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RR's Reporter in Afghanistan, Colin Kane. Part 2 & 3.


The appearance of the Taliban in Kandahar in 1994 was the culmination of a decade and a half of armed conflict and social revolution. Although the birth of the Taliban was not part of a Pakistani machination, their development and meteoric rise was certainly the result of Pakistani support.

The Pakistani national security establishment—the people in power in the Pakistani military and intelligence community—have supported, and continue to support, religiously motivated insurgent movements in Afghanistan. Why? To put it simply, they are scared. They do it to combat two perceived threats to the country’s territory. The first of these threats was the aforementioned Pashtun nationalist movement (see previous post); the second is a geographical and military disadvantage with respect to India.

The key national security issue in the eyes of Pakistan’s defence planners is the existential threat posed by the Indian military. They fear the war they cannot win; they fear being wiped out. A nightmare scenario for the Pakistanis is an Indian invasion that would punch through the country’s relatively narrow territory, cleaving it in half. Once Pakistan’s territory were divided, it would be relatively easy for the Indian army to consume the divided land. In order to add a measure of “strategic depth”—an effective extension of Pakistani territory that would make an Indian divide-and-conqueror strategy more difficult by increasing the distance the Indians would have to penetrate in order to split the country—the Pakistanis have long sought to control the Afghan government and national territory via proxies.

When the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan and left a chaotic political vacuum, the Pakistanis had one more reason to intervene in the country’s internal affairs. A fundamentalist insurgent movement that suited their purpose: the Taliban.
The original Taliban, as opposed to the “neo-Taliban” or “Pakistani Taliban” now found in NWFP, was an organization of radical madrassa students (talib means student in Urdu and Pashto) that gained the support of the population because of their ability to deliver a modicum of justice and stability, even if that justice and governance were medieval. Soon after the appearance of the Taliban in Kandahar in 1994, the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and military became involved in supporting the movement. The Taliban also had the guidance and mentorship of foreign fighters; including Usama bin Laden (UBL), who advised the Taliban leadership on military tactics and strategy. In reality, the Taliban were militarily incompetent and were highly dependent on the guidance and support of UBL and the Pakistanis. At any rate, they were able to take Kabul in 1996, and controlled upwards of 90 percent of Afghanistan’s national territory by 1998. Al Qaeda, with the consent of the Taliban regime, built terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Nineteen graduates of these camps come to the US and carry out the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001. When the Taliban refused to turn over UBL, the United States and her coalition allies invaded Afghanistan.

The convergence of money, foreign fighters, strains of radical Islam (Wahhabi, Deobandi), protracted conflict, and a refugee crisis in the NWFP was the initial catalyst for a social upheaval that has made Afghanistan and Pakistan a fertile breeding ground, an unequalled sanctuary, and a permissive operating environment for terrorists. Unfortunately, due to our inattention and the tactical and strategic mistakes that we made during the early years of the war, the situation has only grown worse. Pakistani “Neo-Taliban” have emerged in NWFP, where they have continued to undermine the tribal system by executing hundreds of tribal elders, making stability that much more elusive.


A coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan would precipitate a full-blown civil conflict, as the Taliban and their foreign allies would flow into Afghanistan from Pakistan in a bid to regain control of the country. Even if the Karzai government were able to stay on its feet in Kabul, it certainly wouldn’t be able to replace the ISAF military presence in the countryside. Thus, the coalition would be effectively ceding control of southern and eastern Afghanistan to the Taliban, where militant franchises have already been taking root. Uncontested Taliban rule over large swaths of the country would create a permissive operating environment for Al Qaeda and almost guarantee that future attacks against western targets would emanate from the region. Unfortunately, this is the most likely post-withdrawal scenario.

Build It Up
Many observers have argued that the coalition should recalibrate its goals in Afghanistan. Rather than fight the Taliban and attempt to build a functioning Afghan government, the argument goes, the coalition should focus on denying Al Qaeda sanctuary. This is an absolutely lovely, half-thought. The main objective of our efforts in Afghanistan should be the denial of an AQ safe-haven, but how we would arrive at that end-state without a functioning government in Kabul? How would we get to a point where there is an ungoverned, Taliban infested—but Al Qaeda free—Afghanistan? In order to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, the coalition must build the physical infrastructure, the institutional capacity, and the human capital that a government requires in order to extend its writ and displace insurgent and terrorist organizations. It is absolutely essential that the government in Kabul be able to manage the country’s internal security matters. A failure to fully stand up the Afghan government will result in the aforementioned scenario, where Al Qaeda is able to operate out of Taliban-controlled territory in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Don’t Retreat
It has also been argued that the coalition can pull forces back to the main population centers, cede some territory to the Taliban, and then nip developing AQ centers in the bud with counter-terrorism operations while we build the capacity of the Afghan government. The problem with this approach is three-fold.

First, retreating from rural areas—even if that retreat were “on our terms” and phased—would be extremely unsettling to an already skittish Afghan population. Many Afghans are withholding their support for coalition forces for fear of Taliban retaliation in the event of a coalition withdrawal. These “fence-sitters” are absolutely terrified by the thought of being on the losing side of this conflict. A pull-back to the cities would be considered a harbinger by many Afghans, who would then lend their support to the Taliban. As the Taliban gathered strength, violence would surge to unprecedented levels. Our citizenry would see essentially a retreat of coalition forces, besieged “strategic population centers”, and soaring violence, and would demand that we cut our losses and withdraw completely. Let us not forget the experience of the Soviets that came before us; even a superpower that did not have to appease a domestic audience found this strategy untenable.

Second, it would be difficult to consistently monitor, collect intel, identify cells, and carry out assaults on AQ operations centers across such a broad swath of territory with no on-the-ground presence. Imagine the militant sanctuary in Pakistan’s NWFP expanding into Afghanistan.

Third, even if we were able to effectively defend “strategic areas” and consistently identify and destroy AQ bases, we would be fighting a truly endless war. Counterterrorism operations are a short-term, superficial fix to a long-term, deep-seated problem. In order to defeat AQ in Afghanistan, we will need to extend the reach of the government and deny foreign fighters sanctuary. We simply cannot win a game of cat and mouse.

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