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PORTSIDE  December 2010, Week 3

PORTSIDE December 2010, Week 3

Subject:

How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan

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Date:

Mon, 20 Dec 2010 00:43:41 -0500

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (172 lines)

How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan
Anatol Lieven
The Nation
December 16, 2010 This article appeared in the January
3, 2011 edition of The Nation.

Given that most ordinary Taliban fighters, as expressed
in a survey organized by Graeme Smith of the Toronto
Globe and Mail, want the exit of Western troops and a
Muslim (but not necessarily Taliban) government, it's
likely that the rejection of such terms by the Taliban
leadership would undermine their support on the ground.
This solution would, however, be heavily dependent on
the help of Pakistan as a mediator and as one of the
regional guarantors of the subsequent settlement.

The top leadership of the Afghan Taliban is based in
Pakistani Baluchistan under the protection of Pakistani
military intelligence, and Pakistan has prevented the
United States from launching drone attacks on them there
(in contrast with the intensive campaign against targets
in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the
north). Taliban forces use Pakistani territory for rest
and recuperation, with the support of the local Pashtun
population. Pakistan also has close ties to the two
other Afghan Pashtun Islamist forces allied to the
Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and
the Haqqani network in the Afghan region of Greater
Paktika. All of this gives Pakistan considerable
influence over the Afghan Taliban-though it must be
stressed that this influence is also limited. Any
settlement brokered by Pakistan would have to be one the
Taliban could accept without humiliation.

But if Pakistan is vital to a settlement, Pakistan is
also vital in itself. It cannot be emphasized too
strongly that the survival of Pakistan, not Afghanistan,
is the most important issue for Western and global
security in that region. With six times Afghanistan's
population, plus nuclear weapons, a highly trained
500,000-man army and a huge diaspora (especially in
Britain), Pakistan would increase the international
terrorist threat by orders of magnitude if it collapsed.
There is a widespread (though exaggerated) view in the
West that the weakness of the Pakistani state and the
strength of Islamist support makes the country's
collapse a real possibility. Leaving aside the danger
(as exposed by WikiLeaks) of nuclear materials and
skills reaching terrorist groups, the disintegration of
the Pakistani army, with its highly trained engineers
and anti-aircraft forces, would vastly increase the
"conventional" terrorist threat to India and the West.

It was therefore with horror that I recently heard that
the diminished threat from Al Qaeda means that some
Western security officials are suggesting that the West
can afford to put much more pressure on Islamabad to
attack Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's border region,
even though this may lead to greater destabilization
within Pakistan. This is lunatic reasoning. The
diminished power of Al Qaeda should be cause for the
United States and NATO to find ways to withdraw from
Afghanistan, not step up the fight against the Taliban-
since it was to fight Al Qaeda that we went there in the
first place. As for the terrorist threat to the West,
this has never come from the Afghan Taliban-but it
increasingly comes from the Pakistani Taliban and their
allies, as the case of attempted Times Square bomber
Faisal Shahzad demonstrates.

Unfortunately, the current US strategy is headed in the
opposite direction from using Pakistan to broker a
settlement, and toward an intensified fight against the
Taliban and intensified pressure on Pakistan. Even
worse, there are barely the rudiments of a Plan B if
that strategy fails. If it proves impossible to
strengthen the Afghan National Army sufficiently within
the next two years, the options will be stark: either US
forces will have to fight on in Afghanistan indefinitely
or they will have to accept the probable loss of the
south and east of the country and either unending civil
war or de facto partition through bloody war rather than
negotiated agreement. Among other things, all these
options will be bad for Pakistan, especially if India is
drawn into much greater support for the anti-Taliban
forces in Afghanistan. This would in effect lead to an
Indo-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan.

It is worth looking closely at Soviet strategy in
Afghanistan, for the current US approach is a variant of
that strategy, albeit with serious-and potentially
disastrous-differences. This is to build up the Afghan
army to the point where it can hold the main population
centers against the insurgents, even as the United
States and NATO try to break off as many of those
insurgents as possible through a mixture of bribery and
military pressure.

This is not in itself a mistaken approach. After all,
Soviet strategy succeeded. Backed by Soviet airpower,
the Afghan army the Soviets left behind inflicted a
shattering defeat on the mujahedeen in Jalalabad in the
spring of 1989 (I was there on the mujahedeen side, as a
young journalist for the Times of London). And with the
Soviets gone, the nationalist element in hostility to
the Kabul regime diminished, as educated and urban
Afghans began to focus on what a victory of fanatical
and brutalized rural guerrillas would mean for them.

The Afghan communist regime actually outlived the Soviet
Union, collapsing only when Soviet subsidies ended. If
one assumes that, following its withdrawal from
Afghanistan, the United States is not going to imitate
the Soviet Union by abandoning its global role, adopting
communism and disintegrating as a state, it is by no
means implausible to imagine that the Afghan army,
backed by US arms, money and airpower and facing a
divided opposition, could hold off the Taliban after US
ground forces withdraw.

There are, however, immense problems, moral and
practical, with this approach, and with how it is being
pursued in detail by the US forces. Equally important,
not merely does the United States not possess a Plan B
but much of what the US military is doing will make the
creation of a viable Plan B very difficult.

The moral problem is that under this strategy the
guerrilla war in Afghanistan will go on indefinitely,
albeit perhaps-but only perhaps-at a gradually
diminishing rate of violence. There will be no incentive
for the Taliban leadership or their hardline followers
to reach a settlement; and a Kabul regime that is bound
to be more and more dominated by the military is also
highly unlikely to seek such a settlement. Moreover, as
long as the counterinsurgency continues, the Taliban
will have every incentive to go on working with Al Qaeda
and terrorist groups in Pakistan, which can provide them
with limited but useful expertise in everything from the
construction of IEDs to medical services.

Equally important, the present Afghan state and army
suffer from very important weaknesses compared with the
Soviet-backed regime. Put simply, the Soviets inherited
the still recognizable core of the old Afghan royal
state and army as these had existed since the 1880s,
together with their tradition of defending the cities
and centers of government against a variety of tribal
and religious rebels. Moreover, the old army was chiefly
Pashtun in composition, and the man the Soviets chose to
take over the state they left behind, Najibullah Khan,
was a strongly Pashtun figure with prestige among some
of the Pashtun tribes.

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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