Friday, December 05, 2008

This is How I End Up Getting Sucked In

Anand Gopal has an informative piece on the make-up of the "Taliban" movement in Afghanistan. The piece reinforces a few concepts that should inform our future policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan: First, the Karzai government lacks a popular mandate and, in general, it is unrealistic to believe that the United States can establish a strong central government capable of enforcing its prerogatives on Afghanistan's traditionally decentralized society. Our support for the Karzai government drains it of legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghanis, not to mention taints the US with the corruption and criminality rampant within Karzai's coalition. Our presence is unsustainable (not to mention costly), and is itself helping to fuel the conflict by giving opposition groups a unified cause and interminable supply of motivated recruits.

Second, while we cannot prevail militarily, there may be openings to pursue negotiated arrangements with certain factions within a Taliban movement that is far from monolithic or uniform in its composition, objectives and worldview. Third, any realistic framework for stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan will require engagement with Afghanistan's neighbors who have the ability to play spoiler should their interests not be taken into account (but not necessarily made paramount to the interests of Afghanis).

Here is Gopal on the diversity within the ranks of the Taliban, and on the general unifying principle:

Who exactly are the Afghan insurgents? Every suicide attack and kidnapping is usually attributed to "the Taliban." In reality, however, the insurgency is far from monolithic. There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor, illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions. The factions themselves are made up of competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners. [...]

Meanwhile, a more pragmatic leadership started taking the reins. U.S. intelligence officers believe that day-to-day leadership of the movement is now actually in the hands of the politically savvy Mullah Brehadar, while Mullah Omar retains a largely figurehead position. Brehadar may be behind the push to moderate the movement's message in order to win greater support.

Even at the local level, some provincial Taliban officials are tempering older-style Taliban policies in order to win local hearts and minds. Three months ago in a district in Ghazni province, for instance, the insurgents ordered all schools closed. When tribal elders appealed to the Taliban's ruling religious council in the area, the religious judges reversed the decision and reopened the schools.

However, not all field commanders follow the injunctions against banning music and parties. In many Taliban-controlled districts such amusements are still outlawed, which points to the movement's decentralized nature. Local commanders often set their own policies and initiate attacks without direct orders from the Taliban leadership.

The result is a slippery movement that morphs from district to district. In some Taliban-controlled districts of Ghazni province, an Afghan caught working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) would meet certain death. In parts of neighboring Wardak province, however, where the insurgents are said to be more educated and understand the need for development, local NGOs can function with the guerrillas' permission.

While there are legitimate concerns about human rights abuses and brutality committed by Taliban elements, government forces have not been above reproach by any measure. Further, from a national security perspective, the dangers of negotiating a peace with willing Taliban elements might be containable.

Despite such foreign connections, the Afghan rebellion remains mostly a homegrown affair. Foreign fighters -- especially al-Qaeda -- have little ideological influence on most of the insurgency, and most Afghans keep their distance from such outsiders. "Sometimes groups of foreigners speaking different languages walk past," Ghazni resident Fazel Wali recalls. "We never talk to them and they don't talk to us."

Regardless, reality has its say. Even if there is some admirable imagined idea of liberal democracy enforced from Kabul outward, the facts on the ground suggest that basing our policy on the expectations of reaching such outcomes is folly. Gopal's piece discusses some of the actions of the Karzai government, and his coalition's inherent structural flaws. While, ostensibly, aspiring to be a centralized, national political power, the Karzai government is riven by the same factionalism that it seeks to broach, and is rife with the same lawlessness it aims to eradicate:

When U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited regime. "We felt like dancing in the streets," one Kabuli told me...

Meanwhile, the country was being carved up by warlords and criminals. On the brand-new highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and Herat, built with millions of Washington's dollars, well-organized groups of bandits would regularly terrorize travelers. "[Once], thirty, maybe fifty criminals, some in police uniforms, stopped our bus and shot [out] our windows," Muhammadullah, the owner of a bus company that regularly uses the route, told me. "They searched our vehicle and stole everything from everyone." Criminal syndicates, often with government connections, organized kidnapping sprees in urban centers like the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar city. Often, those few who were caught would simply be released after the right palms were greased.

Onto this landscape of violence and criminality rode the Taliban again, promising law and order...The guerrillas implemented a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting off the hands of thieves and shooting adulterers. They were brutal, but they were also incorruptible. Justice no longer went to the highest bidder. "There's no crime any more, unlike before," said Abdul Halim, who lives in a district under Taliban control.

As an aside, the following discussion of the United States' role in funding and arming some of the extremist groups is relevant in terms of providing perspective with respect to some of the charges being hurled at the Pakistani government for its coddling of extremist groups in light of the Mumbai attacks. While the Pakistani government deserves its fair share of the blame for having nurtured such radical agents, they are not the only government that has pursued such strategies in the region, nor the only government forced to reckon with the blowback. The US is by no means guiltless. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar:

For years Hizb-i-Islami fighters have had a reputation for being more educated and worldly than their Taliban counterparts, who are often illiterate farmers. Their leader, Hekmatyar, studied engineering at Kabul University in the 1970s, where he made a name of a sort for himself by hurling acid in the faces of unveiled women.

He established Hizb-i-Islami to counter growing Soviet influence in the country and, in the 1980s, his organization became one of the most extreme fundamentalist parties as well as the leading group fighting the Soviet occupation. Ruthless, powerful, and anti-communist, Hekmatyar proved a capable ally for Washington, which funneled millions of dollars and tons of weapons through the Pakistani ISI to his forces. [...]

Today, the group is one of the fastest growing insurgent outfits in the country, according to Antonio Giustozzi, Afghan insurgency expert at the London School of Economics. Hizb-i-Islami maintains a strong presence in the provinces near Kabul and Pashtun pockets in the country's north and northeast. It assisted in a complex assassination attempt on President Karzai last spring and was behind a high-profile ambush that killed ten NATO soldiers this summer. Its guerrillas fight under the Taliban banner, although independently and with a separate command structure. Like the Taliban, its leaders see their task as restoring Afghan sovereignty as well as establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Naqibullah explained, "The U.S. installed a puppet regime here. It was an affront to Islam, an injustice that all Afghans should rise up against."

Jalaluddin Haqqani:

Blowback abounds in Afghanistan. Erstwhile CIA hand Jalaluddin Haqqani heads yet a third insurgent network, this one based in Afghanistan's eastern border regions. During the anti-Soviet war, the U.S. gave Haqqani, now considered by many to be Washington's most redoubtable foe, millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks. Officials in Washington were so enamored with him that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him "goodness personified."

Haqqani was an early advocate of the "Afghan Arabs," who, in the 1980s, flocked to Pakistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. He ran training camps for them and later developed close ties to al-Qaeda, which developed out of Afghan-Arab networks towards the end of the anti-Soviet war. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. tried desperately to bring him over to its side. However, Haqqani claimed that he couldn't countenance a foreign presence on Afghan soil and once again took up arms, aided by his longtime benefactors in Pakistan's ISI. He is said to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, a tactic unheard of there before 2001. Western intelligence officials pin the blame for most of the spectacular attacks in recent memory -- a massive car bomb that ripped apart the Indian embassy in July, for example -- on the Haqqani network, not the Taliban.

The Haqqanis command the lion's share of foreign fighters operating in the country and tend to be even more extreme than their Taliban counterparts. Unlike most of the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, elements of the Haqqani network work closely with al-Qaeda. The network's leadership is most likely based in Waziristan, in the Pakistani tribal areas, where it enjoys ISI protection.

The Obama administration needs to seriously reconsider the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan, and what it hopes and expects to gain by such a dedication of manpower and resources. Foreign policy, too, is the art of the possible. Continuing the Bush administration approach in Afghanistan, even with an increase in the number of troops and some tinkering around the edges, is what George Kennan called "the stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives."

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