The Afghan Conundrum
On September 11, 2001, the United States fell victim to an abominable attack by international extremists; and, on October 7, 2001, it invaded Afghanistan to depose the regime that sheltered them. The United States primarily applied its Special Forces to support a ragtag anti-Taliban coalition from the North; and, by November 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar fled Kandahar – the traditional hotbed of Taliban power – for refuge in Pakistan. In December 2001, the United States led an operation in Tora Bora – a mountainous region near the border with Pakistan – to kill, capture, and repel holdout al Qaeda and Taliban fighters; and in so doing, it came within reach of Osama bin Laden – the leader of al Qaeda and mastermind of the September 11th attacks. He reportedly escaped the battle by horseback into the Pakistani state of Waziristan to continue his extremist movement; but, despite that setback, the American invasion successfully deposed an oppressive regime from a notoriously difficult environment with relatively few forces in barely three months. Shortly afterward, Afghan factions that overthrew the Taliban regime held a loya jirga – a meeting of Afghan tribal elders – to select Hamid Karzai, a Western-educated expatriate, as Afghanistan’s interim leader. In 2004, he successfully led an effort to develop an Afghan Constitution that created a strong Executive Office; later that year, he also won Afghanistan’s first democratic Presidential election. Western nations soon began to rebuild Afghanistan’s dilapidated infrastructure, which had been destroyed by nearly thirty years of war. In particular, they rebuilt roads and highways to connect Afghanistan’s disparate cities; and, Hamid Karzai leveraged those efforts to unite Afghan society under a strong national Government. Afghan women – who had been particularly oppressed by the Taliban – began to receive educations; and, international companies gradually began to invest in an upstart nation that seemed to offer new markets and business opportunities.
In April 2003, the United States launched the invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein; and, in short order, it ousted the Iraqi dictatorship and installed its own transitional Government. At first, its leadership seemed effective – despite inevitable challenges and setbacks, the transitional Government pressed Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions to unite under a national coalition. But, for various reasons, anti-Government militias arose; and, after a devastating February 2006 bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque – which Shiites likened to an attack on the Vatican – Iraq devolved into a sectarian civil war. For the next three years, American attention focused intently upon that insurgency; and, the Afghanistan War soon became the “Forgotten War”.
While American resources and manpower poured into Iraq, the Afghanistan campaign began to unravel. In 2003, Mullah Mohammed Omar began to develop the modern Afghan insurgency from the relative safety of Pakistan’s tribal regions; and, his movement began to fund itself through the illicit sale of opium. By 2005, the Afghan Taliban became a fearsome guerilla force – one that couldn’t necessarily overthrow the Afghan Government, but one that could severely weaken Soldiers’ morale and threaten the West’s commitment to the war. The Afghan Taliban retook several cities as Western forces looked on: without sufficient resources and manpower, the West could not mount campaigns to win them back and simultaneously defend regions it already controlled. In January 2006, NATO assumed responsibility for operations in southern Afghanistan – and, though it has almost always defeated the Taliban in battle, it’s thus far been unable to defeat the insurgency entirely.
Since 2006, the Afghan Taliban has become even stronger; and, American and NATO forces have been subject to increasingly frequent and sophisticated attacks from Taliban fighters. In October 2007, Canadian forces surrounded approximately 300 insurgents to counter an offensive against Kandahar. In December 2007, NATO and Afghan forces recaptured Musa Qala from Taliban forces, who had occupied the town of approximately 20,000 people since October 2006. In April 2008, Hamid Karzai escaped a brazen assassination attempt in Kabul; and, in June 2008, the Taliban successfully freed 1,200 prisoners – 400 of whom had been Taliban prisoners of war – in a nighttime motorcycle raid from a Kandahar prison. Since 2008, Taliban forces have also concentrated attacks against Western supply lines in the North and East; and, several hundred foreign fighters from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries and even western China have applied techniques learned in Iraq against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The West has already increased its commitment to Afghanistan on several occasions to counter this insurgency. In 2008, the United States increased its troop commitment from approximately 27,000 to 48,000; in January 2009, it increased to approximately 51,000; and, in February 2009, to over 68,000. As of July 2009, Britain has committed approximately 9,500 troops to the war; Germany, 4,245; France, 3,070; Canada, 2,830; Italy, 2,795; the Netherlands, 2,160; and Poland, 2,035. In total, forty-two nations have thus far contributed over 101,000 troops to the conflict; and, since 2001, the United States alone has spent over $400B to fight in Afghanistan.
On December 1, 2009, President Barack Obama is scheduled to detail the results of an internal Afghanistan War review to the American public; and, though the details of this speech are not known as of this writing, various military and international analysts have laid the groundwork for the likely course ahead. In the next year, I believe the President will further increase the American troop commitment by approximately 34,000 troops. Approximately 9,000 Marines will reportedly deploy in December 2009 to combat the Afghan Taliban in southern Afghanistan. I also believe the President will challenge Europe to expand its troop commitment, as well – most likely, by approximately 10,000 troops to support Afghan force development and training. I also think the military will withdraw from remote combat outposts – that is, camps of between twenty and forty coalition troops on remote mountain terrains – and, focus instead on urban areas like Kabul and Kandahar; in so doing, it’ll likely defend major population centers with greater effectiveness – and thereby, as many military analysts contend, defend 75% of the Afghan population 100% of the time and not vice versa. The Taliban will likely respond by conducting attacks in the North and West; and, it will likely mount a persistent defense of its territory in the South. In recent years, American and NATO forces have been subject to increased fatalities and injuries; and, in the near term, these rates will likely become even worse.
Despite these circumstances, recent developments on the ground should offer some hope. In 2008, representatives of the Afghan Taliban met with Saudi officials to discuss possibilities to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conflict. This meeting exposed two important facts: first, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are two completely different organizations. They have different goals – and, in recent years, they have increasingly been at odds with one another. The Pakistani Taliban is a religious extremist organization with aspirations to attack Western interests abroad; the Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, is a nationalist organization with aspirations to eliminate Western troops in Afghanistan and to install its own fundamentalist Government. Although the West will likely be unable to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, it will likely be able to do so with the Afghan Taliban under appropriate conditions. And, this leads to the second point: since that meeting, the Afghan Taliban has seldom – if ever – spoken with outside forces about a negotiated settlement because it believes it’s winning the conflict. Until the West reasserts control over Afghanistan, efforts to negotiate with Afghan Taliban leaders in a manner that preserves Western regional interests will likely fail.
In 2009, the Pakistani military – after years of negotiation with American and Western diplomats – has finally undertaken a major military campaign against the Pakistani Taliban on the Afghan-Pakistan border. This campaign offers Western forces the opportunity to press the Afghan Taliban against the western border of Pakistan; and, if Pakistan’s military simultaneously forces the Pakistani Taliban against the eastern border of Afghanistan, the two campaigns can surround the Taliban factions to ensure their defeat and to eliminate or capture their leadership. The West has pressed for this opportunity since the early days of the Afghanistan War; and, these developments offer a realistic opportunity to bring the so-called “Hammer and Anvil” strategy to fruition. It may lead to opportunities for a peaceful settlement to the overall conflict.
Finally, the al Qaeda organization has – in recent years – lost considerable influence both within Pakistan and around the world. Religious scholars and former militants in the Middle East have openly criticized al Qaeda for its indiscriminant killing of Muslims, especially in Iraq; and, support for the group among civilian populations has declined greatly. For instance, only 10% of Saudis now support the al Qaeda organization; and, its support in Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh has fallen by over half in the past five years. In addition, according to Western intelligence, the al Qaeda organization now contains just a few hundred fighters – compared to approximately 10,000 Afghan Taliban fighters; and, in recent years, non-associated groups have independently undertaken the cause that al Qaeda supports. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are certainly dangerous; and, the West would like nothing more than to kill or capture them. But, they also do not threaten Western interests as they once had; and so, the West can instead focus greater resources toward the Afghan Taliban’s defeat.
But, these developments do not detract from an all-important fact: the Afghanistan War in the years ahead will be long and bloody. The modern Afghan insurgency required approximately six years to develop; and, Western forces may fight just as long to quell it. The West will undoubtedly find victories along the way – such as the recent assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, who led the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan. But, it will also suffer serious defeats and embarrassments – such as the accidental attacks on civilian targets by unmanned aerial drones. Everyone has a right to an opinion – and, the complexity of this conflict will draw reasonable conclusions on both sides of the debate. But, if you support this escalation, be prepared for a difficult struggle; nothing will undermine both American and Polish efforts in Afghanistan more than weak support at home. The Taliban cannot defeat us on the battlefield; but, it can break our will. And, the outcome of this war – which is currently uncertain – will rest almost entirely upon our desire to fight it. So, for those who sit alone tonight in the Afghan wilderness to defend our interests and national security, I encourage our readership to remain vigilant and to maintain realistic expectations of our progress in the region.
The Polish Weekly welcomes opposing viewpoints. To contact Thomas Mikulski, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.