NATO or TALIBAN? Who is Winning the War in Afghanistan?
02 October, 2007
By Ishtiaq Ahmad
Seven years after entering Afghanistan as part of International Security assistance Force, four years after assuming the ISAF command, and within one year after taking over the charge of peacekeeping and combat operations throughout Afghanistan, NATO troops—currently numbering over 35,000 from 37 countries—are facing a revitalized Taliban –led militancy in the war-torn country.
In the past year or so, attacks on civilians and US/NATO forces have increased significantly, opium cultivation has achieved record highs, and reconstruction efforts have faltered Since October 2006, when NATO assumed the charge of combat operations across Afghanistan, the Taliban attacks against NATO troops, mostly in the shape of suicide and roadside bombings, have intensified, causing much more physical loss to NATO forces than the previous years.
Several reasons explain why NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan is failing. They include the insufficiency of NATO troops available for combat operations in Afghanistan, the flawed nature of Afghan reconstruction and security sector reforms, the indigenous sources of Taliban-led militarism in the country, the continued support to Taliban from Pakistan’s tribal region, and the growing Afghan and regional perceptions of NATO as an ‘occupation force.’
Lacking Troop Commitments from NATO
The foremost reason behind NATO’s current failure in Afghanistan is the insufficient number of its troops available for combat operations, amid growing militancy by Taliban-led forces. It is not just that NATO needs more troops on the ground, but the troops from several NATO countries that are already deployed are restricted from engaging in combat operations in Afghanistan by their governments.
The United State, Canada and Britain, which have done most of the fighting against Taliban, have had tremendous difficulties in getting support from other NATO countries for counter-Taliban operations. Major European countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany have refused to take part in operations that could involve fighting the Taliban
One of the reasons why NATO countries hesitate from contributing more troops or refusing their combat use is that they consider Afghanistan as a high-risk combat theatre, where the results of military operations have not been too positive or visible. Other reasons include the rising death toll of NATO troops has caused public support to waver in countries suffering from heaviest casualties, particularly Britain and Canada.
Such losses are doing little to increase support for the war in other NATO member states where the long-term support for the NATO mission is seriously lacking. Finally, if growing instances of NATO air-strikes targeting Afghan civilians have received severe criticism from the Afghan government and international human rights organizations, they have also caused great alarm among European people already weary of the war effort in Afghanistan.
NATO’s combat troop insufficiency has had two negative consequences for the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. One, southern and south-eastern Afghan provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar and Oruzgan have particularly seen a significant rise in the power of Taliban. Two, the ISAF has still not developed a positive image of itself among the Afghans outside Kabul, as NATO forces seem to be far more concerned about their own security than the security of the Afghans they are supposed protect.
Faulty Reconstruction and Security Sector Reforms
If NATO has failed to tackle the immediate challenge of fighting Taliban-led militancy, its broad-based efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan and reform the country’s security sector have also produced minimal results. Reconstruction and security sector reforms—including the creation of Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), and countering narcotics—are longer-term solutions to Taliban-led militarism and consequent under-development and insecurity in Afghanistan. NATO’s failure in realizing these broader goals, thus, directly impinges upon its current military mission in Afghanistan.
NATO troops currently oversee the operation of some 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) across Afghanistan. PRTs have been a mixed success to date, as civil and military actors have not necessarily communicated well and disagreed over the role of military forces in aid and development work. Moreover, several NATO countries have either not made the required financial contributions or have failed to fulfill their financial pledges to make the PRTs a success.
Even though the current troops’ strength of the ANA stands at over 40,000, they are still incapable of conducting operations independently and suffering from basic problems such as inexperience, illiteracy and insufficient equipment. The target goal for the ANP, as established in the ANC, is 62,000 personnel, fully trained and equipped, by March 20, 2011. Well over half of this number of police personnel is currently operational in the country, but they are under-paid, ill-equipped and known to be incompetent.
The NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan has also failed to counter Afghanistan’s growing drug problem. The opium trade, which currently amounts to almost half of Afghanistan’s GDP, is the principal financier of Taliban-led militarism in Afghanistan. The Taliban-led violence is taking place in areas such as Helmand which are notorious for poppy cultivation and opium trade.
Indigenous Sources of Taliban-led Militarism
Beyond the purely military-specific causes of NATO’s failure in Afghanistan are some domestic realities that explain the success of Taliban-led militarism in the country. NATO leaders do not seem to recognize the fact that Taliban-led militancy in Afghanistan is currently not entirely motivated by religious factor alone; rather, an important cause behind it is continued alienation of the majority Pashtun from Afghanistan’s present government structure.
The Taliban were never properly defeated following the US-led invasion in 2001. In the initial few years of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban and their extremist allies were not able to withstand the severe military assault that the United States waged with the help of its superior air power. Over time, however, the Taliban-led forces have been able to re-group in the south and south-eastern parts of Afghanistan, where they are currently well-entrenched in a number of largely inaccessible areas.
The NATO mission in Afghanistan is also compounded by a number of problems facing the Afghanistan government led by President Hamid Karzi, including corruption, the slow progress of reconstruction, widespread poppy cultivation and the continued power of local warlords and militias. These interconnected issues all require redress if the Afghan government is to establish legitimate authority across the country, but lie outside the core mission and competency of NATO’s ISAF forces.
Support to Taliban from Pakistan
NATO’s failure to co-opt Pakistan for jointly managing the threat from Taliban and their militant-extremist sympathizers in Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan is another major challenge facing the NATO mission in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Pakistan’s tribal regions have served as an important base for Taliban re-grouping and infiltration across the unrecognized Durand Line into Afghanistan.
Preventing Pakistan’s tribal regions from becoming a safe heaven for Taliban requires close collaboration between NATO command in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s security apparatus. Pakistan has, indeed, been a part of the Tri-Partite Commission tasked with ensuring security in Afghanistan’s border areas—with Afghanistan and US/NATO being its two other members—but the NATO leadership has preferred in much of the past four years of its ISAF command to side with the Afghan and US leadership in blaming Pakistan for not "doing enough" to prevent Taliban regrouping in its tribal regions and their infiltration into Afghanistan.
The stiff resistance that Pakistan military has received from pro-Taliban extremists in the tribal regions indicates that preventing the re-grouping of Taliban in these regions and their infiltration into Afghanistan is quite a huge task that Pakistan alone may not be able to perform. Had the US/NATO and Afghan leaders been more forthcoming on the measures Pakistan proposed to institutionalize new security arrangements along the Durand Line within the framework of the Tri-Partite Commission, the said problem could have been solved considerably over time.
The establishment of the Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JOIC) in Kabul, where ISAF, Afghan and Pakistani officials share intelligence on Taliban and terrorist networks, is an important step in building the necessary links with Pakistani intelligence that will be invaluable to defeating the Taliban. However, insofar as the issue of Pakistan’s tribal regions acting as a safe heaven for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan is concerned, much more needs to be done, including the socio-economic development of these regions and the repatriation of Afghan refugees from there.
Millions of Afghan refugees are still camped in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Afghan refugee camps are an important source of Taliban militancy. As long as Pakistan’s tribal regions are beset by extreme poverty and illiteracy, they will remain an ideal place for the generation of extremism and terrorism. Given the prevailing state of insecurity in the tribal regions, the US plan to develop them economically has not materialized.
Likewise, the deterioration in Afghanistan’s security has dissuaded the Afghan refugees from returning to their country. Building Pakistan’s tribal regions and repatriating Afghan refugees from Pakistani soil, however, remain important pre-requisites for the success of NATO mission in Afghanistan, eve if they do not directly fall into its purview.
Perceptions about NATO as an ‘Occupation Force’
A final, perhaps more important, reason for the failure of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan are growing domestic and regional perceptions about NATO as an ‘occupation force" in Afghanistan with an expansionist regional agenda. The ISAF was mandated by the UN to secure and stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan. Instead, its primary mission, even after NATO assumed its command in 2003, has been to secure the Karzai government in Kabul, which is perceived to be unrepresentative of the majority Pashtun interests, especially in Taliban-infested south and south-eastern parts of the country.
Even otherwise, the Afghans in general have historically distrusted a strong central authority, what to speak of a foreign power trying to forcibly dictate its will upon them. Given that, it is but natural for the Afghan people living in southern and south-eastern regions and in the firing line of US/NATO operations to increasingly perceive NATO as an "occupation force." The significant rise in civilian deaths caused by ill-planned NATO air-strikes has alienated the very civilian population whose support is essential for the success of NATO mission.
It is not just in Afghanistan but also in the country’s neighbourhood, particularly Pakistan and Iran, that NATO’s Afghan mission has generated hostile public reaction. In the past couple of years, on a number of occasions, NATO also adopted a threatening posture vis-à-vis Pakistan’s tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
In order to stop the alleged infiltration of Taliban from the region into Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan forces have, in a number of reported instances, exchanged fire with Pakistani troops posted along the Durand Line. The NATO command may have engaged in hot pursuit of Taliban fleeing into Pakistan’s tribal region after conducting military operations in Afghanistan, but its said policy has not gone down well in Pakistani pubic opinion.
In Iran, Afghanistan’s next important neighbour in the south-west and not far from the areas of intense Taliban-led militancy, public perceptions about NATO’s role in Afghanistan and beyond are no different than those existing in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan—but for an additional reason: Unlike Pakistan, Iran was anti-Taliban. US/NATO’s failure to enlist Iranian support to secure and stabilize Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, therefore, constitutes an important reason behind growing Taliban-led militarism in Afghanistan and consequent NATO’s failure to provide security and stability in the war-torn country.
Since US attempts to up the ante over Iran’s nuclear issue have taken place side by side with NATO’s expanding operational mission in Afghanistan, it is but natural for the Iranians to perceive the former as indicative of NATO’s US-dictated expansionist policy vis-à-vis Iran. In retrospect, therefore, NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan neither has the requisite domestic pubic approval nor is it perceived as friendly in countries bordering Afghanistan, including perhaps Central Asia as well, where regimes’ preference is to consolidate ties with China and Russia within the framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In the absence of Afghan public approval and friendly regional climate, the NATO mission in Afghanistan will continue to hang in the balance.