Afghans Can Win This War

The fight in Afghanistan is difficult, but with a strategy that fully empowers the Afghan people to defeat the Taliban, it is still winnable.

It was the spring of 2001. I was in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, together with my brother Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban, and Bismullah Khan, who currently serves as Afghanistan's interior minister. One of our commanders, Commandant Momin, wanted us to see 30 Taliban fighters who had been taken hostage after a gun battle. My brother agreed to meet them.

I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, "There are still many sun- worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?"

Indeed, the Taliban are prepared to go very far in their jihad. They will spare no human life or piece of their country's history in their attempt to remake Afghanistan in their image. If it were within their powers, they would not even stop with the sun.

I was thinking about this episode recently when, at the July 20 conference in Kabul, international powerbrokers rededicated themselves to seeing the mission in Afghanistan through to the end. "We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Too many nations … have suffered too many losses to see this country slide backward."

It will be no small feat to match the Taliban's commitment. Over the duration of this nine-year conflict, U.S. and European leaders have discovered that it will take more than the same old methods to fix Afghanistan. Rather, what is needed is a new understanding of the complex dynamics of the current war and of Afghan society as a whole.

NATO members are increasingly showing concern over the lack of progress in the counterinsurgency campaign, which has concentrated on the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. So far, the results have been mixed: Although the 15,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops who participated in the military operation in Helmand's Marja district largely managed to clear the area of insurgents, the process of establishing legitimate and trusted institutions and security forces in the region will remain on the agenda for a long time.

The military operation in Kandahar will likely experience similarly inconclusive results if NATO and Afghan forces fail to counter the Taliban strategy in the area. To lay the groundwork for the Kandahar operation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled twice to the province; he was followed by a joint Afghan-U.S. delegation led by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These officials were right to make Kandahar the centerpiece of their efforts to combat the insurgency. Along with Helmand, this area forms the core of the Taliban's stronghold in Afghanistan; it is the source of the group's most ideologically committed fighters and also the home of most of its leadership. Helmand in particular is also an important source of revenue for the Taliban: The province accounts for nearly 50 percent of the world's opium production, and profits from the drug trade are funneled back into the insurgency.

Kandahar and Helmand are also important geographic links connecting the Taliban's insurgent network in Pakistan to the rest of Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura, the council of Taliban leaders that includes Mullah Omar, reportedly resides on the other side of the Pakistani border in Baluchistan. Quetta and the neighboring areas play a crucial role in the supply, finance, and management of the insurgency. From these safe havens, militants now have easy access to Helmand and Kandahar -- and from there can spread out across Afghanistan.

Helmand and Kandahar are not only top priorities for the Afghan government and NATO forces -- the region is a top priority for the Taliban as well. The insurgency has exploited its enemies' mistakes, conducting a war of attrition in the region that is designed to sap the American and European will to fight.

The Taliban's strategy has so far met with success. It has succeeded in expanding the insurgency from its southern heartland all the way to northern Afghanistan. In the process, it has recruited a large number of new Taliban fighters to its cause: NATO officials estimate that the number of Taliban fighters grew from 400 in 2004 to approximately 30,000 today.

To reverse the Taliban's gains, the international community and the Afghan government must recognize that, in addition to following basic tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine, there are a number of unique aspects of Helmand and Kandahar that will affect the potential success or failure of their mission.

Most importantly, controlling the Pakistani border, which abuts long sections of Kandahar and Helmand, must be a top priority for international forces. The interlinking network of insurgent groups, from Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura to the forces led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, sponsor attacks within Afghanistan and also play an important role linking al Qaeda to the Taliban. Diminishing their capabilities is a precondition for success in Afghanistan.

Striking a crucial blow against the insurgents can only take place with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. The international community must pressure Pakistan to deploy enough force on its side of the border to stop further cross-border movement of insurgents. Our sad experience over the last nine years has demonstrated how the Taliban used the undefended border with Pakistan to strike the Afghan people and international forces. Some pessimists have argued that securing the frontier with Pakistan is impossible, due to the mountainous terrain and vast 2,430-kilometer border. They cite the failures of the Soviet Army and previous Afghan governments, which were unable to exercise effective control of the region.

However, given the current cooperation between the Afghan government and NATO forces, these arguments should not hold. Proper monitoring of the border will require hard work by the Afghan government and ISAF, utilizing both hard and soft power. For its part, ISAF must commit the manpower and resources to strictly monitor and control the movement of goods and people. Meanwhile, the Afghan government should strive to develop efficient and scrupulous institutions in these long-neglected areas, in order to convince the Afghan people that they have a stake in stemming the flow of insurgents coming across the Pakistani border.

This may seem a daunting task. But Afghans, Americans, and Europeans alike should realize that, even if the war effort succeeds on all other fronts but fails to protect the border, the struggle against the insurgents will be lost.

ISAF and the Afghan security forces must also work to prevent the creation of new Taliban supporters inside the country. The government has so far tried to achieve this result through a top-down approach, flooding regions with international aid and attempting to impose solutions by bringing in greater numbers of troops. But recruiting and training more Afghan police and Army units will not be enough to win the support of the population. The solution must form through a bottom-up approach that provides locals with ownership over their own communities and encourages efforts to challenge the Taliban's authority.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is virtually no popular enthusiasm for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, the support is not genuine and largely comes from lack of a better option. The Afghan people have suffered at the Taliban's hands for more than 16 years. Afghans generally consider the Taliban as a foreign force, sponsored by Pakistan, which imposes its will through violence, terror, and fear. The Afghan government and its allies should exploit the Taliban's dismal reputation to their own advantage.

So far, the government has missed an opportunity to use the media to advertise the Taliban's shortcomings and rally its supporters in popular protests against the insurgency. The voice of the people must be heard on this matter. Media, civil society, and local leaders should open channels to express popular resentment against the Taliban -- and ISAF and the Afghan security forces should publicly commit to ensuring their safety when they undertake these efforts.

There is a great potential in local, bottom-up action: No one should underestimate the commitment and power of ordinary Afghans. It was ordinary Afghans who successfully resisted 150,000 Soviet soldiers and won the war with far less international backing than the Afghan government receives today.

The impact of these missed opportunities is beginning to be felt by the Afghan government's international partners. War fatigue is beginning to grip Europe and the United States. Under public pressure, Canada has already announced its withdrawal from Kandahar, and the Netherlands is very likely to follow suit in the wake of the collapse of its cabinet over the issue of extending its mission in Uruzgan. Obama has also announced that the United States will commence a gradual troop withdrawal in 2011. It is clear that Afghanistan's allies face serious economic and political limitations at home and cannot function as an unending source of support.

The outcome of the operations in Kandahar and Helmand has the potential to reverse this gloomy state of affairs. A victory would be a boon to the counterinsurgency campaign, possibly even leading some governments to reconsider their planned troop withdrawals. Discernible progress would also allow NATO forces to begin the important task of transferring responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Army, a crucial step for the Afghan government in reassuming control over its own security.

For these reasons, much hinges on the campaign currently being waged in Afghanistan's southern provinces. The Afghan government and its international partners must act jointly and swiftly for these operations to succeed. Only then can Afghans finally achieve the peace they have long strived for, and will U.S. and European leaders rest assured that this country will no longer act as an incubator for extremists who threaten not only Afghanistan's population, but the entire world. This war is tiresome, but it can be won.



With Friends Like These...

It’s time to wake up, Washington. Pakistan’s military is running the show in Islamabad, and the WikiLeaks revelations have only confirmed that supporting jihadi terrorist groups aren’t the actions of a few, rogue generals -- it’s government strategy.

Until recently, the relationship between Islamabad and New Delhi seemed to be going relatively well. Tempers had calmed in the wake of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, substantive discussions at the bureaucratic level were well under way, and the highest levels of government had given their blessing to joint diplomatic talks held on July 16. But things have turned sour -- as they often do on the subcontinent -- with a remarkable quickness.

Two seemingly unrelated events of the past two weeks have illustrated a fundamental problem with the nature of the Indo-Pakistani relationship. The first was the breakdown of the talks in Islamabad. At their press conference following the closed-door meeting, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi excoriated the Indian home secretary for publicly announcing that David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American charged with involvement in the Mumbai attacks, had worked closely with Pakistani intelligence. The outburst brought an acrimonious end to the carefully planned talks.

The second was the decision of three news organizations to simultaneously publish significant excerpts from a trove of classified documents made available by WikiLeaks, the self-described global whistleblower website. The documents alleged that over the past several years, despite public professions of close cooperation with the United States on the antiterrorism front, Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate had actually abetted and aided the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Beyond these startling revelations, the documents also charged that the ISI had provided information to insurgents about U.S. troop movements, their likely operations, and military capabilities.

Both developments highlight the disturbing dominance of Pakistan's permanent military establishment and their ongoing ties to jihadi groups. Even though a civilian regime assumed office in Pakistan in September 2008, the country's military has experienced little or no change. Gen. Pervez Musharraf's hand-picked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, though nominally subservient to the civilian regime, remains primus inter pares. And the security establishment that he presides over has not lost sight of its two cardinal and related principles: unremitting hostility toward India and the need for a pliable regime in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's military has long cultivated ties with a host of religious militants, but the notion that it might be convinced to abandon its use of asymmetric war strategies in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir seems increasingly unlikely. Contrary to popular belief, the security establishment's links with these groups is not of recent vintage. Pakistan has used jihadi proxies to varying effect against India since the first war following partition in 1947. They were also the basis for another assault against India in 1965.

Of course, the use of jihadis reached its peak under the leadership of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets departed, the ISI played a decisive role in the Afghan civil war that brought the Taliban to power. By installing that regime in Kabul, Pakistan's security establishment realized its long-sought goal of "strategic depth" against India.

Meanwhile, thanks to India's ineptitude in the handling of political demands in its Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, an insurgency there erupted in 1989. Almost immediately, the Pakistani security establishment sent in its militant surrogates, transforming a domestic rebellion into a well-funded, externally supported, and religiously oriented extortion racket.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, General Musharraf was coerced by the United States to cut his ties to the Taliban and a plethora of other jihadi organizations. Musharraf, however, didn't want to lose Pakistan's strategic assets in Afghanistan and Kashmir. So even as he delivered a handful of key al Qaeda leaders including Abu Farraj al-Libi, reputedly the group's third in command, he did little or nothing to curb the activities of other jihadi organizations, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two of the largest and most active Islamist terrorist organizations in South Asia. Instead, they were allowed to operate with considerable impunity from a number of encampments within Pakistan.

Even in the wake of the Lashkar-organized Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani security establishment chose to coddle its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. Under substantial American and Indian pressure, he was briefly placed under house arrest. Shortly thereafter, though, two Pakistani courts declared that there was insufficient evidence linking him to the Mumbai attacks and he was allowed free to resume peddling venomous anti-Indian and anti-Jewish propaganda.

Just weeks before the WikiLeaks episode, stories had started to surface in the American press about Lashkar attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. Fearful that growing evidence of the group's involvement in Afghanistan could hurt relations with Pakistan, the Pentagon chose to play down the significance of the attacks. But in the aftermath of the WikiLeaks allegations, it is hard to see how these concerns can now be swept under a rug.

The American and the Pakistani political establishments are now scrambling to contain the diplomatic damage from this week's revelations -- stressing that the evidence is dated and that U.S. policy and Pakistani behavior have changed significantly since the Obama administration entered office.

Don't bet on it. In its quest to establish a firm political foothold in Afghanistan after the American military drawdown in July 2011, Pakistan's security establishment will soon insist that Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul make peace with two of its most reliable proxies, the forces loyal to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Taliban network of Sirajuddin Haqqani. Not only will Pakistan have managed to reinstall a pliant regime in Afghanistan, but will also have dramatically limited what Islamabad sees as a dagger pointed at its heart -- India's growing influence to the northwest.

Simply put, the military establishment simply does not want peace with India. Meaningful progress on contentious bilateral issues would inevitably call into question its extraordinary privileges and its lavish existence. Likewise, it has little or no interest in full-fledged counterterrorism cooperation with the United States. A swift and decisive end to the swarm of jihadis operating within Pakistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would mean an end to the seemingly unending flow of American largesse. The time has now arrived for the Obama administration to undertake a policy review that explores alternative logistics supply routes into Afghanistan and one that will lower the boom on Pakistan -- unless it shows tangible and immediate progress on the counterterrorism cooperation front. A policy that falls short on these two counts is an invitation for the continued loss of blood and treasure to no viable end.