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The War with the Taliban

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Lynsey Addario/VII Network
US Marines checking villagers’ documents as they cleared an area of Taliban forces in southern Marja, Afghanistan, before parliamentary elections, September 15, 2010

The Obama administration has been trying to dispel the impression that its military strategy in Afghanistan is influenced by domestic politics. The President’s announcement at West Point last December that US troops will start withdrawing in July 2011—in time to impress voters before his reelection campaign the following year—has been qualified over the summer, not only by General David Petraeus, whom the President chose in June to replace General Stanley McChrystal as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, but also by the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on a recent visit to Washington. The talk is no longer of drawdown but of “transition,” with a “dividend,” in Rasmussen’s words, as troops from newly pacified regions are to be redeployed elsewhere in the country. As of next summer, Vice President Biden has suggested, the number of American troops leaving Afghanistan may be as low as “a couple of thousand.” More recently, the flawed parliamentary elections of September 18 appeared to confirm fears that Afghanistan is not maturing politically as the US and its partners had hoped.

Obama was already giving mixed messages at West Point. Although his tone sounded aggressive and his speech was dominated by his announcement that a surge of 30,000 troops would be deployed “in the first part of 2010,” Obama clearly felt he had to equivocate about the July 2011 withdrawal date—not a course of action, Petraeus later said, that the military had recommended. The announcement of the withdrawal date had an immediate and galvanizing effect on the morale of the Taliban and their supporters, and may have contributed to the Taliban’s continuing ability to attract recruits. This August, the outgoing head of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, suggested that the withdrawal date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance…in fact we’ve intercepted [Taliban] communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’”

The Taliban, according to Afghans I spoke to this summer, have been encouraged by US casualties, which have risen dramatically this year—120 American soldiers were killed in July and August alone and more died in the first eight months of 2010 than in all of 2009. (In August 2009, the insurgents made 630 attacks; this August they made over 1,350.) They also have been encouraged by the sight of Obama’s military allies rushing for the door. The Dutch withdrew their contingent in the summer, and the Canadians and Poles plan to follow suit. In June, David Cameron announced that he wants Britain’s ten-thousand-strong force to be home by 2015. General Conway predicted that the Taliban’s morale will suffer when they realize that large numbers of US troops will, in fact, be staying after next July, but he also conceded that “our country is increasingly growing tired of the war.”

It seems ironic that only now, nine years after the invasion, are the Americans—having driven most al-Qaeda operatives from Afghanistan so that fewer than one hundred remain, and having declared their intention to leave—finally waging war in earnest, increasing the number of troops to almost 100,000 from 30,000 in 2008, and dislodging the Taliban from some areas of their heartland in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. The surge—combined with intensified use of unmanned drones and the targeted killing of senior and mid-ranking Taliban commanders—has apparently limited the manpower and weapons available to the Taliban, but the enemy is being scattered, not decimated. In early September, for instance, an American-led force took Taliban-held territory in the outskirts of Kandahar, but most of the Taliban forces had left by the time these troops moved in, and there were no Taliban casualties.

The American efforts in the southern Pashtun provinces are aimed at setting up functioning local administrations and then turning over security to the Afghan army and police. The hopeful view of what is going on was expressed in a recent article by Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who was in the war zone this summer.1 Boot believes that the surge stands a good chance of success, particularly if corrupt officials can be excluded from local government. The Taliban, he writes, have “no appreciable support” outside the estimated 42 percent of Afghans who are Pashtun—the ethnic group from which the Taliban draw their leadership and most of their fighting forces. He is firmly opposed to a deal with the Taliban in the foreseeable future. “Getting a significant portion of the Taliban to give up their arms,” he says, “will require inflicting more military defeats on them.” Boot was in Afghanistan as the guest of General Petraeus, whom he praises lavishly; it may be assumed that his words reflect the general’s thinking.

A more realistic version of events—one that I heard often in Afghanistan—contends that the military tactics being applied in Kandahar and Helmand are no substitute for a political strategy. There is a strong feeling among high-ranking Afghan and Western civilians who are involved in the effort in Afghanistan that the surge may wrest territory from the Taliban in the short term, but that only a political process of negotiation, reconciliation, and power-sharing can bring lasting peace and stability. These arguments, which I heard in detail, but on condition of anonymity, have some support in the State Department and the National Security Council. In the latter, as Bob Woodward shows in his new book, Obama’s Wars, military officers such as Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the NSC’s unofficial war “czar,” have expressed grave doubts about whether the current strategy will succeed. Woodward describes Lute’s advice to Obama as follows:

Lute told Obama he saw four main risks in the ongoing war. First there was Pakistan, the heart of many of the problems without solutions in sight. Two, governance and corruption in Afghanistan—huge problems with no practical fix readily available. Three, the Afghan National Security Forces—army and police—could probably not be cured with a massive decade-long project costing tens of billions of dollars. Four, international support, which was in peril.

These are cumulative risks,” he said.

These ideas and doubts have not visibly affected American policy, but they struck me as more convincing than Boot’s optimistic account.

In late 2001, the Americans and their allies met under UN auspices at Bonn to decide the future of the newly occupied Afghanistan. Two years later they imposed a centralized constitution on a country whose multiethnic and tribal character demands a strong degree of decentralization. In the words of Thomas Barfield, author of the impressive new Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, “the enthusiasm for…a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it.” The second problem with the Bonn meeting was that there was no sign of the vanquished. The Taliban had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda. Cruel and backward, their “Islamic emirate” was denounced every- where. The peace was a victors’ peace.

That peace, as we now know, has not lasted, and the regime installed at Bonn is failing. Rather than build institutions, President Hamid Karzai’s government developed what Barfield calls a “patrimonial” model of government, “in which the government administration and its assets were an extension of the ruler.” Corruption is now so bad, says Martine van Bijlert, a former Dutch diplomat and codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an excellent source of information about Afghanistan, that ordinary Afghans regard the government as “morally and politically illegitimate.”

In May, a report by the International Council on Security and Development found that 74 percent of people in Helmand and Kandahar provinces favored negotiations between the government and the Taliban. This is no surprise, since both provinces have big Pashtun majorities, but the confidence of such commentators as Boot and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution that other regions simply reject any relation with the Taliban is misplaced. When I was in Afghanistan this summer, I spoke to many Tajiks, members of the country’s second- largest ethnic group, predominant in the northern and western parts of the country, who deplored the Taliban’s brutality and their policies toward women, but still praised them for not allowing corruption; on the whole, they looked with cynical indifference on the prospect of the Taliban sharing power.

Afghanistan under the Taliban had many features of a failed state—it was certainly an odious one—but so long as they observed the Taliban’s laws, members of the country’s Sunni majority could go about their normal business without fear for their lives. Life was more difficult for the mainly Shia Hazaras—a sect of nearly five million Afghans who are concentrated in the central part of the country—whom the Taliban reviled as heretics, and sometimes killed. Still, in many cases they were left in peace. Personal security—being able to plant, to harvest, to move around—is the most important issue facing Afghans today. The Interior Ministry has judged that only nine of the country’s 365 districts are safe. For many of the Afghans who work with the government or foreign organizations, traveling outside Kabul, even to visit relatives in the provinces, is too dangerous.

In a country without security, major humanitarian issues such as women’s education, the freedom to listen to music, or horrendous punishments for adulterers become less pressing. Certainly, from Shias and some women, the two groups that suffered most under the Taliban, I heard opposition to the very idea of readmitting the Taliban to power. Nonetheless a considerable number of Afghans say they would welcome back the Taliban; they feel there would be improved security and less corruption. And some quite Westernized Afghan women, such as the member of parliament Shukria Barakzai, whom I met in Kabul, believe that the Taliban should be given a stake in any future power arrangement.

The US government has weakened its own endorsement of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban by insisting that the Taliban first approve the same constitution that they have spent the past several years fighting to destroy. The Taliban have a precondition of their own: that foreign troops leave Afghanistan. In fact, neither party’s position is as firm as it makes out, and as Petraeus recently acknowledged, talks between Afghan officials and senior members and affiliates of the Taliban (a famously diffuse organization, or alliance of organizations) have taken place, though they seem to have been preliminary in nature. In July, the Guardian reported a “change in mindset” in the Obama administration with respect to talks with the Taliban leadership, quoting an unnamed senior official as saying, “There is no military solution.”

That change has yet to show itself in policy, which is dominated by the surge and associated military offensives. US forces have been distributing cash and power generators to shore up local support in areas that they have taken from the Taliban—a practice that is based on the premise, long shown to be false, that the insurgency can be defeated by handouts. (The Karzai government is not unpopular because it has failed to create wealth, but because it is regarded as illegitimate.)

  1. 1

    Afghanistan: The Case for Optimism,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 2, 2010, available at www.cfr.org.

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