By Ahmad Faruqui
June 26, 2018
A US drone strike is credited with having
taken out the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Even though a new
leader has been appointed already, some are saying that the Pakistani Taliban
are in retreat.
But across the border, the opposite is
true. We are witnessing the second coming of the (Afghan) Taliban. According to
US sources, the Taliban now hold sway over a third of Afghanistan. Several
provincial capitals remain in government hands only due to US air support. When
US forces are visible, the Taliban disappear. When the US forces are not
visible, the Taliban reappear. That is classic guerrilla war strategy at work.
The Afghan security situation has
deteriorated significantly since the launch of the Taliban’s 2015 spring
offensive. One Afghan analyst has said, “The enemy is at our gates.” He added
that the Taliban are not just winning the military battle, but also the hearts
and minds of the local populace.
Across Helmand, new mosques are cropping
up, funded by private businessmen. While government schools stand empty and
decrepit, there are 2,000 Taliban Madaris in Helmand.
Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for
Strategic and International Studies notes that while the US has made major
improvements in military tactics and plans for developing Afghan forces, it has
“done nothing to deal with civil and political stability”. The US “not only
faces a deteriorating security situation, it has no clear political,
governance, or economic strategy to produce Afghan stability,” and the US
military has been assigned a ‘mission impossible’.
Last November, the US commander in Kabul,
Gen. John Nicholson, stated that the Afghan army had “turned the corner.” Soon
thereafter, as if they were egged on by his statement, the Taliban began to
conduct a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul.
Dan Coats, the director of US national
intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “We assess the
overall security picture will… modestly deteriorate in the coming year and
Kabul will continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban-led insurgency”.
At the same hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Robert
Ashley, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, offered a mixed outlook.
He predicted the Taliban will “threaten Afghan stability, undermine public
confidence by conducting intermittent high-profile attacks in urban areas,”
increase its influence in rural areas and threaten district centres.
Presently, the Taliban roam huge swaths of
the country and, with foreign troop levels currently at about 15,600 — down
from 140,000 in 2014 — there is little hope for an outright government victory.
In the seventeen years since the Taliban
was deposed by the US Army, two US presidents have come and gone and a third
now holds that office.
In a brilliant book, Unwinnable, Theo
Farrell has analysed what went wrong with the ISAF strategy. The Taliban were
never well liked by the Afghans for all the harsh punishments and restrictions
they had imposed. Unfortunately, after deposing the Taliban, ISAF ended up
pursuing a brutal air campaign which killed Afghan civilians in large numbers.
That made ISAF becoming even more hated than the Taliban, however counter
intuitive that sounds.
Today, the Taliban are playing the religion
card to bond with the population. And they are resetting their military skills
and retraining for a different war. It does not help that at various times they
have been backed by the Pakistani deep state.
ISAF commanders have made three strategic
blunders. First, they under-estimated the enemy, thinking they had decimated
the Taliban in the first couple of months of the 2001 campaign. It never
occurred to them that the Taliban would disappear into the hills or cross the
border into Pakistan. They considered the Taliban a hapless force which was
poorly trained and armed.
US hubris did not end here. They thought
that their air superiority could put the Taliban out of action. But it failed,
as it had failed in Vietnam.
Most importantly, the ISAF did not take the
time to learn Afghan culture, geography or history. It is never easy for
outsiders to fight an insurgency. It is essential to understand the local
culture in order to understand the locals and gain their trust and confidence.
Decisions were made often by the ISAF in haste with incomplete knowledge and so
mistakes were made. Farrell says that ISAF did not exploit the local channels
and often dismissed them because it would complicate their job.
Ahmed Rashid, in his review of Farrell’s
book, says that an American general told him that between 2001 and 2005 the US
had not bothered to monitor Taliban activity in the south or across the border
in Quetta where the movement’s leadership had migrated and was now based. The
general said that “NATO would pay the price for the military’s lack of a
look-down satellite capability.”
Rashid adds that initially the British also
failed to understand Helmand province’s significance to the Taliban insurgency.
They did not grasp the fact that Helmand, “with its long desert border with
Pakistan, allowed drugs to flow out and recruits and ammunition to flow in. By
2007, western intelligence reports were all pointing to the role of Pakistan in
providing sanctuary, training and supplies.”
Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb directed
against the Pakistani Taliban had an unintended consequence as well. In
response to the operation, several thousand Uzbek, Arab and Pakistani fighters
fled from North Waziristan to Afghanistan. The arrival of these foreign
fighters strengthened the Taliban and further intensified the fight against the
Farrell contends the overall strategy was
misguided and traces the failure to “political absenteeism and military
hubris.” A senior Afghan official concurs, saying that “Even if you kill all
the teenagers, the next generation will join the Taliban. The insurgency used
to be mostly a business. Now it’s also about revenge.”
I had made the same point in 2003 in an
article written for Security Dialogue, an academic journal.
Farrell concludes the US should have
declared victory and gone home in 2002. After 17 years of fighting, faced with
a resurgent Taliban, the US seems anxious about bringing the Taliban to the
peace table, declaring victory, and leaving honourably.
It is unclear whether the Trump
administration, known for its ham-fisted dealings even with its allies, let
alone with its enemies, has the diplomatic smarts to needed to make this
Furthermore, if the Taliban senses that the
enemy is on the run, why would they seek a compromise?