The West is Running Out of Time in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 40

From all observables, the Taliban insurgency is spreading from its deeply rooted base in southern and southeastern Afghanistan to provinces in the west and east. In addition, several Islamist insurgent organizations active during the 1979-89 jihad against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan—the “old mujahideen”—have allied themselves with the Taliban. Among the more important and militarily powerful of these long-established groups are Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and the forces of Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, which belong to the Hezb-e-Islami-Khalis organization. Historically, both groups have been able to deploy substantial forces in the strategically vital corridors from the Khyber Pass through Jalalabad to Kabul, and along the only major highway running from Kabul to the southern provinces. Prior to the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, the first of these organizations was hostile to the Taliban, while the second was at best neutral toward it (Asia Times, October 5).

Also noticeable in 2006 has been the strongly Afghan-centric nature of the insurgency. As in the jihad against the Red Army, the most important insurgent forces are made up of the Afghans themselves. Since Western leaders and the media focus so much attention on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the Afghans’ dominant role in the war is often lost sight of. While al-Qaeda fighters and other so-called foreign fighters are active in Afghanistan—London’s al-Hayat reports that more and more Saudi men are going to fight there since the Taliban assumed the military initiative this year—they are important but secondary contributors to the war effort (al-Hayat, October 3). As in the 1980s, the Afghans publicly and correctly point out that the U.S.-led coalition is increasingly facing a “nation in arms.” On this question, for example, Taliban spokesman Abdul-Hai Mutamen highlighted the always intense nationalism and xenophobia of his countrymen when he said that while Afghans and foreign fighters “have spiritual sympathy with each other…Our resistance is a pure Afghan resistance” (Pakistan Observer, October 8).

Another aspect of the Taliban’s current agenda that is identical to the mujahideen’s political tack in the 1980s is its definitive position that it will not participate in, or even negotiate with, President Karzai’s government. In words familiar to those knowledgeable about the absolute intransigence of the Soviet-era mujahideen leaders, Taliban spokesman Mutamen recently explained that there would be no peace talks with Kabul because: “There is no independent government in Afghanistan now. The foreigners have established the current government. The occupying forces should first leave Afghanistan. We can then think of future peace talks…Our resistance, which has now spread throughout the country, is not for the sake of power or government. This is a very silly thought. We want to regain independence so our people can live under the system which they desire which is, of course, and Islamic government” (Afghan Islamic Press, October 7).

As much as the Taliban’s improved military performance is an ill omen for Karzai’s government and the U.S.-led coalition, three other factors greatly augment the progress that the Taliban is making on the battlefield:

Law-and-order: Western media reporting, newspapers published in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, and statements by the Taliban show that crime rates are high in urban areas and that much of rural Afghanistan is plagued by bandits, warlords and narcotics traffickers. In other words, the law-and-order situation in most of the country is uncannily similar to the neatly anarchic environment that helped facilitate the Taliban’s ascendancy in 1996. The failure of the Karzai government and its Western allies to deploy enough military forces to establish a reliable, country-wide law-and-order regime is the Taliban’s most valuable non-military ally. Afghans invariably put the security of their families, businesses and farms above the implementation of elections and parliaments.

Pakistan and Waziristan: The Afghan government and some Western officials have condemned Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s peace deal with the Pashtun tribes in the country’s Waziristan region as being intended to strengthen the Taliban. The reality, however, seems to be that Musharraf made the deal because his army’s presence in the tribal lands had become unsustainable politically. In addition to suffering heavy casualties in fighting Pashtun tribes, the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Waziristan—heavier casualties than those sustained by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan—the Pakistani army’s “invasion” of the province smashed Islamabad’s 50-year-old modus vivendi with the tribes to live-and-let-live and brought the area to the verge of civil war. In making peace, Musharraf did what he had to do by choosing to protect Pakistan’s political stability and geographic integrity over continuing an armed intervention that threatened both and which would ultimately be feckless because of the U.S.-led coalition’s failure to defeat the Taliban and control the Afghan countryside. There is no question that the Taliban is stronger because of the deal—if for no other reason than the safe haven it provided—but so is Pakistan’s political stability, which was being undermined by the radicalizing impact that the army’s incursion had on the country’s powerful pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaeda religious parties (Daily Times, October 3).

Time: The old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is no place on earth truer than in Afghanistan, and there it additionally always breeds armed resistance. In the Afghans’ view, the U.S.-led coalition has occupied Afghanistan for five-plus years, has failed to deliver a more prosperous and safer society, has killed a large number of Afghan civilians and shows no sign of planning a near-term departure. Always short of patience in regard to foreigners running their affairs, most Afghans probably would concur with Taliban spokesman Mutamen’s statement that “the people of Afghanistan…never accept foreign dominance…America has attacked Afghanistan without any reasonable plan or suggestions. The Americans, therefore, get nothing but the death of their soldiers in Afghanistan. We want NATO and other foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible” (Afghan Islamic Press, October 7). Ominously, another Taliban leader, Mullah Mehmood Allah Haq Yar, claims that not only has the Pashtun-dominated Taliban’s patience run out, but that the forces of the late Ahmed Shah Masood—heretofore backing Karzai—are beginning to decide that they did not defeat and evict Moscow only to be ruled by the West. In late spring 2005, Yar claims to have talked with Northern Alliance representatives who “condemned the foreign presence in the country, but insisted that the Taliban take the lead [in attacking it] and then they would follow suit.” Yar claims that the Taliban’s contacts with the Alliance commanders are continuing (Asia Times, October 5).

Overall, the increasing pace of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan suggests it is only a matter of time until the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition are faced with telling their political leaders that a decision must be made to either heavily reinforce coalition forces—it appears that more than the 120,000 men Moscow deployed to Afghanistan in the 1980s would be necessary—or begin preparations to withdraw from the country. If taken now, such a decision would be made in the context of polls showing popular opinion in Canada and Britain turning decidedly against continued participation in the Afghan war and media reports that France may begin to withdraw its special forces from Afghanistan next spring (Associated Press, October 15).