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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.)

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Mike King

Petraeus’s second-in-command, Brig- adier General H.R. McMaster, has said that he might not be able to demonstrate “significant” progress in the province of Kandahar—the principal battleground—by the end of this year. By that time Obama will have concluded his promised second review of US policy in Afghanistan. This would be the moment to lay out a political process that would involve the Afghan parties, including the Taliban, with the two states that have the most influence on the various parties in Afghanistan: Pakistan, whose links to the Taliban are well known and whose desire to influence events in Afghanistan is as strong as ever, and Iran, the second influential regional player, which has at times both opposed the Taliban as well as negotiated with it. Constitutional amendments should also be considered that would grant more power to the provinces and the districts. That would have the advantage of giving authority to people who are respected locally, rather than people chosen by the government or the occupiers.

In General James Conway’s words, “We can either lose fast or win slow,” but the general is wrong to imply that it is up to the military to do the winning. The surge will be useful only if it convinces the Taliban that the Americans do not, after all, intend to cut and run. That conviction would embolden those among the Taliban who are keen to negotiate. If a political process is to stand a chance of succeeding, the fighting needs to end or diminish significantly.

Opposition between the goals of the majority of Afghans and the other nations involved has always been a feature of the conflict. Thomas Barfield describes the political failures that led to the reemergence of the Taliban after several years of apparent inertia, and the baleful effects that President George W. Bush’s neglect of Afghanistan—as opposed to al-Qaeda, which he pursued, though not always successfully—had on security and government services. Back in 2002 and 2003, Barfield writes, the US presence was “so light as to be invisible.” By the time the Americans began to focus more attention and resources on the country, the resurgence of the Taliban and other Islamic rebel groups—such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami and the so-called Haqqani network, both of them backed by elements within the Pakistan military—was too advanced to be easily checked.

As late as 2007, it was possible to speak of a rebellious Pashtun majority in the south and east, but these geographical limitations are no longer applicable. The insurgents, Barfield writes, have significant and growing pockets of influence in the northern provinces of Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz, and Baghlan, none of which has a Pashtun majority. The insurgents use Pakistan-educated mullahs to spread their message; they appoint shadow governors and set up courts and tax collection systems that parallel those of the government. Partly in order to appeal to non-Pashtuns, the Taliban have recast themselves as a patriotic movement as well as a religious one, which helps explain why suggestions of partition would be impossible to implement.

The further one gets from the Pashtun heartland, the more the forces opposing the US and coalition occupation of Afghanistan become, in the words of the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, a “fragmented series of shifting tactical alliances.”2 In some parts of the country, the Taliban and their allies have attracted one side or another in a local feud, and in others they have come to informal power-sharing agreements with the government in Kabul. Sometimes national politics apparently trumps local security. According to a recent report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, last year in Baghlan province, police who had confiscated a truck owned by a Taliban commander were ordered by the Ministry of Interior to release the vehicle and its driver.3

Mohammad Mohaghegh, an opposition leader of the Hazara minority of Shias, compares Karzai’s predicament to that of an earlier president, Muhammad Najibullah. Najibullah’s left-wing government, which came to power in 1986, relied on Soviet backing and its writ barely extended beyond Kabul. Najibullah hoped to draw members of the Mujahideen opposition into joining with him, but they refused because they expected him to fall as soon as the Russians withdrew their support. In early 1992, three years after the departure of Soviet troops, Boris Yeltsin cut economic and military aid to Afghanistan, leading to civil war between the various Mujahideen groups and the eventual rise of the Taliban. “Now,” Mohaghegh told me, “we see that the towns are held by the government and the villages by the Taliban. By day, the state is visible, by night, the Taliban.”

Many Afghans I spoke to did not see themselves as represented by the Karzai government and its international backers: the Americans and other NATO forces, a constellation of UN agencies, largely Western NGOs, and the private companies that have been awarded reconstruction contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In theory, these people and agencies are united around the goal of rebuilding the country, thereby strengthening the bond between Afghans and their government. To this end, huge amounts of aid have been injected into Afghanistan since 2001—more than $455 billion. But on neither side have expectations been met. Rather than create a sense of cooperation, aid has become synonymous with some of the most poisonous aspects of the occupation: waste, inequality, and a squalid profiteering that has seen fortunes made from drug smuggling, racketeering, and dubious projects to build “infrastructure.”

In Kabul I spoke to the founder of a Western NGO that analyzes humanitarian interventions, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety. According to him, foreign NGOs raise their operating costs by as much as 70 percent when they enter the hostile environment of Afghanistan. Beholden to local middlemen, private contractors extort huge fees from the US military for poorly performed jobs. Providing “security”—a major outlay—often means paying off the Taliban or other armed groups. “And this,” he concluded, “does not leave very much money for the actual work that is to be done.”

According to a recent UN report on corruption, more than half of Afghans believe that international organizations and NGOs are “corrupt and are in the country just to get rich.”4 Still, this summer Obama asked Congress to increase US spending on Afghan development from around $2 billion this year to $5 billion in 2011, which would include the near doubling (to $1.2 billion) of a fund available for rapid projects designed to win the loyalty of Afghans.

Afghanistan has been unable to absorb the money it has been given, much less bring about the changes that the US and its allies have expected of it. The parliamentary elections of September 18 were severely tarnished by Taliban intimidation of voters, including bombings and other attacks on polling stations, allegations of major fraud, and a much lighter turnout than last year’s scandalously manipulated presidential election. Results, when they trickle in, are not expected to create a more effective opposition to Karzai in a chamber that is organized less around factions and parties than individuals and their personal interests. Many Afghan families have enthusiastically enrolled their daughters in schools, but most Afghan women wear the burqa, and either cannot exercise the rights that they are guaranteed by the constitution or are not aware that they have them. With or without the Taliban, Afghan society is deeply conservative and patriarchal, and it will take years of patient effort before it becomes less so.

At a conference in Kabul in July, the UN secretary-general and dozens of foreign ministers endorsed unrealistic objectives that the Americans had devised for the Karzai government. The most important of these was that Afghanistan’s armed forces should assume military leadership of the country by the end of 2014 and that the government should cut corruption dramatically.

Few of the Afghans and foreigners I spoke to in Kabul hid their skepticism that Afghanistan’s armed forces would be able to take over security in four years’ time. The army has an attrition rate of about 25 percent, with many soldiers drug-addled and most units operating at partial strength.5 A recent Afghan National Army operation against Taliban fighters east of Kabul turned into a debacle, with many Afghan casualties.

Equally, one can doubt the government’s resolve to tackle corruption, a problem it has helped create. It recently compromised its own efforts when a presidential aide was arrested on suspicion of soliciting bribes, and Karzai promptly ordered an investigation of the investigators. Since then, allegations of fraud at the Kabul Bank, whose major shareholders include Karzai’s brother and the brother of one of the country’s vice-presidents, have further highlighted the chicanery at the heart of public life. According to the UN’s corruption report, Afghans paid out some $2.5 billion in bribes in the course of 2009, almost one quarter of GDP, and corruption is widely believed to be still on the rise.

In July, I spent a morning with Ramazan Bashardoost, a former minister in the Karzai government whose reputation for fighting corruption has made him a controversial figure. Bashardoost showed me what he described as a list of prominent people who, in 2004, were allocated state-owned land for building villas at knock-down prices, a handout that got much attention at the time but was never investigated. Since the occupation, the price of land in Kabul and other cities has soared. There have been many such land grabs, but not a single successful prosecution of any senior official on embezzlement charges.

I visited Bashardoost in his “people’s tent,” which he has erected in reproachful proximity to the parliament building. Citizens come in to tell him their problems. One group of men told him that the mayor of Kabul had summarily ejected them from shops they had been granted by his predecessor. Another man, a former head of the housing department in a southern province, said that he had been sacked for refusing, in return for “good money,” to collude in the distribution of state land to various warlords. The man named many senior government figures, all of them allegedly involved in the scam.

Finishing his account, the man returned to his own plight. “I was honest and for this reason I am now sitting at home. My wife works for an NGO with the Americans and I am at home.” He wept, not because he had been fired but because, as an Afghan man in a highly patriarchal society, he had been reduced to living off his wife’s toil.

Later that day I met a teacher from Uruzgan, a mostly Pashtun province with strong Taliban links. (Uruzgan is the home province of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar.) His name was Sakhidad Etemadi and he was a member of the province’s Hazara minority, some of whom have joined militias against the Taliban. This summer the Taliban stopped a bus in Uruzgan and beheaded nine Hazara men in front of their families, after accusing them of spying for the Americans.

Having been driven out of his home in central Uruzgan by the Taliban, Etemadi now oversees eight Hazara schools in neighboring Ghazni, where some two hundred Hazara families from Uruzgan have settled. Etemadi told me a sad story of his recent attempts to collect his own salary and those of some one hundred teachers who are still on the Uruzgan payroll, a quest that had necessitated long and dangerous trips to Uruzgan, fruitless negotiations with a despotic-seeming provincial official and the Education Ministry there—both apparently contemptuous of Hazaras—and immense stoicism in the face of arbitrary power in Afghanistan. When I saw him, Etemadi had spent the past several weeks in Kabul trying to get the provincial official overruled. Back in Ghazni, he said, the eight schools were operating, and his fellow teachers working without pay.

Afghans associate bureaucratic arrogance and corruption with the Karzai government, and it is unlikely that it can be redeemed in their eyes. They also associate corruption with the occupation. But the occupation is needed to prevent the country from collapsing into civil war on a much larger scale than is currently the case, and there is no obvious and appealing alternative to the Karzai government. Were the Americans to leave Afghanistan, it is likely that Tajik warlords would take power in Kabul, leading to an intense and disastrous struggle with the Taliban and their allies in the south. The best that can be hoped for is that changes in American policies will help Karzai press for political reconciliation, and that new partnerships will be formed that express the interests of Afghanistan’s different communities and their shared yearning for peace.

In the meantime, the war intensifies, with no sign of real victory in sight. The errors of the past—installing Karzai, imposing a centralized system that barely takes into account local power structures, tolerating vast corruption—have made the war harder for the US to fight. It is far from clear that Obama has the vision and courage—or the political support at home and among US allies—to devise policies that can end it.

—September 29, 2010

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    See Kilcullen’s essay in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi (Columbia University Press, 2009).

  3. 3

    Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, “The Northern Front: The Afghan Insurgency Spreading Beyond the Pashtuns,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 2010.

  4. 4

    Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by the Victims,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime, January 2010.

  5. 5

    See the International Crisis Group’s recent report, “A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army,” May 2010.

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