operation Marjah, the US needs to understand that an out-of-the-box settlement has to emerge, where all stakeholders have to be part of the solution under one Afghan government that could keep the nation ‘neutral’ or we are back to 1991 and 1997.

The writer is a political analyst and can be reached at

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