COMMENT: Working out the Afghan riddle —S P Seth - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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There has never been any doubt that the US has the military capability to defeat the Taliban insurgents in conventional warfare. That is why the Taliban have mostly avoided set piece battles with the US forces. They just tend to disappear when they come under heavy military pressure to regroup somewhere

Stories about Afghanistan are flying thick and fast. One version has it that the Taliban are in retreat, following the US and allied forces’ offensive in the Kandahar province. The US surge of an extra 30,000 troops, it is said, is starting to make a difference. And that this is not the time for the participating countries to lose their nerve.

Another story doing the rounds suggests that the Quetta Shura — the Taliban high command led by Mullah Omar, believed to be sheltering in Quetta — is no longer in total command. The Taliban are weakened with the loss of a number of field commanders from American drone attacks. The Haqqani group, on the other hand, is gaining strength, and there have reportedly been some contacts between them and the Karzai government with the help of some senior officers of the ISI.

According to one account, “The Quetta Shura is still important but not as much as people thought two years ago. Its prestige and impact have waned and they are increasingly less important on the battlefield. Now the military threat comes from the Haqqani’s.” Pakistan is believed to wield influence with them.

At the same time, it is also reported that the US and its NATO allies had ‘facilitated’ contacts between senior Taliban members and the ‘highest levels of the Afghan government’ by granting safe passage to Taliban leaders travelling to Kabul to meet the Karzai government. The Taliban, though, deny any contact with Kabul. Which shows how wild is the reportage on Afghanistan.

The ISI is also believed to be playing an intermediary role in some or all of the reported contacts between different groups. But Pakistan is not regarded as a benign political actor from the viewpoint of the US and its allies.

In his opinion column, ‘Hope for Afghans — and for us’ (Sydney Morning Herald, October 12, 2010) Peter Hartcher, its international editor, worries about Pakistan’s role in ‘destabilising Afghanistan’. He writes, “Its [Pakistan’s] powerful intelligence service, the ISI, sends fighters into Afghanistan and gives them sanctuary when they return...” Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, makes a similar point. He thinks that Pakistan is playing a malign role. According to Sheridan in his article ‘Only one way to win in Afghanistan’, (October 16, 2010): it is not possible to run a successful counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan when “Pakistan is sheltering, aiding and supplying the Taliban”. This is, more or less, the general view between the US and its allies.

In the midst of all this, President Karzai announced the formation of a peace council to formally initiate talks with the Taliban to join his government. He has also said that informal contacts and talks with the Taliban had been going on for some time. The Taliban have always maintained that any talks with the Karzai government would happen only after the Americans and their allied troops have left Afghanistan. Therefore, all this Karzai-government initiated flurry of a season of negotiations seems a bit overdrawn.

One assumption is that a weakened Taliban, from the US assaults in Kandahar and the loss of some of its commanders, might now be ready to seek a way out. Though the offensive is claimed to be working, even the optimists on the US side have not yet claimed a victory. The point is that there has never been any doubt that the US has the military capability to defeat the Taliban insurgents in conventional warfare. That is why the Taliban have mostly avoided set piece battles with the US forces. They just tend to disappear when they come under heavy military pressure to regroup somewhere else to create another pressure point for the over-stretched allied forces. And they have the advantage of disappearing among the civilian population. This is not to suggest that the Taliban are popular with the Afghan people. At the same time, many Afghans, if not the majority, hate US military occupation of their country. The Taliban resistance to this occupation by an alien force with their ‘abhorrent’ religion and culture does create empathy with them among many Afghans. Which is not to deny that they are also feared.

Ever since the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan, most Afghans have seen them as a transient force not likely to stay long in an inhospitable country like Afghanistan. The prolonged and continuing Taliban insurgency added weight to this belief.

The US is now engaged in a counter-insurgency strategy to deal with the Taliban. While, keeping up the military pressure on the Taliban; this strategy aims at training and equipping a large Afghan national army to provide security to the civilian population, thus relieving them of the constant fear of revenge attacks by the Taliban. Meaning that the Taliban will increasingly find it difficult to shelter and operate among the civilian population, thus making them highly vulnerable. This new national force will take over after the Americans have left. The second element is to fund and assist with important development projects to provide infrastructure and employment, particularly at the local level, in order to develop connections with local tribal and community leaders.

All this sounds quite logical as a blueprint, but is difficult to execute at the ground level. The underlying problem is that Americans are not local actors and once they are gone — which inevitably they will — the country would revert to its tribal and religious mores. And the newly trained Afghan forces might become a lethal mix in a subsequent civil war.

But, in the meantime, even with the Americans around, Afghanistan is a virtual anarchy. The Karzai government has no popular credentials, and is regarded as a US creation. In other words, it is seen as an instrument of the occupying foreign forces. And the Karzai government has not done much to establish its credentials. Indeed. It is a family — and friends — oligarchy that exists to enrich their small clique. The New York Times’ reporter James Risen compiled a detailed profile of the Karzai dynasty, ‘Another Karzai forges Afghan business empire’, (March 4, 2009), with their business ventures including drug trade, shady business dealings, political patronage and so on.

Karzai knows that the US is not going be around for long to keep bolstering him up, as the Obama administration looks for an exit strategy. There is a tug-of-war of sorts between the highest levels of the administration and the top military brass, as portrayed in Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars.

President Obama does not want to be bogged down in Afghanistan and would like to get out of there as soon as possible, with a semblance of order and honour. The generals, though, want to dig in for prolonged action as generals always do, like they did in Vietnam with disastrous results.

Sensing the US exit from Afghanistan in the not-too-distant future, Karzai is trying to play politics with all the actors in the Afghan scenario from the Taliban to local warlords. As Ronald Neumann, US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, has reportedly said, “Karzai is convinced that we are going to abandon him. And what was his answer? To create a web of loyalties and militia commanders and corrupt families all knitted together.” He adds, “This network is part of his survival mechanism.”

This is hardly a workable solution for a government or, for that matter, Afghanistan. What will emerge out of it? Only time will tell, because Afghanistan is not given to logical reasoning.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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