How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan
In 2001 the United States smashed the Taliban quasi state, leaving Afghanistan essentially with no state, and no armed forces but the overwhelmingly non-Pashtun militias of the Northern Alliance. Although efforts to develop the army and bring more Pashtuns into it have been moderately successful, only a very small proportion of soldiers are from the southern areas that are the Taliban's stronghold. Whether the Afghan army will be able to hold the towns in these areas after the United States leaves is therefore highly questionable.
Finally, in one critical respect US strategy is out of step with Soviet strategy, as well as with Afghan tradition. This is in Washington's insistence that "reconciliation" requires Taliban commanders to leave the Taliban publicly, submit to the regime of Hamid Karzai and the "Afghan Constitution," renounce violence and lay down their arms. In the vast majority of cases, this is simply not going to happen. It is too humiliating, and in the event of a Taliban victory it would be an automatic death sentence. Meanwhile—as leading Karzai government officials have repeatedly indicated—US airstrikes and Special Forces assassinations are killing some of the very Taliban commanders who might be persuaded to abandon the struggle, even if they will never formally surrender.
The Soviets, like the British before them, pursued a very different and much more Afghan approach: instead of paying mujahedeen commanders to change sides publicly, they paid them to pretend to fight, or to fight to a limited extent in some places while keeping key communications routes open. This strategy was pursued by the Kabul regime before and after the Soviet withdrawal, using Soviet money. Such deals were an open secret when I traveled in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen, and at one point or another they were made by many of the leading mujahedeen commanders. By contrast, in the analysis of two leading younger experts on the Taliban, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (in a forthcoming book, The Enemy We Created: The Myth of a Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970–2010), the present strategy of killing midlevel Taliban commanders only clears the way for younger and far more radical figures to take their place.
If the United States continues this strategy indefinitely, the consequences for Pakistan could be dire. It has been argued (by the British military chief, Gen. Sir David Richards, for example, in Prospect magazine) that it is necessary to defeat the Afghan Taliban in order to protect Pakistan from Islamist extremism. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. More than any other factor, it is our campaign in Afghanistan that has radicalized Pakistanis and turned many of them not only against the West but against their own government and ruling system. In the worst case, the consequence of Western actions could be to destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison.
Western military forces are seen by the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis with whom I have spoken over the past three years as engaged in an illegal occupation. The Pakistani government's cooperation with the United States is seen as a deep national humiliation and a betrayal of fellow Muslims. I do not endorse these views myself, but it is essential to recognize just how deep and widespread they are, and that a fateful symmetry is at work: while Western officials and journalists complain constantly that the Pakistani army is not doing enough to help the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan's population regards it as doing far too much.
To put it at its bluntest, most Pakistanis see our presence in Afghanistan as closely akin to that of the Soviets from 1979 to 1989, and resistance to us as closely akin to the resistance of those days, and equally legitimate. These feelings are held not just by Islamists but by those Pakistanis—the great majority of the population—who have no desire to see a Taliban-style regime in their country; just as Pakistanis in the 1980s who sympathized with the Afghan mujahedeen had no desire to see such forces rule Pakistan. In other words, sympathy for the Afghan Taliban by no means necessarily equates to sympathy for the Pakistani Taliban. I have found the former sympathy among educated people in Karachi who detest the Taliban's social program but who are prepared to allow the Afghan Taliban at least some legitimacy as a "resistance movement."
In the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, the consequence first of the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s and now of the anti-American war has been to weaken still further the effectiveness and meaning of the frontier dividing the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is this ethno-religious solidarity, more than continuing support by the Pakistani state, that is providing the Afghan Taliban with their bases inside Pakistan. This support from large elements of the Pakistani population will continue as long as Western soldiers are present in Afghanistan. Their presence, as well as US drone strikes on targets in Pakistan, also helps legitimize the campaign of the Pakistani Taliban against the Pakistani state. Since the survival of that state is a US interest that vastly outweighs anything that might happen in Afghanistan, it follows that the US goal should be to reduce that presence as soon as this can be managed, not to follow a strategy that risks prolonging it indefinitely.
If we are going to start talking to Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership, we need to start doing so now—not in the expectation that this will lead to an early settlement but in the knowledge derived from all previous experiences that such negotiations typically last for years before reaching a conclusion. It will take some time for positions to become clear and requisite levels of trust to be created. In such negotiations intermediaries are also typically required—which, under the circumstances, can only be Pakistan. American and NATO troops should fight on to defend their existing positions and buy time for the Afghan army to develop, but attacks on Taliban commanders and drone strikes in Pakistan should be drastically scaled back. Above all, there should be no extension of these attacks to new areas of Pakistan in an effort to kill Mullah Omar and other elements of the Taliban leadership, since one cardinal principle of negotiations is that you cannot try to kill the person with whom you are negotiating.
Of course, this approach may not work. The Taliban may prove too fanatical and ambitious, and it may prove impossible to persuade three other key players to accept such a settlement. These include Hamid Karzai, who would have to step down to make way for a neutral Afghan leader (unless, of course, negotiations drag on till 2014, when he is due to leave office); the commanders of the Afghan National Army, who would have to accept a purely token military presence in most Pashtun areas; and the US Army, which would have to accept something well short of victory. And regarding this third element, let us face facts: the US military command has great political power in Washington, which will constrain the options of both Democrats and Republicans on Afghanistan and other issues.
However, something short of victory does not have to mean open defeat and humiliation, in the style of Saigon in 1975. If this can be avoided, then other scenarios can be presented as at least qualified US successes, above all if they involve Taliban commitments against terrorism and heroin. Intelligent and candid US commanders already know that they cannot "win" in any traditional sense; but they are determined not to lose—and rightly so. Americans should not wish their armed forces to be led by quitters. The trick will be in the public presentation of any settlement.
Behind all these questions lies once again the issue of Pakistan's role, Pakistan's future and the US role in that future. Since our options for coercing Pakistan are so limited—at least, without actions that would risk destroying Pakistan and involving us in far worse disasters—we should try to make the best of an admittedly very difficult situation and seek Pakistan's help in finding a settlement to the Afghanistan conflict.