by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
The Stupidity in Afghanistan
(Editor, South Asian Intelligence Review; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management)
South Asian Intelligence Review 5, 15 (October 23, 2006): http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/5_15.htm#assessment1
The US-led coalition is unambiguously losing the war in Afghanistan and it is important, at this stage, to reiterate the obvious, that is, precisely why the war was undertaken in the first instance: because of 9/11, because of the Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, and because of the assessment that that Taliban regime there had provided safe haven and operational facilitation to the Al Qaeda for its planning and execution of the multiple and catastrophic strikes in America. The war was not merely punitive, it was intended to be preventive. It has proven a failure on both counts.
As with all leaderships confronted with the possibility, if not imminence, of defeat, saving face has become infinitely more important than the original objectives of the war. It is useful to emphasise, here, that this was not a war of conquest, or even of ‘liberation’ (despite the rhetoric of ‘Enduring Freedom’), but of defence. Its principal objective was to deny a base for future 9/11s to be strategised, planned and executed.
But the Taliban and Al Qaeda have survived – albeit somewhat damaged – and, if current trends persist, will soon have the freedom, the power and the required setting to plan out their next wave of attacks against America and the West. And Western – particularly US – leaderships are squarely to blame for this. US diplomat Alberto Fernandez has spoken scathingly of the “stupidity in Iraq”; but the stupidity in Afghanistan is far more manifest, and was considerably the more avoidable. Warning of the dangers of defeat, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, UK’s former Chief of Defence Staff, noted, “I think we’ve lost the ability to think strategically”. General David Richards, a British officer commanding NATO troops in Afghanistan noted the ‘upsurge of violence along the eastern border with Pakistan’ and warned that the situation was approaching a ‘tipping point’ where a majority of Afghans would switch their allegiance to the resurgent Taliban if there were no visible improvements over the coming six months. The outgoing British commander, Brigadier Ed Butler, described Taliban operations in Afghanistan as ‘more ferocious than anything in Iraq’, and reports suggest that the Taliban were operating in battalion-sized units of 400 men, equipped with ‘excellent weapons and field equipment’.
Distressed military commanders are now increasingly advocating the ‘Musharraf model’ of cutting deals with the Taliban, to virtually cede vast territories to the extremists on the perverse argument that “the only way to restore security in the Pashtun south is a comprehensive accommodation with tribal leaders, mullahs, former mujahideen, and the Taliban forces they are related to”. At the same time, General Richards concedes that General Pervez Musharraf’s deal with the Taliban in Waziristan is an integral part of the problem, and that “There has been an upsurge in terrorist activity inside Afghanistan since this agreement was reached.” US military officials have confirmed that attacks on coalition and Afghan forces has tripled along the eastern border with Pakistan since Pakistani troops relinquished control of the area under the ‘peace agreement’ with the Taliban.
Every single detail of what is occurring has been closely scripted, and Pakistan has been key to these developments from the very commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom to the present ‘reconquest’ of nearly a third of Afghanistan by the resurgent Taliban. This, indeed, is the core of the enduring ‘stupidity’ of US policy in the region: the utter and abysmal failure to see through Pakistani machinations, the continued and abject dependence on Pakistani ‘cooperation’ to secure coalition objectives in Afghanistan, and the inability to comprehend the irreducible conflict of interests that excludes the very possibility of Pakistani good faith. US and coalition military commanders have repeatedly confirmed what President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly stated: that the “main problem lies inside Pakistan”. Unfortunately, as one commentator has noted, “Gen. Musharraf has played the Americans beautifully.”
For nearly three decades now, Pakistan has remained the most active and aggressive player in the South Asian region, defining for itself a role that has substantially shaped the foreign policy priorities and security concerns of all its neighbours to an extent far in excess of its size and strategic strengths. Islamist extremism and terror have remained the primary instruments of motivation, mobilization and execution of its policies of strategic extension. Covert asymmetric warfare and terrorism in Afghanistan is only one manifestation of this politics of violent disruption, and it remains central to the Pakistani vision.
It is the rationale and continuance of this strategy that is now clearly visible in Pakistan’s proxy ‘re-conquest’ of extended areas of Afghanistan through the Taliban. After 9/11, and under US threat, Pakistan apparently disowned the Taliban and claimed to be enthusiastically ‘hunting’ the Al Qaeda. In reality, a duplicitous policy helping relocate these organizations and allowing them significant operational space on Pakistani soil, was combined by a pretended participation in the ‘global war against terrorism’. Pakistan’s ‘cooperation’ in the war on terrorism has been, and remains, entirely coerced, except in the case of a handful of domestic sectarian terrorist groups and a few ‘renegades’ who turned against the establishment in Pakistan. At the same time, the Taliban has been actively supported to recover from the reverses of Operation Enduring Freedom, and has carried out a campaign of escalating terrorism in Afghanistan from bases and widely known operational headquarters in Pakistan – not just the ‘uncontrollable’ areas of Waziristan, but also across the North West Frontier Province and North Balochistan, where the writ of the Pakistani state is far less in dispute. Over the past five years, they have successfully disrupted Kabul’s influence in ever widening areas, and now, exhausted and desperate Western Forces are striking deals with local Taliban commanders, and the idea of accommodating an oxymoronic ‘moderate Taliban’ in Kabul is finding increasing support in Washington.
Essentially, Pakistan has managed to wait out the storm, with its strategic tool, the Taliban, substantially intact. The calculation has always been that the US and Western powers will eventually lose patience in Afghanistan and return, in desperation, to the earlier ‘franchise’ arrangement, restoring Pakistan and its Taliban proxies to influence over Afghanistan. The enemies of freedom, evidently, have had, and held on to, the capacity for strategic thinking despite the tremendous – and now evidently transient – reverses they suffered. And their calculations are proving to be entirely correct.
A quick overview of recent developments in Afghanistan is edifying. More than 3,000 people had already been killed across the country in 2006, by October 10, according to an Associated Press count; this is more than twice the toll for the whole of 2005. Coalition fatalities in 2006 touched 172 by October 10, far exceeding the 130 coalition soldiers killed through 2005. Taliban attacks have also become the more lethal, with an increasing number of suicide bombings decimating top Afghan officials, including associates and appointees of the beleaguered President Karzai. Year 2006 has already witnessed 91 suicide attacks in Afghanistan, with at least one every week, up from 21 suicide attacks in 2005, six in 2004, and just two in 2003, when the first such attacks in the country occurred. Suicide attacks this year have taken place not just in the Taliban strongholds in South and East Afghanistan, but across the country, even in the relatively secure northern and western provinces.
Just over September and October 2006, the major targeted attacks have included:
October 15: Two gunmen on a motorcycle killed a Kandahar provincial council member, Mohammad Younis Hussein, outside his house.
October 14: The Governor of the eastern Laghman province escaped unhurt after a bomb exploded outside his compound.
October 9: The District Police Chief, Administrator and Intelligence Chief were killed by a roadside bomb as they were on their way to investigate the overnight burning of a school in Khogyani District of the eastern Nangarhar province.
September 26: A suicide bomber killed 18 people outside the provincial Governor's compound in Helmand province. The Governor escaped unhurt.
September 25: Gunmen on a motorcycle killed Safia Ama Jan, the Director for the Ministry of Women's Affairs for Kandahar province. Jan, a leading women's rights activist, ran an underground school for girls during the Taliban's rule.
September 10: A suicide bomber killed Abdul Hakim Taniwal, Governor of the eastern Paktia province, outside his home. Another suicide bomber killed six people at his funeral the next day.
The Pakistan-Taliban strategy is clearly to deny access and disrupt the operation of Coalition and Government Forces and officials, undermining the administration and relief efforts even in secure areas, to bring both Kabul and the international Coalition to its knees – as has been the case with British Forces at Musa Qala, a key forward base in the Helmand province, who were forced into a humiliating ‘agreement’ with ‘tribal elders’ who “approached the Afghan government to negotiate a ceasefire between British forces and the Taliban in the area”.
The Pakistani strategy and involvement is even visible in major Taliban reverses, such as the bloody confrontation with NATO Froces in the Panjwai District between September 4-17, 2006. NATO’s ‘Operation Medusa’ ended with nearly 1,100 of a 1,500-strong Taliban Force – which “crossed over from Quetta – waved on by Pakistani border guards” – dead, and 160 in NATO custody. Interrogation of the captured Taliban cadres has confirmed, in significant detail, the complicity and support of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Further confirmation of such support came from the sheer firepower that the Taliban forces brought to the battle: according to NATO’s post-battle assessment, the Taliban fired an estimated 400,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades, and 1,000 mortar shells. Further, ammunition dumps unearthed after the battle exposed an additional stock of over one million rounds. An unnamed senior NATO officer, cited by Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan’s foremost expert on the Taliban, noted, “The Taliban could not have done this on their own without the ISI.” Rashid notes, “NATO is now mapping the entire Taliban support structure in Balochistan, from ISI- run training camps near Quetta to huge ammunition dumps, arrival points for Taliban's new weapons and meeting places of the shura, or leadership council, in Quetta, which is headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the group's leader since its creation a dozen years ago.”
Pakistan’s military establishment, through the ISI, has long been the principal terrorist organisation in South Asia. The Taliban – as is the case with the many named Islamist terrorist groups operating in India from Pakistani soil – is no more than an instrumentality, a proxy, an agent, of the ISI. Unless the West recognizes and addresses this reality, it will fail in Afghanistan, and will become the more vulnerable on its own soil to the rampage of Islamist terrorists.
The idea that Afghanistan and Iraq are America’s ‘new Vietnam’ is gaining wide currency, as failing coalition Forces in both theatres flail about desperately for a face-saving ‘exit strategy’. What is often missed out, however, is that the world and the ways of warfare have changed tremendously and irrevocably since the war in Vietnam. The option to simply ‘declare victory and run’ no longer exists. If these theatres are ceded to the extremists, the war will simply move to Western soil. President George Bush has been wrong – and disastrously wrong – about a lot of things. But he is right when he says, “We're fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so we do not have to face them here at home.”
If the Americans fail in Iraq, in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, they will have nowhere to hide.
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