By Derek Henry Flood
Feb 20, '13
In his February 12 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama outlined the beginning of the end of American participation in Afghanistan's now decades long civil war. The US would endure a phased troop withdrawal meant to halve the presence of American soldiers within a year's time, reducing the present force of approximately 66,000 by 34,000.
The remainder are then theoretically going to make a rather hasty retreat between October 2014 and the start of 2015 with a possible residual force of several thousand soldiers staying on in a training and support capacity.
The precise number of troops, if there are to be any at all, will depend on the outcome of negotiations between Washington and Kabul. Obama did not provide any spoiler alerts in his annual speech most likely because timetables and logistics with America's Afghan counterparts simply have yet to be hammered out.
The message, however, was very clear: whether Afghanistan is ready or not, America's oversized military boot print in that country is already dissipating.
On February 10, a transfer of command took place in Kabul for the American-led NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops waging a years-long fraught counterinsurgency campaign.
Marine General Joseph Dunford took over from his predecessor General John Allen. Allen, still nominated for the top NATO post of Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), played a tangential part in a petty sex scandal that felled the career of now former CIA Director David Petraeus last fall.
Though the Obama administration has yet to formally withdraw Allen's SACEUR nomination publicly, though Allen himself has opted out from the nomination process to avoid undue speculation regarding his role, however minimal, in the scandal that brought down his comrade Petraeus.
An ever quixotic President Karzai refused to dignify the locked down handover ceremony with his presence despite a recent pledge to continue efforts to wind down the war by negotiating a vaguely outlined peace accord with the Afghan Taliban. The Presidential Palace dispatched the Afghan defence minister and national security chief in lieu of his eminence.
During General Dunford's first full day on duty, the United States military began experimentally shipping a small quantity of voluminous metal containers stocked with war materiel through the contentious border gate at Torkham, signalling that the United States was beginning its drawdown under the stewardship of a man who Washington somewhat optimistically states will be its last major theatre commander in Kabul.
The equipment will eventually make the long trek to Karachi's port facilities on the Arabian Sea from where it can be shipped onward to return to American military supply depots.
Though Afghanistan borders a total of six countries, in the eyes of the major Western players in the Afghan war, Pakistan is the sole meaningful border state. Sharing the 2,640-kilometer-long Durand Line (the de facto border), with its deep ties to the Taliban, Pakistan is deemed the state whose cooperation and influence is indispensable to ease the much-desired exit of virtually all NATO troops by the end of 2014.
Without access to the Pakistani trucking network's perilous land routes leading down to Karachi, NATO is forced to rely on the much more costly, incredibly laborious Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in order to send the equipment as far away as cold-water ports on the Baltic Sea.
After the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a coalition strike in November 2011, Islamabad enacted a seven month long blockade of NATO gear transiting Pakistani territory.
This tragic incident gave NATO logisticians planning their withdrawal pause for thought with their temporary total reliance on the NDN in the face of Pakistani anger. Pakistani drivers may face death at the hands of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and NATO vehicles may be destroyed in the process, but the Pakistani transit corridor is simply considered far more efficient by the West.
The withdrawal of the Americans en masse from Afghanistan coincides with the end of President Hamid Kazai's wobbly reign over the country since he was installed as interim ruler in December 2001 and then elected twice in a series of terribly flawed electoral processes in 2004 and 2009.
Karzai has vowed to step down as Afghanistan's sole post-Taliban head of state but thus far he has no clear successor. The next presidential ballot is slated for April 2014 but prominent Afghan leaders are already manoeuvring. Afghanistan appears to be at the edge of a cliff. Washington and its ISAF partners have been focused on the readiness of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and limiting the notorious corruption plaguing the Afghan National Police (ANP).
The question that must be asked at this time though is whether the men in these organizations can and will remain loyal to a centralized state in Kabul if it appears Afghanistan is reverting to its pre-9/11 self.
The wishful metrics of progress for Afghan security forces may be of little utility if powerful regional leaders begin openly reasserting themselves should the Taliban come back into measurable power in Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nangarhar provinces.
If Taliban fighters then begin moving into vulnerable provinces like Herat, encircling the heavily Shi'ite Hazarajat region and applying military pressure in contested areas of northern Afghanistan's southern tier, as they did in the 1990s, Afghanistan will either Balkanize itself into distinct warlord-led enclaves or enter into civil war without the advantage of Western air support.
It was stipulated in the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 that Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) initiatives would do away with the warlord armies while bringing former combatants into interim security forces which would later become the ANA and ANP. Whether Afghanistan will see a total unravelling of DDR efforts after 2014 will depend on whether the overly centralized government in Kabul can maintain a degree of control over the regions enmeshed with a high degree of warlord culture.
When United States forces began attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda positions in October 2001, the Americans - and later NATO - were essentially entering in an alliance with the losing side in a civil war. With a mix of overwhelming air power, suitcases full of cash handed over to anti-Taliban commanders popularly referred to as "warlords" in the press, and American Special Forces assisting ethnic-Tajik and Uzbek militias, the US reversed years of Taliban hard won military gains over the course of that fateful autumn.
Despite the George W Bush administration's stated desire to put an end to the "cruise missile diplomacy" emblematic of the Clinton era, there were very few American "boots on the ground" during the volatile weeks that the Taliban regime crumbled and melted away. The first Americans in Afghanistan were intelligence officers liaising with local Afghan strongmen hostile to the Taliban followed by small numbers of elite Special Forces detachments.
Central Intelligence Agency officers were helping to reinvigorate the stagnant fiefdoms of anti-Taliban military leaders while small detachments of the US Army's 5th Special Forces Group Operational Detachment Alpha units (ODA) operating out of Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad airbase were quietly inserted by the dozen under the cover of darkness to assist northern Afghan power brokers eager to reclaim territory lost to the Taliban in previous retreats or defeats.
Groupings such as ODA 595 and 525 famously fought alongside General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbesh-i-Milli fighters and the mostly ethnic-Tajik forces under the command of Mohammed Atta Noor from Jamiat-i-Islami to eject the Taliban from Mazar-i-Sharif and other key northern cities facing Central Asia's soft underbelly.
The wrinkle in this strategy was that Langley and the Pentagon were partnering with men who were not only enemies of the Taliban but loathed by Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment.
This initial pairing of American Special Forces with Dostum, Atta, Mohaqiq, and others was deeply problematic from the start not only because of the less than stellar human rights record attributed to indigenous commanders documented by groups like Human Rights Watch dating back to the internecine fighting of the 1990s but because these men were sworn enemies of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate in headquartered in Islamabad's Aabpara area.
Northern warlords - each with their own unique set of interests backed by constellation of patrons - relied on ties with states like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, India, Turkey, and Russia for diplomatic succour (semi-hermetic Turkmenistan officially maintains a policy of "neutrality" in the region), refuge, and backing.
This put the individual leaders of the former United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, known as the United Front for short, in a differing political and economic realm than the bulk of their Pashtun countrymen in the south and east in Pakistan's historic zone of influence.
The heavily personality driven parties of the country's north, northeast, west and centre, with their often bellicose view of the Taliban, may greatly complicate both Pakistan's and the United States' schemes for a bloodless transition to a post-NATO, post-Karzai Afghanistan.
This contentious history put the legacy leaders of the United Front - long referred to in press accounts somewhat inarticulately as the "Northern Alliance" - in direct confrontation with Islamabad's interests on the Afghan battlefield. From late 2001 until now, the United States has tried to strike an impossible balance between the quarrelsome ethnic interest groups inside Afghanistan and it’s inherently frustrating alliance with the Pakistani security state and Islamabad's often wildly divergent localized regional strategic objectives.
It was ascribed to the point of cliche that regularly cited the need for a friendly regime in Afghanistan in order to provide the Pakistani state with "strategic depth" in its geopolitical struggle with India that centred on ownership of Kashmir dating back to the partition of the British Raj in 1947.
Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, insisted in mid-summer 2012 that Islamabad was already moving away from its failed strategic depth policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan.
Rehman's comments were immediately backed up by the US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson, who cited Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's apparent willingness to abandon Pakistan's strategic depth doctrine. Pakistani daily Dawn reported last March FM Khar stating that Pakistan was firmly abandoning its legacy Afghanistan policy which she referred to as "historical baggage" that represented a "hangover " from an earlier era that was no longer relevant.
While Pakistan's Taliban policy in Afghanistan caused Delhi to fret, outright frightened the authoritarian regimes in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who feared for the creeping radicalization of their fragile societies, as well as nearly bringing Tehran to the brink of war with Islamabad's proxies after the execution of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, Islamabad's fostering of the Afghan Taliban did the most damage within Pakistan.
For the Taliban are not merely an autochthonous Afghan movement, but one raised and shaped by activist Pakistani military officials influential during Benazir Bhutto's second Prime Ministership in the 1990s.
Rather than the Taliban becoming the jurists of an efficient client state, its pathetic governing period in Afghanistan led to increased destabilization deeply affecting Pakistan for years to come. The sponsoring of Mullah Omar's regime ultimately resulted in drawing in the 100,000 ISAF troops currently present on Afghan soil - an anathema to many Afghans - and the Talibanisation of vulnerable sectors of Pakistani society.
The rise of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 has had severe consequences for Pakistan's entrenched political order. From the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007 to the tacit though denied complicity of ever increasing, deadly drone warfare in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the physical destruction of the old militant nexus in Afghanistan has only metastasized militancy at the juncture of South and Central Asia over the long term.
Along with the troubles created by the TTP in the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province more broadly, Pakistanis - the Hazara minority in Balochistan in particular - are suffering increasingly under the savagery of virulently anti-Shi'ite groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Jaish-i-Muhammad, now known collectively as the "Punjabi Taliban".
On January 14, the state-run Qatar News Agency disseminated a statement from the Qatari Foreign Ministry that it was officially sanctioning the opening of some kind of liaison office for the Afghan Taliban at the behest of the White House and Kabul. The Peninsula, a Qatari English-language daily, categorizes the Taliban vaguely as a "movement" rather than the Pentagon and NATO preferred term of an "insurgency". Labelling the Taliban as a movement implies the grouping had concrete, terrestrial political goals unlike the al-Qaeda men it once harboured from 1996-2001.
The United States is eager to finally evolve from a poorly framed policy goal made by George W Bush on the evening of September 11, 2001 that told a global audience: "We will make no distinction between those who committed these acts and those who harbour them."
Thus well before American jets dropped their first ordinance on Afghan soil on October 7, 2001, the Bush administration conflated the Taliban which sought international recognition as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers with the transnational al-Qaeda whose aim was to sow terror among apostate government both near and far.
In fact the mostly provincial Afghan Taliban's initial aims were quite narrow. Under the leadership of a village preacher from rural Uruzgan Province called Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban was largely focused on consolidating its rule inside Afghanistan by defeating its domestic opponents in central and northern Afghanistan.
While in the process of imposing its parochial worldview among ordinary Afghans regardless of their sectarian or ethnic identities, Omar's group played host to an array of Sunni movements from across the Muslim world.
From the amorphous al-Qaeda to those with far less grandiose
goals that involved the creation of separatist Muslim-majority homelands such as the Caucasian rebels from the "Chechen Republic of Ichkeria" or the forlorn Uighur militants from China's Xinjiang Province who desired to political secession from the Russian Federation and China respectively.
Though the Taliban harboured al-Qaeda during this period as it did many other radical Sunni movements, the two groups did not in fact share a common Islamist ideology.
The Taliban are a historically Deobandi movement under Islam's Hanafi school of jurisprudence whose ideations originate in the Darul Uloom madrasa in what is today the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The Arabs that dominated the political Islam espoused by al-Qaeda were Salafi-Jihadi adherents of the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence.
The Deobandi Hanafism of the Taliban with its ingrained Central and South Asian Islamic socio-cultural currents was traditionally at odds with the even more literalist Hanbalism of the Saudi and Egyptian Salafis who have always been at the upper echelon of al-Qaeda's thought cycles.
None of this is to say the two outfits certainly did not make common cause, particularly when facing external challengers such northern Afghan war-fighting groups or the foreign intervention forces suddenly present following 9/11. Though the two very different outfits at times maintained a sometimes mutually beneficial relationship, the working alliance between Mullah Omar's tin pot emirate and the stateless al-Qaeda leadership it hosted was laden with serious ideological and strategic disagreements.
Beyond this, there were schisms within al-Qaeda itself regarding the Taliban's merits in relation its deeply flawed implementation of Islamic law in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was considered by many to in fact be a fairly minor, though notable for his pedigree, player in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s.
But with the attacks he ordered on the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on August 7, 1998, his presence and notoriety had begun to overshadow Mullah Omar outside Afghanistan. Bin Laden's fame heightened rapidly in neighbouring Pakistan in particular when President Bill Clinton clumsily responded to the atrocities in East Africa with a barrage of Tomahawk missiles two weeks later on militant training camps in Khost Province in south-eastern Afghanistan.
Bin Laden's relaxed defiance of the American military juggernaut gave him the air of a folk hero among supporters in Peshawar or sympathetic enlisted men in the Pakistani army but it greatly chafed the Taliban's Shura council who were not appreciative of the kind of explosive attention al-Qaeda's activities outside Afghanistan were bringing to their desperately impoverished, agrarian nation.
The sort of comparatively abstract millenarian terrorism abroad espoused by bin Laden did not sync with the Taliban's attempts at nascent state re-formation in Kabul.
The Taliban were keenly interested in creating an Islamic state that had its rightful place among the internationally recognized community of nation-states.
To this end, the Taliban sought recognition as Afghanistan's rightful leaders at the UN headquarters in New York. Al-Qaeda was not interested in issues of statehood. Bin Laden's modus vivendi with the Taliban of the 1990s occurred partly to Afghanistan's pre-existing isolation after it was utterly abandoned by outside powers following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While only their patrons in Islamabad, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh provided them with such diplomatic credentials, the Taliban desired political acceptance by the wider world. They continued to prosecute their war against the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north until they had pushed them back into a slice of Takhar Province and Badakhshan Province bordering Tajikistan.
The rump government of the late president Burhanuddin Rabbani - which still held Afghanistan's seat at the UN - maintained an internally exiled government in the Badakhshani capital of Faizabad.
Mullah Omar had the very earthly goal of destroying or coopting what remained of these ethnic war-fighting groups in order to wrest control of every square kilometer of Afghanistan from Rabbani's faction once and for all. The Taliban created facts on the ground as they battled fighters allied to Rabbani led by Ahmad Shah Massoud and other northern commanders harder and further into a remote corner of Afghanistan with little strategic relevance.
Now several of the state actors that seek to steer Afghanistan toward a quasi-peaceful post-NATO-era settlement suddenly view the Taliban as a legitimate negotiating partner. David Cameron recently hosted Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, at Chequers, the British prime minister's sprawling country estate northwest of London.
The transparent episode appeared borne out of desperate pragmatism from the NATO side of the aisle. In response to the talk of talks, Zabiullah Mujahid, the lugubrious Taliban spokesman, dismissed the premise as a political farce.
Mujahid told the Associated Press: "There is no change in the policy of the Islamic Emirate of not talking to the Karzai government…the Karzai regime is powerless and installed by others. Real parties to the conflict are those who have committed aggression."
Karzai and Zardari pledged to conclude a peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban within an astonishingly brief six-month period. Considering the existing mutual distrust between Islamabad and Kabul, the fictionalisation of the Taliban over the last decade, and the fact that since first proposed in January 2012, the Taliban's Doha office has yet to really materialize.
President Karzai's High Peace Council has borne little or no tangible fruit thus far. The brazen assassination by the Taliban of the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in his role of head of Karzai's appointed council in September 2011 eroded the idea of the so-called "moderate Taliban" in the eyes of sceptics. Amrullah Saleh, the former head of the National Directorate of Security and outspoken Karzai critic, told the BBC's Hardtalk that the notion of Taliban members who had genuinely moderated their views or reformed their ideology was "an invention."
All considered, these factors add up to the notion of a peace deal by summer of this year as an unrealistic, herculean task. The High Peace Council is now led by Salahuddin Rabbani, the slain former president's son.
For its part, Qatar is meant to serve as a neutral space where the concerned parties can come to at least an ad hoc agreement. In many parts of the world, however, tiny Qatar's intentions are met with outright suspicion. Qatari officials operated alongside Libyan rebels during the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, have been active in arming insurgent groups in Syria's bloody revolution turned civil war, and have been the subject of unsubstantiated reports of assisting Salafi-Jihadis following the short-lived Islamist takeover of northern Mali.
Though no robed Qatari official appeared alongside the pro-peace troika of Karzai, Zardari and Cameron, the small Emirate is no stranger to hosting rogue Islamists of varying stripes. In the 1990s, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was out of the reach of American authorities while he quietly worked as an engineer at Qatar's Ministry of Electricity and Water.
On the small, lightly populated peninsula jutting forth from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, it is highly unlikely that Mohammed or other known al-Qaeda operatives were existing without both the knowledge and cooperation of government authorities such as Qatar's, then Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheik Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani on whose farm Mohammed was thought to have lived before fleeing to Pakistan in advance of a US dragnet. Al-Thani, currently interior minister would not likely object to the Taliban operating openly in the emirate.
So while Kabul, Islamabad, London, Washington and apparently Doha are myopically pushing for a settlement with the Afghan Taliban, the various other non-state groups are barely mentioned if at all as if the Taliban were the sole perpetrator of anti-state violence, presently or potentially.
Outlier Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, believed to be sheltering in Pakistan, still commands a potent insurgent movement called Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan that is not under the Taliban umbrella and which is opposed to the Afghan central government. Unlike the Taliban, HIG maintains a legal, tangible political office in Kabul and views itself as a hard-line Islamist political party undergirded with strains of Pashtun nationalism.
The Haqqani Network, a familial cross-border hybrid criminal-insurgent group allied to the Taliban but autonomous in nature, has barley been mentioned in big-think public pronouncements about the possibility of creating a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
And then there are the previously mentioned war-fighting organizations whose allegiances lay primarily along ethnic and sectarian lines. Groups such as Jamiat-i-Islami, Junbesh-i-Milli, and Hezb-i-Wahdat can easily be reactivated in the event of a major Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. The leaders of these groups have stores of weapons, cash, and bitter memories from a time when there were no Westerners present in their beleaguered Afghanistan.
It is not difficult then for them to posit darker future scenarios where identity-based warfare will return in the event of a full-scale collapse of the central government in Kabul which has an unhealthy dependency on wealthy donor nations dating back to the Bonn Agreement.
Though independent minded Afghans of all stripes have no desire for any form renewed Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan, it is the recalcitrant northern-based leaders who fought so bitterly in the late 1990s, that feel their factions have the most to lose.
When the Taliban swiftly rose to power from Kandahar to Kabul from 1994-1996, ruling Afghanistan's Pashtun belt hugging the Pakistan border was insufficient. Mullah Omar's commanders envisioned themselves as the whole of the country's rightful, righteous rulers.
The minority ethnic factions originating in the anti-Soviet jihad may not want to but are prepared to retreat into their pre-Karzai era selves if push comes to shove.
In this context, having Pakistan and Qatar broker a settlement which reintegrates the Taliban into Kabul's spare ministry buildings or in the future formally cedes it territory in Pashtun-majority provinces in the south and east to the exclusion of all the other surrounding players in Eurasia may result in a future Afghanistan that resembles elements of the country's unfortunate past.
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist focusing on the Africa, the Middle East and South and Central Asia. He has covered many of the world's conflicts-both major and minor-since 9/11 as a frontline reporter.