How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan
By now, almost all the likely outcomes of US strategy in Afghanistan are bad ones. They range from unending civil war, with government forces barely managing to hold their own against the Taliban, to de facto partition of the country. There is a chance that the Taliban would accept a settlement involving a timetable for the complete withdrawal of US forces and a neutral central government of respected Muslim figures, together with de facto Taliban control of the Pashtun heartland in the south and Western economic aid. In return they would have to promise to exclude Al Qaeda and crack down on opium cultivation in their areas (as they did in 2000).
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.