U.S. military stands guard
following Taliban suicide attack
in Kabul on October 6
(Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images)
There are 40,000 to 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan waging a "war on terror" or at least, a war on further chaos. And in his October address to Parliament, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared to some to suggest there may soon be more. Claiming that in Afghanistan there is at least a chance of success, Brown intimated that British troops withdrawn from Iraq may be sent to Afghanistan.
The Brits, like the Americans, ponder whether they want their troops in harms way on behalf of troubles that may appear to have scant direct relationship to their own nation's well being.
But there is yet another question worth pondering: whether foreign military intervention is helping the Afghans with their national security problem. It may not be, but in a typical paradox of wartime, leaving the country's warlords to reconfigure Afghanistan on their own may be a terrible idea as well.
A quick snapshot of where Afghanistan stands
The war on terrorism in Afghanistan is not going very well. Although Afghanistan was claimed as a triumph following the quick downfall of the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001, those close to the situation could have reported then what became glaringly evident five years later: the Taliban never were fully routed, and certainly not from the provincial areas beyond the capital, Kabul.
In 2006, the Taliban openly pledged a campaign of destructive violence on foreign troops in Afghanistan. They have kept good on their word. A promised "a wave" of suicide bombs during the Islamic month long holiday, Ramadan (September 13 – October 12) has materialized, killing civilians, Afghan military and foreign soldiers.
As for Al Qaeda, they have put down stakes next door in Pakistan's northwest provinces. From there, they reportedly provide resources for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan while also helping transfrom significant chunks of Pakistan into an independently governed, extremist state.
Military commitments to Afghanistan wavering, but still strong
Military efforts in Afghanistan are run primarily under the auspices of a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In addition to NATO, the U.S. also has 26,000 troops in the country, serving on different missions. There are 37 nations contributing to the combat effort. Those with the largest number include the UK, Canada, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Both the Canadians and the Dutch have suggested they will pull troops soon. Australia remains unwavering, despite an Australian soldier's death on October 8, by roadside bomb. And about half of the Scottish infantry (1400 troops) is presently standing by for deployment.
Another indication of a military commitment in Afghanistan is the expansion of the U.S. Bagram Air Base. The base was originally intended to be a temporary barracks is now being rebuilt piece by piece – this time to last. This may prove to be a troubling symbol for all of the foreign forces, but especially for the U.S., since there is nothing like a foreign military base to raise local hackles, no matter where, no matter whom. Afghans are no different.
Evaluating the role of foreign troops
The primary role of NATO's forces in Afghanistan is to assist in stabilization and reconstruction, a task that is scuttled anew every time an IED or suicide bomb is exploded. At this impasse, President Karzai began offering to negotiate with the Taliban at the beginning of 2007, an offer he has made intermittently since.
In May, the Afghan Senate called for talks with Afghan Taliban, who it distinguished from Pakistan's Taliban, and also that a timetable for NATO withdrawal be prepared as soon as Afghan security could function independently. The dual call suggests a kind of subliminal recognition that conflict between the Taliban and NATO is a stumbling block to an organic Afghan political solution to stabilizing the country.
At the same time, the Catch-22 is all too obvious: how can the Afghan army and police reach any state of readiness, so that foreign troops can leave, when the foreign troops who are there to train the army keep being targeted for attack by the Taliban? As does the Afghan army itself – it lost tens of army and police members in attacks in September, 2007
The issue of foreign troops is not confined to the Afghan domestic arena. As Tarique Niazi, writing in Foreign Policy in Focus, explains, Pakistan, China and Russia all have an strategic interests in eliminating NATO's presence from Afghanistan.
Pakistan wants to see foreign troops leave, as their presence has increased its archrival India's influence with Kabul while diminishing its own. If foreign troops depart from Afghanistan, the 35,000-strong Afghan National Army will be hard put to hold back the Taliban. Absent external forces, they are bound to reclaim Kabul, and with it restore Islamabad's traditional strategic advantage.
The 'strategic advantage' to which Niazi refers is Pakistan's privileged relationship with the Taliban. As US intelligence reports of the 1990s (which were classified until August 2007) reveal, Pakistan provided direct support to the Taliban in that period. One intelligence cable, explains that:
For Pakistan, a Taliban-based government in Kabul would be as good as it can get in Afghanistan . . . . the Pakistanis also assume a Taliban-based government would be favorable to them and their goals in Central Asia, especially given the Taliban's attitudes towards Russia, Iran and—significantly—India [which Pakistan has a long-running territorial dispute with in Kashmir] … Many Pakistanis claim they detest the Taliban brand of Islam, nothing that it might infect Pakistan, but this is apparently a problem for another day.
Historical relationship between Pakistan and Taliban alters foreign troop considerations
In this historical light, the August 2007 jirga (council) convened by a a group of Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders to consider the possibilities of dialogue with the Taliban takes on a rather different cast, as does their desire to use Islamic forces, rather than NATO forces, to continue Afghanistan's reconstruction. This recommendation has also found an audience, as Niazi explains:
At a still larger scale, China and Russia are also getting impatient with the foreign presence in Afghanistan. In 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China and Russia as members, asked that the United States and NATO give a timetable for withdrawal of their forces. The Jirga's call for replacing NATO-U.S. troops with Islamic forces resonates in these larger circles.
It is in the light of the complex relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban, as well, that the advice of International Crisis Group's Nick Grono makes more sense. Grono argued in the spring of 2007 that building strong local institutions and a foreign military presence, rather than negotiations with the Taliban, are the only route to security in the long term.
As Grono explained, "'The international community must be prepared to provide the political cover and courage to the country's leadership to tackle corrupt and discredited powerbrokers rather than the present short-term strategy of simply drawing everyone, no matter how tainted, into the fold, creating a culture of impunity and corruption."
Grono also reminded readers that Taliban propaganda has powerful effect. Like other governments, the Afghan government must learn to respond not with more propaganda, but with measured communications. In the meantime, local institution building under international forces' cover will ultimately create the most solid state possible:
This is foremost a struggle for hearts and minds. The insurgents understand this all too well. They are conducting an effective propaganda campaign, giving television and radio interviews and distributing pamphlets to make themselves appear far more powerful and pervasive than they really are.
They routinely exaggerate or lie about the successes of the "mujaheddin of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" against what they describe as the "American Christian kafir terrorists occupation military-led NATO forces". In response the Government and its international allies are too often reactive at best, and frequently make claims that themselves defy credibility.
International forces must stay the distance - another decade at the very least - with increased emphasis on training and equipping Afghan security forces. While the international community can provide the security umbrella, it is ultimately local forces and institutions that will determine success against the insurgents.