By Air Commodore (Retd) Khalid Iqbal
NATO’s plan to handover control of security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces by 2014 is inline with the popular sentiment amongst several Western nations which contribute contingents towards ISAF. NATO has announced that it could also halt combat operations by 2014, if security conditions were good enough. However, Pentagon has declared that NATO’s timeline for ending combat operations was an "aspirational" deadline. Richard Holbrooke said that “2014 did not mark end of international presence in Afghanistan… "There will be continued economic assistance, there will be continued training of the Afghan army and police."
A Pentagon progress report on Afghanistan to the US Congress, released last week, indicates that despite the "surge" of 30,000 soldiers, progress has been modest and the insurgency continues to expand.
President Karzai is of the view that military surge has been "unhelpful," turning Afghan cities into garrisons and alienating the local population. He envisages the end of war through talks with Iran and Pakistan. He is also trying to end the war through "triangulation" by mediating between NATO and the Taliban.
Mullah Omar led Taliban responded that “It is good news for Afghans and all freedom-loving people of the world, and it is a sign of failure for the American government… In the past nine years, the invaders could not establish any system of governance in Kabul and they will never be able to do so in future.”
While endorsing the NATO decision, Pakistan has cautioned against any pullout that doesn't acknowledge "ground realities," like the low quality soldiers that a hasty numerical built-up of the Afghan security forces is churning out. Besides professional competence, their motivation is rather questionable.
NATO plans a phased handing over of security tasks to the Afghan forces, maybe province-by-province. A part of the troops shall be withdrawn; rest would be re-designated as trainers or advisors. Afghan soldiers would be asked to do hard combat; NATO/ISAF troops would restrict themselves to garrisons.
For America it is indeed a failing war. Only achievement of a decade long fight has been a regime change, that too for the worse. Political dispensation empowered by America is ineffective in all domains of governance. Foreign forces have neither been able to decimate the military prowess of Taliban nor eliminate their leaders. America only has a fragile control over Kabul and some of Northern Alliance areas.
Reach of Taliban is countrywide; they appoint own governors, collect revenue, administer justice and provide security to public at large. People prefer to deal with Taliban appointed officials and police rather than Karzai government’s officials and police. Indeed Taliban govern rural Afghanistan. As they are an effective mobile guerrilla force, they do not need to hold the area for governing; aura of their ubiquitous presence is sufficient to enforce their writ.
Americans have failed to hold most of Afghanistan; they could hardly rebuild or raise infrastructure. They may have spent a lot of money, but that has been going to the coffers of Taliban via dubious security contractors. Reconstruction projects were out sourced to Indians who have done a poor job, their projects are overpriced, and workmanship is shoddy, akin to ‘Common Wealth Games Village’. India has been less interested in rebuilding and more in wielding greater influence in Afghanistan than Pakistan and China.
American warriors are now looking for a scapegoat and are planning some sideline fireworks for claiming a ‘victorious’ exit. It is in this context that America has asked Pakistan’s assent to expand its drone attacks in Quetta area where it thinks Taliban leadership is based. The US officials opine that Quetta is not only a sanctuary for Taliban leaders but is also as a base for sending money, recruits and explosives to Taliban inside Afghanistan. They have also sought to expand the boundaries for drone strikes in the tribal areas.
While rejecting the request, Pakistan has agreed to more modest measures, including an expanded intelligence sharing in Quetta. A Pakistani official said “They want to increase the size of the boxes (drone operations areas); they want to relocate the boxes… I don’t think we are going to go any further.” Pakistani officials have pointed out that ‘Quetta is a densely populated city where an errant strike is more likely to kill innocent civilians, potentially provoking a backlash’. United States has not controlled the Afghan side of the border, is preoccupied by arbitrary military deadlines and has little regard for Pakistan’s internal security problems.
A NATO military official was quoted as saying. “If they understand our side, they know the patience is running out.” A high-ranking Pakistani official responded, “You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly… In which country can you do that?”
The two sides also disagree sharply over the importance of the ‘Quetta Shura’, the leadership council led by Mullah Omar that presides over some factions of Afghan Taliban. The term itself is mythical, coined by the US to embarrass Pakistan.
No insurgency has ever been able to sustain itself without sanctuaries in adjoining states. Success of COIN commander depends on sealing off the borders with contiguous states before starting the campaign. Soviets did not block the Durand line; they failed to outsmart the Mujahideen. Americans committed the same cardinal sin; now they are in a catch 22 scenario against Taliban. This strategic blunder has cost them the war. However, they continue to insist that they are winning. As a cover up they resorted to a surge series. In the bargain, the war got ‘Americanised’, and now defeat or victory would be an American victory or defeat.
Commanders of COIN forces usually fall into the trap of hitting the jackpot by crossing over the border of adjacent states. However, such hot pursuit operations rarely bring success. Soviets frequently and intensively bombarded the Pakistani side of the border but failed to defeat the Mujahedin or impede the flow of logistics. The United States crossed into Laos and Cambodia, yet lost the war in Vietnam.
New strategy, which seeks to create an environment for a political solution to allow the US to initiate the withdrawal of its forces in July 2011, needs the nod of powerful Taliban leaders, whom Americans wish to bomb in Quetta area. Despite the trauma of nine years, the Americans continue to underestimate the Taliban’s skills.
Well orchestrated incremental approach of pressurizing Pakistan is open ended. With each military setback, there would be a desire to expand the operations deep into Pakistani territory. Pakistan needs to put its foot down and prevent the trigger happy runaway forces from any misadventure.
Withdrawal framework incorporates an escape clause through embedded ambiguity; NATO and Pentagon are not on the same page.Americans need to come clean on their intentions, cease military operations and engage in a meaningful political process; otherwise their ‘Grace’ may erode with each passing day.
Air Cdre Khalid is Masters in Political Science along with War and Strategic Studies. He has also done Air WarCourse, Fellow of Air War College. Instructor’s Course. Senior Command & Staff course. Combat Commander’s Course. He has been a Directing Staff at various institutions of Pakistan Air Force. Presently he is a visitng faculty at:
- PAF air War College (Staff Wing &War Wing).
- School of Army Air Defence.
- Naval War College, Lahore.
- Quaid-i- Azam University (DSS Department).
- He is a regular contibutor to Opinion Maker and Member Board Of Advisors