In Afghanistan, all roads lead to Pakistan -

In Afghanistan, all roads lead to Pakistan

For every story of tactical victory, there’s one about about things getting worse


Today’s summary of the president’s report on the war strategy is getting tons of press, and while the picture being shown is positive, the truth is that on virtually every measure, the overall situation is very complicated. For every story you read about things getting better, there is one about how they are getting worse somewhere else.

And so even as the coalition is claiming some sort of tactical victory in the South and talking about it turning into permanent gains, a large group of Afghan analysts and observers are arguing that the security situation is worse than ever, and that it is time to sit down and negotiate with the Taliban leadership. This “open letter to Obama” came out last week, and while it hasn’t received a lot of attention, I think it does a useful job of highlighting just why the situation in Afghanistan is so frustrating.

To some extent, the letter simply repeats the tension that has bedeviled all previous calls to negotiate. On the one hand,  the authors acknowledge that a military victory is not possible, the costs of the military mission are unsustainable, and that the presence of international troops must eventually come to an end. On the other hand, they’re pressing for serious negotiations with the Taliban. As many people have repeatedly pointed out, the Taliban won’t have an incentive to negotiate seriously unless there is strong, sustainable and lasting Western military presence — and till now, the Taliban have said they won’t negotiate until foreign troops leave.

But I actually think the key passage in the letter is this one:

The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think — a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more — are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.

I’m an amateur observer when it comes to all things Afghanistan, but this strikes me as a plausible idea in one respect, and somewhat naïve in another.  The central problem with this is that there is no single, organized “Taliban leadership” with which to negotiate. As far as I can tell, there are at least three distinct insurgencies going on. There are the former Kandahar Taliban, who lost their jobs when the Americans invaded in 2001, and are now based in Quetta. Then there is the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan, which is officially susbsumed under the Quetta Shura, but which is in many ways an operationally, politically, and ideologically distinct organization. And then there are the loosely organized (or not) former mujahideen commanders, warlords, power brokers, and plain old gangsters who taking advantage of the chaos in the country to assert their control over some piece of the pie.

The last group is less an insurgency than a form of organized crime, and all that it would take (“all” being a relative qualifier in the case of Afghanistan) would be for something approaching a legitimate government to assert itself.  With respect to the other two, I learned a lot from Anand Gopal’s analysis of the Kandahar insurgency, for the New American Foundation, and from Jeffrey Dressler’s parallel study of the Haqqani network.

Gopal’s argument is that after 2001, the Taliban had effectively retired, and had for the most part accepted the new government as legitimate. What changed their mind was four things: First, an effective “de-baathificiation” strategy that forbade them from playing any role in the new Afghanistan; second, active reprisals against former Taliban by the new rulers, largely thanks to pressure from the Northern Alliance; third, really bad behaviour by the new government; fourth, really bad behaviour by foreign troops.

If Anand is right, then the Kandahar Taliban — i.e., the Quetta Shura — has no serious idelogical axe to grind. Negotiations with them should be aimed simply at addressing the above grievances and seeing what deal can be struck.

The hard question is what about the Haqqani network, because they seem to be a totally different animal: highly ideological, strongly affiliated with al-Qaeda and related Arab groups, and an instrument of Pakistan, or at least of the ISI. So even if the Quetta Shura can be talked down, can the Haqqani? I doubt it, at least, not as long as Pakistan sees the Haqqani as their proxy for influence in Afghanistan. And why does Pakistan need a proxy in Afghanistan? To counteract the influence of India in that country.

As long as India is playing a role in Pakistan and has links to the Karzai government, Pakistan is never going to go after this crew. The Quetta Shura might cave, but the Haqqani? Unlikely. Increasingly, I’m coming around to the view that it all comes back to Pakistan. They are the true source of the problem, and any solution to what is going on in Afghanistan is going to require dealing with Pakistan.

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In Afghanistan, all roads lead to Pakistan

  1. 'They are the true source of the problem, and any solution to what is going on in Afghanistan is going to require dealing with Pakistan.'

    Something Dion said years ago, and got scoffed at.

    • Nice, thanks. His last point, too, about Afghanistan and Pakistan, is right I think:

      "so we are destabilizing Pakistan, a country which does actually matter in terms of international security, out of some twisted perverse idea that Afghanistan matters and is somehow a threat."

  2. Ideology might not be a motivating factor in the insurgency, but surely it's not going away or else why do they bother to sustain themselves – fragmented or not? After all the work there – for better or worse – it's hard to stomach the idea of letting them back in and opening the door to their draconian treatment of women. As much as we need to let Afghanistan rule itself in the fashion of its choosing, the Taliban ideology is a bitter pill to swallow. Why wouldn't the 90s just repeat and they would take over a fragile government with savage force once western troops were gone? Would they be willing to accept conditional re-entry to prevent such a future?

  3. What makes me smile is when I hear that one reason we are there is to help the women who are little more than slaves to their husbands and we should help them get rid of their Nijabs. Well, we can't get rid of them here so what in the world are we spending lives and money for other than helping Harper tagging along behind the oil seeking U.S.A.? Don't think Canada was a potentila target until we opted in!

  4. It is very difficult to preach democracy on a country that have not experienced it. How can they treasure, work, fight, and die for something which is abstract? Democracy will not work nor last if it is handed, given, and imposed from the outside. When their people are mentally ready for it, it will happen, not before then. A government is a representation and reflection of the majority of its people's maturity or lack of it. Sad to say, Afghanistan as a nation and a people still has lot of growing up to do. They have gotten a glimpse, even from a distance, on how democracy might look and taste like, let its own people choose whether to grasp/nurture or reject it. There are many places in the world just as dire if not more as Afghanistan, realistically (financially, logistically and etc.) it's unsustainable to be a parent nation to all of them. Let our soldiers come home and have a rest from all the nightmares they have been facing there. As for Pakistan, let its own people solve their own mess. There will come a time when its people will reach its limit of tolerance and will wake and rise up from their stupor and indifference of the mess their military, religious clerics, and politicians have put their nation in. I strongly believe that growth (maturity) of the volatile regions of the world has been severely stunted due to constant interference from outside with so many conflicting interests. Let each nation grow up and tackle its own business at its own terms/pace, and time. No one will learn how to run without learning how to crawl first. It might be painful to see them stumble and fall but that's part of the learning process. Just let them be, and we might all be surprised how fast they'll all grow up and might even outpace us.

  5. Negotiate. Easier said than done. If at all the Taliban agrees to come to the table it will be to buy time. The extremists may be obliged by how their struggle is going on in the field to consider negotiating and agree to compromise but they will never give up their goal of establishing a thorough-going Islamic regime which will take Afghanistan back to the 1996-2001 period in its past. If the Taliban could be negotiated with Pakistan would have done it by now. It tried but failed. What complicates the situation is the tribal structure of the Afghan society which dilutes the authority of the Kabul regime. The compromises worked out will not hold for long. Another doubtful element in the situation is whether the promotion of the secular values in the Afghan society and economic growth will be enough to counter the influence 0f religion in the region, which has been nurtured by nearly a half-century of Saudi Wahabism. In Pakistan, in spite of there being a large middle and upper class population, extremism there is thriving thanks to the madrassas funded by the Saudis . The same situation is likely to prevail in Afghanistan for a long time to come. The US and NATO might be looking for an honourable exit strategy as it did in Vietnam in the early seventies. Negotiations may be the way to go. But the problem will remain. Any strategy that is worked out will have to be long-term.

    • How I wish there is something to be done about the Saudis. They have been importing terrorism everywhere. Every country should ban every religious and educational contribution (materials, money, Imams, and any religious/education clerics) coming from this sick of a country.