Afghan impasse: how to get out
by Christophe Jaffrelot on 16 Sep 2008 0 Comment

The ambush that cost ten French soldiers their lives on 18 August reminded our country what other nations engaged in the ISAF (such as Canada, which has lost 93 men) already knew: “We are witnessing the return of war operations,” to use the terms the head of the French armed services’ General Staff, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, employed in the 23 August issue of Le Figaro. As far as General Georgelin is concerned, the procedure followed on the ground should not be fundamentally affected by the incident.
What Are the Roots of the Evil?
The fall 2001 war that followed the attack on the World Trade Center cost the Taliban their power, but did not obliterate them. Their leader, Mullah Omar, probably now taking refuge in the south of the country, orchestrated a recruitment campaign as early as summer 2002. The number of his partisans went from 4,000 in 2002 to close to 20,000 today - if one believes the estimates of expert on the matter Antonio Giustozzi. These men are present most especially in the south and the east - where one also finds about 2,000 foreign fighters; Arabs, but also Turkic language speakers like the Uzbeks, and even Europeans, who have come to conduct jihad against the infidel as they did during the period of the fight against the Soviet invasion.
How to explain such a resurgence? To begin, one must not underestimate the qualities peculiar to the leaders. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, who undoubtedly lives in seclusion on the Afghan-Pakistan border, possess undeniable organizational talents. The former, who remains a charismatic leader, has been able to reestablish a territorial network by taking care, on the one hand, that none of his lieutenants constructs any personal fiefdom, thanks to a rotation system for local officers, and, on the other hand, that those same local officers gain acceptance among the population by coming to its aid (hence the creation of dispensaries, for example).
He has, moreover, renounced - unlike the Taliban government’s policy during 1998-2001 - fighting against the cultivation of opium, the greatly increased production of which profits everyone. As for bin Laden, there’s no doubt that one of his leadership qualities relates to his ability to delegate power to “seconds-in-command” and this to better adapt to circumstances - as attested to by the considerable number of “al-Qaeda No. 3”s arrested since 2001, notably in Pakistan.
But these advantages are not enough to explain how young Afghans join the Taliban in such great numbers. The failures of the Kabul government and of foreign troops are also influential factors in that decision. It’s time to reckon up the balance sheet for the regime of Hamid Karzai, whom Westerners put in power - a situation certainly subsequently validated through elections - because of his unusual service record as an anti-Taliban Pashtun (they had to have a Pashtun!), but who has proven a pathetic statesman. He has neither been able to, nor possibly wanted to, free himself from the influence of the former Mujahidin who were shaped by the war against the Soviets. Empowered with local or regional responsibilities - a number of them have become provincial governors - these “warlords” have transformed themselves into corrupt predators. Drug money goes into their pockets also, and racketeering, including the Afghan police’s ransoming of travellers on the country’s roads, is one of the most lucrative industries.
Karzai himself - or in any case his brother - does not seem to be altogether above any suspicion, by the admission of those very people who were his main American supporters. Witness the statements of Thomas Schweich - in charge of coordinating the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan on behalf of the American administration from March 2007 to June 2008 - in The New York Times Magazine. The evil runs so deep, that in the south, the population ever more often leaves it to the Taliban to administer justice that is certainly summary, but more trustworthy than that of corrupted magistrates.
As for the ISAF troops and the American “Operation Enduring Freedom,” they are very poorly perceived. The Afghans - who have never been colonized - readily see them as a foreign body, and also, ever since the 2001 war and its numerous civilian victims, the most deadly “blunders” have increased, putting the Afghan government on the spot. Moreover, this gives the Taliban undreamed-of arguments: what kind of peacekeeping force is it that kills women and children by the dozens, or even more, as they did at the end of August?
Last but not least, military operations are unaccompanied by any tangible economic development in the south, where the guerillas have hampered their implementation. On the one hand, the monies promised by donors have not all been disbursed; on the other hand, the money has not reached its recipients because of massive corruption of the Karzai regime’s local and regional intermediaries.
The picture would not be complete if we didn’t add the key element: Pakistan’s role. Contrary to common wisdom, the most active hotbed of Islamism in the world is not Afghanistan, but well and truly Pakistan, where bin Laden has undoubtedly found refuge and where the Taliban movement was born during the 1990’s.
Pakistani support for the Afghan insurrection assumes three complementary forms today. First of all, the development of mujahidin groups during the war against the Soviets Islamized the tribal region and gave the mullahs growing power, to the detriment of traditional chieftains. The war against the Afghan Pashtuns and the withdrawal of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001 subsequently promoted a certain Talibanization.
On the one hand, Islamism has developed there by capillary action in the heart of populations that themselves are also Pashtun (sometimes even from the same tribes. They share, in any case, the same language and same code of honour). On the other hand, Pakistani forces’ powerful (up to 80,000 men deployed at the same time) searches of the region (how many “blunders” have been deplored there also!) proceeding at the demand of the Americans who wanted bin Laden dead or alive, have alienated, then radicalized the population. Today, young “Pakistani Taliban” call the tune in the region, at the expense of tribal leaders, a good many of whom - the most recalcitrant - have been victims of intimidation or even murder.
Pakistan is undoubtedly the Asian country where Islamist groups won to the cause of jihad have the greatest firepower. Their ideological foundation is assured by a doctrinal inheritance that goes back to the Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist movement born in British India in 1941, at least, or even to the Deobandi school, founded in 1867. Their military ability, incarnated in movements as powerful as Laskar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, has been put to the test by decades of combat in Kashmir and in Afghanistan during the 1979-1989 war. These networks naturally work with those that people today call the Pakistani Taliban. The lull one observes between India and Pakistan in Kashmir has led certain jihadist groups previously active in that region to switch over to the tribal region.
Finally, Pakistani government officials, particularly army and military intelligence (Inter Service Intelligence) officers, have found it useful to associate themselves with Afghan Islamists. They did not hesitate to support the Taliban during the 1990’s to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, which assured them “strategic depth” in the face of their hereditary enemy: India.
Nor did they hesitate to protect the same groups after 2001, always in the hope of regaining control in the long run in Kabul and to counter the Indian presence in Afghanistan. India’s embassy - which seeks to establish a reverse alliance with Afghanistan - was the target of an attack in July that killed 60 and the responsibility for which has been imputed to the ISI by many observers, including Americans.
Certainly, Musharraf has conducted a certain repression against the Islamists at the express request of the Americans in exchange for considerable international - essentially American - manna (about $100 million a month). But - as a champion of playing both sides at once - he never sought to eradicate those movements he himself had used against India in 1999 when he headed the Army.
What Alternative to the Present Strategy?
Asking the question of which strategy is the best one possible for Westerners in Afghanistan amounts to first of all asking once again why they intervened in the first place. Whatever is said to clothe the operation in the veil of human rights, it was not instigated to bring prosperity and democracy to the Afghan population, but to obliterate a regime that sheltered al-Qaeda, and, on that score, threatened the security of the United States and Europe.
Now the fear that Afghanistan should once again become a sanctuary for terrorism remains strong in Washington and in European capitals. Under these conditions, a withdrawal of NATO troops would amount to renouncing their initial objectives. Today, two strategic options present themselves for the troops deployed there.
The first seems to be the Americans’ preference: it involves a stepped-up military effort - hence Washington’s request, to which Paris acceded in the spring, to add men to the 50,000 already deployed. For George W. Bush, it’s also a question of improving the effectiveness of the forces present by getting Pakistan’s authorization to pursue Islamists striking in Afghanistan into its territory before they find refuge in the tribal region on the other side of one of the most porous borders in the world.
Should Westerners observe this sort of right of pursuit in a more systematic way, the consequences in Pakistan will be significant. Anti-American feelings will be exacerbated and discredit the already-weakened civilian government a little more - in favour  of the Army, which is waiting for its time to come, and even of the Islamists, as was the case after the 2001 war in Afghanistan.
The alternative to this mainly military option with its serious implications would consist of articulating a clearer political plan than the operations underway. It would undoubtedly be necessary to remodel the military approach at the same time one adds a new political aspect to it.
The urgency of the hour requires that the whole military set-up be reviewed: the problems of coordination between the armies - Westerners’ and Afghanistan’s - demand correction. It is also necessary - for it’s closely tied to the first issue - to defuse Afghans’ growing hatred for Westerners. That presupposes the end of “blunders” and a military presence of a new kind: instead of “cleaning out” the neighbourhoods surrounding the cities where the troops are entrenched, it would be fitting to establish relations with the populations (notably around the development projects to be conducted in liaison with NGOs). That involves leaving the same officers in place for extended periods and avoiding too frequent rotations.
An anti-insurgency war is not won until the connection between the insurgents and the local society is weakened, especially since that local society starts off on the principle that the Westerners will leave the country sooner or later, while the Taliban are there for the long haul and are likely to conduct reprisals against “collaborators.”
In parallel, it is imperative to train a bigger Afghan army (about 50,000 men today) in which the Tadjiks are no longer overrepresented: that’s an inheritance from the victory of the Northern Alliance in 2001 - and imperative also to complete promised development projects, which requires additional means.
With respect to the political component, it’s appropriate to continue the state-building effort by (re)constructing institutions as crucial as the educational and health-care systems. That’s the indispensable foundation. But beyond that, engaging in discussions with the Taliban is appropriate. Karzai wants to negotiate with those among them who are linked to neither the “Arabs,” nor the Pakistanis. That seems reasonable, as neither of those groups can be interested in power-sharing: they simply want to throw out outside intervention and recover their foothold in Afghanistan. This negotiation - which Karzai is ready to conduct, even with Mullah Omar - is, of course, proving to be extremely delicate for at least two reasons.
The first is that today we don’t know to what extent the Taliban form a homogeneous group and whether some are ready to talk or not. But there is no doubt that they will be more ready to talk to the extent that the balance of military power is unfavourable to them and that Westerners’ resolve is obvious.
The second reason is that it will not be easy to keep the “Arabs” and the Pakistanis on the sidelines, given the weight they’ve taken on in Afghanistan, and especially - in so far as the Pakistanis are concerned - if India does not adopt a low profile in Afghanistan, which it must be convinced to do.
To shift the Western strategy in this way, Europeans are more credible than Americans who, in any case, persist in seeing armed intervention in Afghanistan and bin Laden’s capture as the only possible reaction to September 11. The Europeans’ first task, therefore, may be to convince Washington to adjust the strategy it implements.
The second will undoubtedly be to get representatives of the Afghan and Pakistani governments around the table, if possible with the assistance of the Chinese, who may have a certain influence on the latter as they worry about possible Islamist contagion in Xinjiang.
This approach may be initiated without delay since no one expects any further initiatives from outgoing President George Bush, and Obama, if he succeeds him, is on a wavelength compatible with such a plan - he wants, moreover, to work in concert with Europeans in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
France, which holds the European Union presidency for another four months, could play a key role here and set such a mechanism in motion. The search for an alternative to the established strategy should, in any case, be at the heart of the parliamentary debate all parties have demanded and which the government has scheduled for 22 September - Le Monde
Christophe Jaffrelot is director, Center for International Studies and Research, at Sciences Po and director of research at National Center for Scientific Research
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
Courtesy Truthout (

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