This is a guest post by Voice of Reason
The Taliban who had been governing Afghanistan were driven out of the country and into Pakistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. They lost about 20% of their total fighting force but almost the entire leadership remained intact thanks to being able to hide out in Pakistan.
Following the removal of the Taliban from power, the Bonn Agreement signed on the 6th of December 2001 appointed Hamid Karzai as the interim President of Afghanistan. The 2001 Bonn Agreement however was not a peace treaty: the vanquished Taliban were not represented and it made no provisions for a cease-fire or demobilisation of forces. Karzai was shrewd statesman who initially supported the Taliban when they came onto the political scene in the early 1990s, but broke away when he became suspicious that they were being infiltrated and controlled by foreigners including Pakistanis and Arabs. He had been groomed for leadership by the Americans by the time of the Bonn Conference. However, his critics have accused him of being an American puppet and his political ‘horse-trading’ has tarnished his image with some Afghans. His government has also more recently been tarnished with rumours of corruption including the stuffing of ballot boxes in the 2009 Presidential election and the loss of western aid money.
It soon became apparent after the ousting of the Taliban that the US had no desire to rebuild Afghanistan or provide sufficient troops for its security and recovery. Within weeks, attention had been turned to the training and preparation for the invasion of Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was without doubt one of the biggest mistakes of the Afghan campaign. Afghanistan had fallen victim to the Bush strategy of preserving American resources, money and troops for Iraq. To make sure some kind of control was maintained, the Americans cut deals with local warlords to keep the peace, despite them being hated by locals. The lack of attention and strategy meant that the promises made to the fledgling Afghan government and the Afghan people were not kept, creating a sense of disillusionment and low expectation – fatal for a counterinsurgency operation.
In June 2002, the euphoria created around the election of Karzai as President never translated into improvements on the ground because of a lack of resources and funding available to the new Afghan government. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was created but operated only in Kabul. The mission of ISAF according to their website (www.isaf.nato.int) is divided into three parts: security, reconstruction & development and governance. (OK, four if you want to be picky.) Their mission statement is: “In support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, ISAF conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.” This makes me think that they should have been spread across the country from the outset, not just in Kabul.
In Pakistan, elections in the provinces bordering Afghanistan were rigged in favour of parties that supported the Taliban. The Taliban leader Mullah Omah began gathering support and funding for a new Taliban Shura (the Arabic word for ‘consultation’ – the Quran encourages Muslims to decide on things in consultation with those who will be affected by the decisions made) in winter 2002 from Karachi, Quetta, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Pakistani President Musharraf had assumed the US would leave Afghanistan when they invaded Iraq and so had kept the Taliban in reserve as a proxy fighting force for Pakistan. It is said by some that the lack of trust between the Pakistani military and the US government helped to fuel the revival of the Taliban.
The Taliban launched their first guerrilla attacks in January 2003 in Kandahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces. The reality of the Taliban threat was realised by March – they had no qualms with killing innocent civilians. By autumn, they had established almost complete control over Zabul and Helmand and had set up supply lines from Pakistan.
With the return of the Taliban in the south came the return of opium production. In 2001 and 2002, farmers had waited for alternative crop seeds from the US that never appeared. They had no choice but to grow opium again. A clear counter-narcotics strategy was not adopted until 2008; four years after the Taliban had regained control. Drugs undermined formal work by development agencies because the opium trade provided better jobs, income and security that the state was unable to give.
By late 2004, US and NATO intelligence concluded that the Pakistani Intelligence Services (ISI) were running a full training programme for the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan. Around the same time, the Presidential election (held in October 2004) showed that although the Taliban posed a threat in some southern provinces, they were far from being popular or widespread. Yet the US refused for several years to deploy sufficient troops in the critical southern provinces or acknowledge Musharraf’s double game. NATO troops were deployed in the south in 2005 but the US were unable to provide any intelligence because they had turned their satellites onto Iraq and hadn’t bothered gathering any intelligence on Afghanistan.
Summer 2005 saw the Taliban demonstrating new tactics, weapons and prowess. They had dramatically improved ambush tactics and had increased their use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers. But the US continued to target al-Qaeda rather than the Taliban who were threatening the government. As the US had become bogged down in Iraq, the Taliban had gained power in Afghanistan. To try and counter this, from 2004-2006, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs are groups of up to 100 soldiers assisted by trainers and development workers to provide back up for development and training to police and officials in the provinces) were expanded along with ISAF (who were now under NATO control) which expanded outside of Kabul. In the summer of 2006, the Taliban in the south began to set up a parallel administration and justice system to woo locals which then spread east. They also began to target Afghan government officials and police force who were already demoralised and disorganised.
A lack of troops and helicopters for Afghanistan operations because of the Iraq War led to a reliance on excessive air power by the US which antagonised locals as the bombs were killing as many innocent civilians as they were Taliban.
In 2009, with a new American President came a new strategy. President Obama appointed General David Petraeus as head of US Central Command in Afghanistan with General Stanley McChrystal as his commander on the ground. It was General McChrystal who shifted the focus of US strategy on the ground from enemy-centric to population-centric in order to reduce the number of civilian casualties which was continuing to alienate the Afghans from coalition troops. There was a big increase in the numbers of US troops thanks to the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq with 21,000 US Marines poured into southern Afghanistan including 4,000 trainers charged with speeding up the build-up of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF – the police and the army). NATO also promised more troops. Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, former commander of the SAS, was recalled by McChrystal to mastermind the ‘reintegration’ policy aimed at persuading middle- to low-ranking Taliban (who were less likely to have ideological ties and simply be in it for the money of out of fear) to switch sides.
Despite these positive moves, the Afghan Presidential elections that saw Karzai elected for a second term had no credibility. Supporters of Karzai had stuffed the ballot boxes and the Taliban had scared people into not voting. The turn out was about half that of the previous election. Yet despite this, the US, NATO, the UN and the EU all congratulated themselves and the Afghans on a ‘successful election’. This was seen by Afghans as hollow and deceitful.
From studying the Taliban and the counterinsurgency efforts of the US-led coalition, I can’t help but think that the wrong approach was taken from the outset. Counterinsurgency should not be military-led as military forces are not suitable for building states. It is about making sure the insurgency doesn’t take over the governing of the country, which means the government must be strong and popular amongst the locals. A small military contingent, ideally special forces, should have been dispatched to tackle the Taliban (with co-operation from Pakistan to help nip the Taliban resurgence efforts in the bud – a vital factor in suppressing wider Taliban support) around the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) areas on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan while the largest effort should have been concentrated on establishing the institutions needed to help sustain a credible Afghan state, such as an education system and a justice system. The time lost (due in larger part to the Iraq War) has mean t that the support of ordinary people has been significantly depleted.
In terms of the future, I personally think that the current target of a withdrawal at the end of 2014 is too soon. I think this target is a result of continuing political and public pressure and war-weariness and is not in the best interests of the Afghan people or government. That said however, the defence cuts including another 2,900 from the Army, 900 from the RAF and 300 from the Royal Navy in the round of redundancies announced on the 12th June mean that continuing operations in Afghanistan would stretch and already stretched British armed forces. Perhaps the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the new-look of smaller British armed forces will spell the beginning of a new chapter in British defence and foreign policy. I just hope that any change in policy will match our revised capabilities…
As for the Taliban, it appears that all they have to do now is wait for December 2014 when they will most probably be able to re-establish themselves as the rulers of Afghanistan, unless the current government there gains enough support, credibility and capability to hold on to power.
ISAF mission: http://www.isaf.nato.int/mission.html
Karzai profile: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3135938.stm