Last Updated: Nov 23, 2010
Over the weekend the leaders of NATO unanimously agreed to start withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014. Timed so as not to clash with the expected re-election bid of the US president Barack Obama in 2012, the announcement comes at a moment when the US-led war against al Qa’eda and the Taliban is being escalated, not scaled down. The agreement on Afghanistan arrives as the US is placing pressure on Pakistan to expand the war to the restive, large province of Balochistan. Both decisions reflects a dangerous over-reliance on heavy-handed military solutions to regional problems that are largely political in nature.
It is difficult to conceive now, but in 2002, following the US invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, the Taliban were largely defeated and al Qa’eda bereft of its ability to stage attacks from Afghan soil. As the US commenced its bombardment of Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed a willingness to hand Osama bin Laden over to the coalition forces, on the condition that the superpower provide them evidence of his culpability in the attacks on September 11, 2001 and that his extradition be to a neutral country and not the US.
The offer was rejected in October 2001, as was an earlier suggestion, mooted by the Taliban and sympathetic religious groups in neighbouring Pakistan, to try bin Laden before a domestic or international tribunal.
We have no way of knowing now whether those offers were genuine or even practical. But we know the results of the last eight years. US-led and Afghan forces meander through an increasingly violent and destabilising war that has killed thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals. The costs of conflict are clear.
Most ominous of all, the strategy of targeting insurgent commanders – often with unmanned drone strikes – has created space for younger, more radical leaders who are more ideologically inclined towards al Qa’eda’s world view than the Taliban’s more limited focus on Afghanistan.
The decision has also increased support for the Taliban in the region, although such sentiments are not without reservations. “If the Taliban succeed, it will mean Pakistan will go backwards,” said Sohail Janvi, a business man who lives in the semi-tribal city of Kohat in Pakistan, a few hours’ drive from the Afghan border. “But,” he adds, “the government gives us nothing [and] we do not want Americans here,” referring to the US drone strikes that have killed scores of civilians in the past four years in Afghanistan and also near the border with Pakistan.
People living close to Taliban-held parts of Pakistan’s Orakzai tribal agency say that they often hear drones whirling overhead like giant, distant flies. The drones do instill fear but whether or not they are particularly good at dividing terrorists from civilians is an open question. The panic caused by the drones has also done much to support well-worn and crudely simplistic conceptions of the United States as a cruel empire bent on subjugating the Muslim world.
The Obama administration has escalated the drone strikes in its first two years, undertaking nearly four times as many attacks in that time than occurred in all eight years of the Bush presidency.
The Taliban are indeed repressive fanatics who marginalise women and have provided sanctuary to al Qa’eda. But escalating the US-led war in Afghanistan and Pakistan has transformed the Taliban into a Pashtun freedom force in a way that no rebel leader could have done on his own.
“Yes, they are freedom fighters because they are fighting against what they call foreign occupation of Afghanistan,” says Daud Khattak, a journalist based in Peshawar. “The Taliban don’t fight for political gain or money but want freedom from American slavery,” explained a resident of Dir, a mountainous Pashtun region bordering the tribal areas.
So long as the West’s presence in Afghanistan is primarily defined by military force, its relationship to ordinary Afghans will be based primarily on violence. By their very nature, armies must intimidate and coerce the population into accepting their authority. The coalition’s most important local allies in the three provinces of Afghanistan hardest hit by the insurgency are warlords who are widely believed to have grown rich and powerful by keeping civilians in fear and capitalising on the drug trade.
But Afghan warlords are notoriously fickle, switching sides as the fortunes of war change. A number of key Islamist warlord allies of the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, for example, are ideologically identical to the Taliban but chose to throw their lot with the US-backed Afghan leader as a matter of expediency.
By contrast, the Taliban say that they fight for freedom from western influence. Its core membership still considers Mullah Omar its leader and, over the last nine years, has not wavered from calling for foreign troops to withdraw. Rahimullah Yusufzai, the first journalist to interview Omar when the Taliban first emerged from Kandahar in 1994, says that talk of negotiating with the Taliban is premature. “They are confident, [and] in no mood to talk. Even if it takes another decade, they would wait for foreign troops to withdraw before taking negotiations seriously,” Mr Yusufzai says.
In the face of this reality, America’s ability to change Afghanistan is dramatically limited. Now is the time for US-led forces to shift responsibility for securing Afghanistan to regional powers like China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and even Russia, who are are better situated to assist the troubled country. Even this is far from a simple or foolproof option. But local and regional actors are better suited to forge a peace through political means because they have the most to lose from instability in Afghanistan.
With their troops already in the country, the US and its ISAF allies could then help mediate a power arrangement underwritten by regional powers. But as the US-led forces continue their current escalation, it is not at all clear that they will be in a position to withdraw even in 2014.
[This article appeared in The National newspaper on Tuesday November 23, 2010: http://www.thenational.ae/the-national-conversation/comment/natos-tactics-and-timetable-strengthen-afghan-radicals?pageCount=0]