Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban

It's really no secret that the Taliban have experienced a resurgence since the invasion and their toppling in 2001. But coverage of the situation in Afghanistan suffers from the fact that in our eyes, the importance of Afghanistan rates a distant second to Iraq. And it's true that the violence in Afghanistan matches neither the scale nor the brutality of the violence in Iraq. But it's also true that Afghanistan has become Iraq on a "slow burn" and that everyday we and the rest of the NATO forces in Iraq seem to be losing ground steadily to Taliban fighters that never really went away.

It's also well-known that there are those in Pakistan who are highly sympathetic to and supportive of the Taliban. What I think is largely unknown, is the extent to which members of the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, have been permitted to cross back and forth in and out of Pakistan from day one of the invasion in 2001. I've followed coverage of events in Afghanistan pretty closely since the invasion, and have been writing about the steady degeneration of the security situation in Afghanistan almost since this blog started, and yet this episode of PBS' Frontline was nothing short of a revelation to me. It describes vast, ungoverned provinces in western Pakistan, where Pakistani government forces fear to tread, and which have served as a shelter and home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who fled the invasion (including the infamous Mullah Mohammed Omar), and where it is presumed bin Laden is now holed up.

It is not overstating the case to say that Al Qaeda and the Taliban operate with impunity in these regions. I don't know whether Richard Armitage really threatened that we would bomb Pakistan back into the stone age if they didn't act to prevent militants moving back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan border and operating freely in Pakistan, but Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf did in fact takes steps to crack down on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, moving troops into the western provinces that had largely governed themselves for decades to hunt for militants fleeing our forces in Afghanistan. In the wake of 9/11 such operations were tolerated at first, but by 2004, after mis-steps and assassination attempts traced to militants in South and North Waziristan, a situation of near open war existed between Pashtun tribesmen, members of the Taliban and members of Al Qaeda and Pakistani forces. This culminated in a peace deal between the tribes of Waziristan and the Pakistani government, where the government largely ceded control back to the tribes, and essentially abandoned all efforts to destroy Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

The simple fact is Musharraf is in no position to deny the Taliban and Al Qaeda the ability to operate inside of Pakistan, no matter how much we may wish that he would. Much of Pakistani society is at least sympathetic to the Taliban, if not downright hostile to us, and the tribesman of the western provinces are the natural constituency of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-like terrorists. And the Pakistani government, military and the intelligent service (the ISI), are especially sympathetic to the Taliban, and have provided significant support to Taliban militants even as we've battled them in Afghanistan (see Seymour Hersh on how the ISI was permitted to evacuate their personnel in Afghanistan in the wake of the invasion, along with hundreds or more of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.) And Musharref is forced to negotiate a delicate balance between his relationship with us, his hold on power, and his enemies among militant Muslims who would like nothing more than to kill him and seize the reigns of power (and by at least one report, were preparing to do just that in an aborted coup attempt in which members of Al Qaeda inflitrated the Pakistani government.)

The situation than is this: as in Iraq, we do not have a sizeable enough forces to provide the security that Afghanistan needs for the central government under Hamid Karzai to expand it's authority and control. Unlike in Iraq, the situation is not yet irreversible; Afghanistan is, after all, on a slow burn. Unfortunately, forces of the Taliban easily cross in and out of their safe havens in western Pakistan, and Al Qaeda utilizes those regions as their new de facto home. And there are many in those regions, and in Pakistan in general, who favor militant Islamic movements and do not favor their current ruler, and who are almost certainly continuing to plot his downfall. And to top it all off, Pakistan has nukes...nukes that would fall into the hands of a government hostile to the United States and allied with terrorists if Musharref falls.

For these reasons, it's clear that "fixing" Afghanistan, were we ever to decide to put a serious effort into it, will require more than simply sending more troops to Afghanistan (though that would be a good start.) The instability in Afghanistan has already in some sense spread beyond the borders of that country into Pakistan, and it will require a considerable commitment of time and effort to the region to cut off the Taliban and Al Qaeda from their safe havens in western Pakistan, and eventually bring peace and stability to the country. Of course, doing so requires some kind of resolution in Iraq. Given our current political climate, that is almost certainly still years away, and what more opportunities will we have lost in Afghanistan in the meantime?


Fan Boy said...

This civil war is not between one country and another, it is about the larger fractions of Islam. These fractions use the WEST to gain support because initially telling them hating your neighbor is hard to accept.

However once hate takes root it is easy to turn that hate towards their neighbor. The US is an enemy to them, but not their final objective, just a tool to get to their point.

copy editor said...

The British military and intelligence services are very worried that their country faces a grave threat from al Qaeda, which has reconstituted in Pakistan and Afghanistan.