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.