Afpak 101

What are we doing in Afghanistan? And what does Pakistan have to do with anything?

By Metta Spencer | 2009-04-01 12:00:00

“We are not ever going to defeat the insurgency,” said Prime Minister Harper. When Mr. Harper goes on CNN to express such an opinion about Afghanistan, you know that some major re-evaluations are taking place.

Nor is our prime minister the only one with a new perspective. Lately I’ve heard military officers and knowledgeable journalists say similar things. Opinion leaders are searching for ways to redeem even a portion of the sacrifices that the Coalition forces have made in Afghanistan.

Whereas Harper offers no answer, his CNN host, Fareed Zakaria, does suggest a strategy: that we should distinguish sharply between the locally-oriented fundamentalist Islamic insurgents (the Taliban) and the globally-oriented terrorists (al-Qaeda) who intend to kill us. While he calls the Taliban “very bad guys,” he accepts it as a fact that they may soon rule both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though we won’t like that, he thinks it would be better than continuing the war against them. He proposes that we try to influence the Taliban by providing development assistance, education, and diplomacy instead of attacking them with Predator drone bombers. Zakaria has two strategies: one for the Taliban and another for al-Qaeda, who are indeed international terrorists with whom we cannot “live and let live.”

Still, President Obama has announced plans to send 17,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, though he considers it impossible to win that struggle with military means alone. On this point other experts mostly concur. A growing number of them recommend negotiating with the Taliban; even President Karzai favors doing so.

Gwynne Dyer is one of the analysts favoring that position, as we noted in the January issue of Peace. Dyer views the original al-Qaeda (the group around Osama bin Laden who were responsible for 9/11) as a spent force, no longer able to attack other countries. He would either ignore them or turn the fight against them over to the CIA and other intelligence services, rather than deploying thousands of NATO troops. “Go home, folks! The show is over,” he would proclaim.

Along the same lines, the strategic analyst George Friedman of Stratfor claims that “al-Qaeda prime” — the original bin Laden team that gave us 9/11 — has dwindled over the years without replenishing its inner core, and hence that it no longer poses a threat to us here. On the assumption that America’s goal is simply to make it impossible for any terrorist group to organize new global attacks from Afghanistan, Friedman sees it as unnecessary to pursue the ongoing war there.

But can a prudent Obama act on such a policy? Perhaps so, with regard to the Taliban, who have never been part of any global terrorist attack, even in 9/11. But perhaps not, with regard to al-Qaeda, for too little is certain about its actual strength. Probably the al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan now number less than a few thousand.1 However, their bases still exist in the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they may be coordinating a growing list of dangerous new al-Qaeda franchises around the world. No Westerner can be sure about their strength, and the uncertainty makes every strategy risky.

It seems obvious that, overall, the Taliban and the world-wide jihadist movement are becoming stronger, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Somalia, Nigeria, and Indonesia. Now is the time to recall how we and our Western allies stumbled into our present plight and analyze the prospects of the “Afpak” conflict.

The Origins of Our Predicament

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to put down uprisings against two successive communist regimes that had seized power violently. Some six million Afghans then fled into exile, many of them settling into refugee camps in Pakistan. Viewing this within the Cold War context, the United States supported, as if by reflex, the Mujahedeen fighters — the Islamic guerrilla warriors who were defending their country against the Soviets.

The Afghan Mujahedeen were joined by Islamic fighters from the Middle East and Pakistan, who were trained in Saudi-funded religious schools that taught a doctrinaire Salafi/Wahhabi version of Islam. These religious zealots became known as “Taliban” or “the students.” Though the Soviets became bogged down in a nine-year war, the Americans’ aid to the Mujahedeen included significant weaponry, especially Stinger missiles that, by shooting down Soviet aircraft, would eventually help bring the war to a close in 1989.

The Saudis funded the establishment of about 39,000 madrassas in the area — Islamic schools that offered instruction on virtually nothing except fundamentalist religion and ultra-conservative social values to a rag-tag bunch of boys, mainly Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan, who were to become the core of the Taliban movement. They forced women to wear burkas and stay at home except when accompanied by a male relative. They required males to wear beards and they beat people who indulged in music, smoking, liquor, or recreational pleasures. Nor did the Americans oppose the values that these madrassas promoted; instead, the US AID program provided textbooks that encouraged militancy and helped radicalize the Afghani youth.2 The United States even encouraged Salafi ideologues to come there and teach.

The final departure of the Soviets was followed by five years of civil war, which the Taliban were slowly winning. Their leader, Mullah Omar, permitted Osama bin Laden to settle his Arab al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and run training camps there.

If the Taliban did not know ahead of time that al-Qaeda would carry out the attack of September 11, 2001, they nevertheless proved themselves ready to share NATO’s retribution to their Arab guests in the war that followed.

The newly victimized US, supported by a sympathetic international community, immediately sent CIA teams into Afghanistan, bearing briefcases full of money with which to support the Northern Alliance fighters and their warlord allies against the Taliban. The CIA operatives could also summon bombers to the targets they identified. As a result, the Northern Alliance had almost won the new war before the NATO troops even arrived.

NATO’s forces also benefited from the support of a neighbor, Iran, during their short war. Initially, despite their enmity toward the United States, the Shi’ite Iranians were even more appalled by the Salafism of the Taliban, who treated harshly Afghanistan’s Shia minority, the Hazara people. After the Taliban fled in 2001 and President Karzai took office in Afghanistan, his government has enjoyed good relations with both the United States and Iran, who have helped Kabul’s economic recovery.

The first post-9/11 phase of the war did not last long, for the Taliban and al-Qaeda hid in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Public opinion favored the NATO troops during that brief war; as many as 85 percent of the Afghan population were glad that these soldiers had come — a level of approval that has declined to less than 50 percent today.

Having conquered Afghanistan so quickly, President George W. Bush transferred most of the American troops to his new war in Iraq, almost abandoning the Afghan population and providing only paltry development aid.

Some of the consequences were foreseen early, even by concerned people in the region who had supported NATO’s war. For example, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid had called it a just war,3 believing that “only external intervention could save the Afghan people from the Taliban and al-Qaeda and prevent the spread of al-Qaeda ideology.” Yet Rashid soon worried when his country gave sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban and let them recruit; “I was warning in 2002-03 that it will Talibanize Pakistan. They will influence Pakistanis and that is what has happened.” [4]

The Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas dispersed in the mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) inside Pakistan, which comprises seven relatively autonomous districts or tribal “agencies” that the British had created as a buffer. Afghanistan still claims part of FATA and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and therefore has never recognized the Durand Line that separates its land from Pakistan. The insurgents hid in this rugged area and began regrouping for another fight against NATO. By 2009, they have regained considerable control in the Pashtun region of southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, where the Canadian troops are located.

If, as Prime Minister Harper acknowledges, “We are not ever going to defeat the insurgency,” then what strategy should we pursue? Everyone agrees to this much: Any strategy, to be tenable, must address the whole region comprehensively — not only Afghanistan but also the countries that surround it.

In December 2008 Barack Obama appeared on Meet the Press and said, “We can’t continue to look at Afghanistan in isolation. We have to see it as part of a regional problem that includes Pakistan, includes India, includes Kashmir, includes Iran.” Upon becoming president he appointed Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to deal with those regional challenges and launched a sixty-day review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, which remains the most dangerous country in the world. Almost every day some new disaster occurs in the governance of Pakistan, as we know.

Afghanistan and its Neighbors

It is impossible to win a war against the insurgents in Afghanistan, mainly because they freely cross the border to and from their FATA sanctuaries in Pakistan. Though NATO troops cannot pursue them there, they have been sending Predator drones to bomb sites where they believe the militants are located. These expeditions typically kill innocent tribal villagers in Pakistan, but rarely al-Qaeda leaders. Infuriated by these fatalities, many in the tribal areas are opposing the elected government and want to separate from Pakistan or overthrow the current regime.

Pakistan has had other grave failures of democracy — especially in its relations with the military. For thirty years the Pakistani military frankly dominated the government. General Pervez Musharraf came to the presidency by a military coup in 1999 and ruled until August 2008, resigning after the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who died while campaigning for office. Her widower, Asif Zardari, became Pakistan’s president, though he still is not in control of the military, and instability has even increased.

Officially Pakistan has supported NATO’s war in Afghanistan. Since 9/11 it has received $11 billion from the US to prepare for mountain warfare against the jihadists in the tribal areas. Instead, Pakistan’s military spent the money on heavy artillery to fight against India.

This reflects the Pakistani military establishment’s priorities. They have barely worried about the “war on terror,” but obsessively about India. After all, Pakistan has waged three wars and countless skirmishes against India over the control of Kashmir during the past fifty years. To be sure, the military has cooperated overtly with the Americans, at least by turning over several al-Qaeda leaders whom they had captured. However, they have not so readily handed over Pakistani jihadists, and indeed are believed to sponsor some of them.

It is well known that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (the I.S.I.) armed and funded Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Saudi-influenced terrorist and guerrilla force that fights mainly in Kashmir. This organization’s most famous attack was in Mumbai last November. The group’s leader once declared his intention openly: to destroy India. However, India behaved with remarkable restraint about the Mumbai matter, refraining from retaliatory strikes. But the danger remains, especially if jihadist attacks continue. Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, which each country developed precisely for possible use against the other.

President Zardari seems too weak to stop his generals’ political activities and subordinate them to his democratic regime. However, this is not because Pakistani people prefer military dictatorship — quite the contrary. A year ago a surprisingly fair election brought Zardari to power, along with a secular Pashtun party, the Awami National Party (ANP), which had begun as a movement that, inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, had carried out nonviolent campaigns against the British Raj. But such moderate political movements have become so weakened that the ANP is paralyzed by fear of Taliban suicide bombings. The government has even found it necessary in Swat, in the NWFP, to arrange a ceasefire, promising to let the cleric, Sufi Mohammed, enforce Sharia law if only he will stop the violent attacks against the state.

Thus the government of Pakistan is intimidated by its own military officers, by its intelligence service, and now by popular uprisings of rage against American Predator bombing raids. The crisis reflects a deficit in democracy. The generals will not accept the civilian government’s authority so long as Kashmir remains their top concern. Their insubordination is Pakistan’s most serious problem. For example, the nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan was recently released from house arrest after five years. It was Khan who sold nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea with, he claims, the full support of his country’s military-controlled government.

The jihadist insurgents have become so bold in Pakistan that they can now stop the flow of US military convoys through the Khyber Pass into land-locked Afghanistan. This poses a particular problem for the American troops, who cannot be supplied fully from the air. Obama’s diplomacy initiative will no doubt try to persuade Iran to let US supply convoys transit its territory. Alternatively, there are possible routes through Russia and Afghanistan’s other Central Asian neighbors, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but the Russians have been reasserting their dominance over these formerly Soviet states. Here too Obama has offered to push the “reset” button on American-Russian relations.

If only for the logistical management of its war plans, the US government desperately needs for Pakistan’s government to regain sufficient authority over its own population and military to govern in a democratic, yet orderly, fashion. A prerequisite, so far as the military leaders are concerned, would be to solve the 50-year-long conflict over Kashmir.

This may not be impossible. Two years ago President Musharraf and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had negotiated a mutually acceptable agreement. The two leaders were ready to disclose it, but Musharraf had been losing popular support and he decided to wait until it recovered before putting the plan forward. However, instead of regaining popularity, he lost even more of it and eventually resigned without disclosing the negotiations. Richard Holbrooke will want that stalled agreement to come to fruition, thereby forcing Pakistan’s military to stop obsessing about India as their enemy.

Dealing with the Taliban?

If the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means, then what approach holds more promise?

Diplomacy will be Obama’s main alternative. Various deals are possible, especially with Russia, but also with two countries that oppose al Qaeda for their own reasons: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran has continued strengthening its ties with Afghanistan, where it helped overthrow the Taliban, and is building a major road now through Afghanistan, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Opportunities exist for a mutually beneficial “grand bargain” between the US and Iran. The US would recognize the legitimacy of that government and commit not to forcibly try to change its borders or form of government. Iran, for its part, would guarantee not to produce weapons of mass destruction or support terrorism, would stop opposing a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and would cooperate in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost certainly the Obama team is aiming toward just such a bargain.

As for the Saudis, they already are helpful to the NATO coalition, mainly through their influence on Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan were the only three countries that had recognized the Taliban government when it took over in 1996. But when 9/11 occurred, the Saudis were shocked and urged the Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand al-Qaeda over to the Americans. When this coaxing failed and the Americans invaded Afghanistan, the Saudis, along with Pakistan, felt obliged to turn against the Taliban. Since then, the Saudi monarch King Abdullah has apparently been pressuring the Taliban leaders to break away from al-Qaeda. Pakistan’s government is too weak to be a useful partner in this pressure campaign, so the Saudis must help them solve their own Pakistani Taliban problem before the two countries can influence the Afghan Talibans. In any case, Obama’s diplomats will be counting on the Saudis for further help. Al-Qaeda evidently fears Abdullah’s moral suasion, and they have recently warned of a forthcoming terrorist attack on a Saudi facility.

Next, the military surge. General Petraeus, now commanding the NATO war, evidently will attempt to replicate his success in Iraq with an influx of new troops in Afghanistan. The real basis for his Iraqi triumph was that he was able to “buy off” the Sunni groups in Anbar Province. He required his troops to live among the Iraqi people and patrol on foot, protecting the civilians and winning them over. He said the insurgents must be crushed from all sides — military, intelligence, politics, development, and the media.5 No one can say now whether this accommodation will persist after the US troops all leave.

Nor is there any guarantee that a similar approach will work in Afghanistan. However, it is worth a try, at least when dealing with the Taliban, who are not all alike. Indeed, there is a great world-wide conflict going on within Islam between moderates and fundamentalists. Taliban groups cannot remain oblivious to this debate. We can increase this effect by producing soap operas in the languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan that demonstrate how people are expected to treat each other in liberal democracies.

Prince Abdul Ali Seraj is a popular political figure among the tribal elders of Afghanistan. They have been asking him to run for the presidency in the August election, possibly because they are impressed by his family tree, which includes ten Afghan kings. The prince differentiates among three types of Taliban — white, gray, and black — and proposes a specific approach for each type. The white Taliban are honorable “freedom fighters” who defend their people from occupiers — especially from foreigners who bomb innocent civilians with drones. The gray Taliban are highway mafia and thieves. But Seraj is only worried about the black Taliban — the followers of Mullah Omar who are influenced by al-Qaeda.

According to the prince, Afghanistan and Pakistan need political leaders who can unify their populations. Otherwise, he said, this area will affect all of Central Asia. “Afghanistan is no longer a local problem, it is a world problem. There are four billion people around Afghanistan and none of them are happy with the other. And the surrounding countries have nuclear weapons.”

There are differing strategies about how these insurgencies can be handled. Some (including General Petraeus) say it is necessary to bring good governance down to the village level. If you do, after ten years you may win over the hearts and minds of the villagers, changing them into modern, democratic citizens.

However, there are over 40,000 villages in Afghanistan, so this plan seems too ambitious. Coalition soldiers cannot bring amenities and democratic governance to all the Afghan villagers. If they are to become modern, democratic citizens, it is their own leaders who should introduce the changes. NATO should stop bombing people with Predators, but protect civilians instead, and try winning them over. (Does Obama really need so many troops to do that?)

Instead of fighting a “counterinsurgency” war, it would be easier and safer to use a “containment” approach. Whenever possible, separate al-Qaeda from the Taliban. For example, close the border so that al-Qaeda and the “black” Taliban can no longer sneak into Afghanistan by following goat trails over the mountains. A good electric fence and camcorders along the border would reduce the problem, but that may be impossible since Afghanistan does not accept the Durand Line as its border. Diplomats assign top priority to settling that long-standing dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If the moderate Taliban can be separated from al-Qaeda and from their radical brothers, the next strategy would just be to sit back and wait, according to Andrew Bacevich.6 People will become disenchanted with the Taliban’s rules, as they do with all kinds of other extremist teachings. He writes,

“When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of US and Western strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The Jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die — unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.”

That sounds plausible — at least when dealing with the Taliban, who just want to preserve their miserable but familiar lifestyle from modern influences. But in a liberal democracy we will find toleration almost as unacceptable as the continuation of war itself. It will require us to distinguish sharply between violent killers who threaten us here in North America and extremists who “merely“oppress vulnerable people in their own societies. This latter group we would tolerate, though we despise everything about their values.

After all, Canada has endorsed the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, even if we have done nothing to carry it out in such places as Darfur or Burma. It is clear that the West’s indiscriminate rejection of moderate Muslims has increased global hatred against the West and recruited new jihadists. But the alternative is also morally repugnant: allowing human rights to be abused in the hope that the Afghans and Pakistanis will overcome these medieval lifestyles of their own accord.

Even if they do, that leaves us with the bigger challenge: al-Qaeda. They have global aspirations. They want to kill people all around the world, including not just their enemies but also their co-religionists. Maybe the original al-Qaeda group can no longer endanger us here, but other global jihadists do. We cannot “contain” them all, nor can we win most of their hearts and minds over to a nicer worldview. To track bad guys of their sort, we probably need a lot of excellent detectives. Maybe the CIA.

What a terrible proposal to offer here in Peace Magazine! Sorry. Do you have a better one?

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.


1 Fareed Zakaria, “Learning to Live with Radical Islam,” Newsweek, March 16, 2009.

2 Khushal Arsala and Stephen Zunes, “The US and Afghan Tragedy,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Feb. 18, 2009.

3 Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (New York: Viking, 2008).

4 Ahmed Rashid, in an archived videotaped interview with Henry Kreisler, of the Institute of International Studies, Berkeley, California, June 20, 2008.

5 Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. (New York: Penguin, 2009).

6 Andrew J. Bacevich, “Raising Jihad,” in The National Interest, Mar. 2, 2009. This is a review of David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009

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