Tag Archives: AfPak

The Benefits of Taliban Governance

Thomas Barfield suggest structural changes the US and Afghan governments can implement to avoid both the dissolution of the Afghan state and a civil war within in. Among these suggestions are the recognition of political parties – to weaken ethnic and regional networks who “owe their strength not to popular enthusiasm but to a simple lack of alternatives” – and the devolution of power to local authorities, akin to the democratic federal system in the US, as a structure to provide stability.

Barfield, a Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and one of the smartest observers writing about Afghanistan, also shares these thoughts on incorporating the Taliban into local governments:

Opening up provincial and district governorships to competition would provide the safest form of power sharing with the Taliban. Whereas non-Pashtun Afghans oppose granting the Taliban a role in the national government, they have few objections to former (or even current) Taliban members serving in districts or provinces where they have local support. Allowing the Taliban to serve in a democratic government would likely lead to beneficial fissures within the Taliban, since those who come to hold positions in local government would have less reason to remain loyal to the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. Participating in a coalition government would put much different pressures on Taliban members from those they faced when they essentially ruled as dictators in the 1990s. The stated goal of the Taliban’s central command — seizing power nationwide — would immediately clash with the interests of these local commanders turned politicians. Similarly, the need for these governors to deliver services and patronage to their own districts would increase their incentives to cooperate with those who could provide such aid: namely, the government in Kabul and its international allies.

The article, “Afghanistan’s Ethnic Puzzle,” is also recommended for those, well, trying to understand Afghanistan’s ethnic puzzle. That understanding requires the acknowledgment of the ever-changing links and loyalties that unite and fracture Afghanistan’s regional, ethnic, and religious groups, and the avoidance of simple deductions and conclusions.

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Dick Cheney vs. Joshua Rovner and Austin Long

Dick Cheney:

In my view, the most important lesson to be learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s is what happened after the Soviets left. The United States turned its attentions elsewhere, and Afghanistan descended into civil war. The resultant instability and eventual takeover of the country by the Taliban meant that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists were able to find a safe haven there. Throughout the late 1990s, thousands of terrorists were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and it became the base for the attacks of 9/11. When I hear policy-makers talk about walking away from Afghanistan, I want to remind them of what the consequences can be.

(From In My Time, p. 347.)

Not so, say Joshua Rovner and Austin Long in a CATO Institute Foreign Policy Briefing.

They point out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that state-building and counterterrorism are inseparable. Obama’s national security strategy states that, “In Afghanistan, we must deny al Qaeda a safe haven, deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government, and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

First of all, that argument is not even practical. Rovner and Long explain:

Unfortunately, the necessary ingredients for successful state building—time, money, and existing institutions—are in desperately short supply in Afghanistan. Public and congressional opposition to the war is rising in the United States, and the Obama administration has already announced it will scale back the U.S. commitment beginning next year. In addition, Afghanistan’s political and economic institutions are extremely weak. The fledgling government has had enormous difficulty expanding control outside of Kabul. The judiciary, which is notoriously inefficient, competes in many places with a shadow Taliban court system. Economic institutions remain fragile at best; witness the recent run on the Kabul Bank. For all of these reasons, the U.S. desire to build a strong and legitimate government in Afghanistan is not practical.

“The good news,” they explain, “is that it is not necessary.”

A state-building failure would not mean victory for al Qaeda or the Taliban. Even if the United States substantially reduces its ground forces in Afghanistan and the Kabul government remains weak and ineffectual, al Qaeda would not be able to recreate anything like the safe haven it once enjoyed. The original circumstances that made sanctuary possible no longer exist today.

Why? First of all, if the Taliban were to regain control over parts of Afghanistan, there are significant costs to pay (i.e. airstrikes), which they know well. There would be little hesitation from either American political party about using air assets for such operations. It is much more likely that al Qaeda will have to remain in hiding for the foreseeable future. This was proven in the Korengal Valley in 2010, when al Qaeda attempted to reestablish itself in an area that coalition forces had left, only to be greeted by U.S. aircraft informed by Afghan sources on the ground.

Second, the Afghan Taliban have some support from the Pakistani ISI. Al Qaeda does as well, but they will most likely elect to just stay in their current sanctuary. Pakistani militants, an enemy of the Pakistani government, do not have such support from the ISI. The Afghan Taliban would not risk their ISI support by extending a welcome to Pakistani militants if the Taliban were to return to Afghanistan.

Thus, if the Taliban return to Afghanistan, they have no incentive to welcome neither al Qaeda nor Pakistani militants. If they welcome the former, the U.S. will certainly retaliate. If they welcome the latter, no one will stop Pakistan from attacking.

As Rovner and Long conclude:

The upshot of this analysis is that state building is not necessary to succeed in Afghanistan. The decline of the central state will not lead to a domino effect in the region. Al Qaeda will not be able to recreate its old safe haven there even if the government collapses. Pakistani militants will not find reliable sanctuary either, regardless of what happens in Kabul. Rather than investing heavily in state building, the United States can achieve its interests by streamlining its counterterrorism campaign. It does not need to become mired in the bloody business of Afghanistan’s political evolution.

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The Firefight in Kabul

When the BBC reported yesterday that “Afghan and international security forces have been battling a multi-pronged attack by insurgents targeting the US embassy, Nato headquarters and police buildings in Kabul,” I became worried that the Taliban and opposition forces were becoming stronger and emboldened. The attacked seemed well planned and organized: the attackers arrived in burkas so they wouldn’t be searched, and were armed with “rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), heavy machine guns and hand grenades, as well as biscuits and energy drinks,” as if expecting a long firefight.

But how bad was it? According to the New York Times:

The American ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, played down the attack as “harassment” that had made for a hard day at the embassy but was not a game-changer.
“This really is not a very big deal,” Mr. Crocker said. “If that’s the best they can do, you know, I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness.”

The initial reports state that the attackers are believed to be part of the Haqqani Network, a Pakistani group affiliated with the Taliban. If this is so, it is further evidence that Pakistan is far more important strategically than Afghanistan, or at least that the stability of Afghanistan is dependent on the stability of Pakistan. “Mr. Crocker indicated that such attacks were likely to continue because the insurgency had strong support in Pakistan.”

NATO posted two videos of the firefight on Youtube.

The second video is here.


Simon Gass, the senior civilian NATO representative in AF, also offered, in the same NYT article linked, what must be the worst metaphor I’ve read in a while:

“Afghanistan is a little like a boxer,” said Simon Gass, the senior civilian NATO representative in Afghanistan. “It is going to take some blows along the way, but it will keep coming forward, and it will prevail over its enemy.”

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Rory Stewart on Ending the War in Afghanistan

Or at least our participation in it. I linked this TED talk in the previous post, but this video deserves its own post. The whole video is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

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A ‘Good Enough’ Afghan Army

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it will drastically cut U.S. funds for training the Afghan Army, which remains the central pillar of America’s strategy in AF – as they build up, we scale down. The LA Times reports, “The cutbacks, along with already planned reductions, would shrink annual U.S. expenditures on Afghan security forces from nearly $13 billion to well below $6 billion in 2014, the officials said. The Pentagon has spent more than $39 billion to build up the fledgling forces over the last six years.” So the “drastically” lower expenditures will be only slightly less than the average of the last six years.

Yet how do we define “good enough?”

Despite intensive training efforts, the Afghan army — and, to a greater extent, the national police force — remains beset by drug use, illiteracy and high desertion rates. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have repeatedly infiltrated both forces, and “turncoat” attacks by Afghans in uniform have killed and injured dozens of Western troops over the last two years.

All knew that the funding couldn’t continue at current levels given the worsening fiscal problems in the US and the EU and the lack of visible and significant improvements in AF. This shouldn’t be too surprising. But GEN Allen and his team will have to implement an exit strategy with a faster withdrawal timeline than they requested and with less money to train the ANA and ANP, and there is little they can do about it. Obama seems “more comfortable with a military strategy that relies heavily on drone aircraft strikes in neighboring Pakistan and nightly raids by special operations forces against Afghan militants, while trimming the American military presence and budget to politically acceptable levels.”

Supporters of the current strategy and opponents of Obama will certainly argue that this puts the entire strategy and mission in jeopardy. But it’s been in jeopardy from the beginning. TOTPS will take seriously their counter-arguments as long as they don’t declare 2011/2 as the “decisive” year. (Start at 8:43.)

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