It is clear that the Taliban are not as monolithic as sometimes assumed. Various power centres have developed and many vested interests have been created. The Taliban that have spoken about negotiations do not represent mainstream Taliban
The military situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply in this year. The UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told the Security Council a few days ago that the number of security incidents in July and August were approximately 40 percent higher than in the same period in 2007. Earlier, the UN had reported that 1445 civilians had been killed in the first eight months of 2008, again around 40 percent more than in the same period in 2007.
And it is not just the security incidents. The Taliban are now rapidly expanding their zone of control. According to an American reporter, they are said to have a presence in all seven districts of the Logar province (about 40 km from Kabul), and total control in four of them. In Ghazni, the Taliban control 13 out of the 18 districts completely; while in Wardak, they control 6 out of 8.
In May this year, the Americans estimated that the Taliban have a fighting force of between 5,000 and 20,000, with about 1000 each for Hekmatyar and Haqqani, the other principal opponents of the Karzai regime.
The control the Taliban exercise over the provinces bordering Kabul, and the two large-scale attacks they launched on Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand and the largest producer of opium in Afghanistan, suggest that that either their strength is much higher, or they are able to deploy their resources more effectively than the coalition. They appear to have the resources to provide their foot-soldiers with better arms than are available to most of the Afghan army or police. Part of this is their drug revenue, but another part comes from foreign donors, who probably route their contributions through the Al Qaeda network.
The Afghan defence minister has claimed that Taliban activity has increased after the winding down of insurgency in Iraq, because those fighters have migrated to Afghanistan and jointed the Taliban. He has, however, offered no explanation of how these fighters reached Afghanistan. It would appear unlikely that they came through Pakistan, given the strict security now being maintained at Pakistani airports. This too, if it has indeed happened, can only be attributable to the Al Qaeda network.
There has been no noticeable improvement in governance in Afghanistan. Under western pressure, President Karzai reshuffled his cabinet last week, bringing in Mr Atmar as the new interior minister. Atmar is a former communist Pashtun, and during Najibullah’s time was an official of the Afghan intelligence agency, KHAD. The former interior minister, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, long accused of corruption, was not removed but instead shifted to the ministry for refugees.
This cabinet reshuffle was welcomed by UN envoy Eide as ‘a demonstration’ of the political determination to implement the agreed agenda, particularly of strengthening the Afghan police.
It is not clear whether the new interior minister will be able to effect change in the level of corruption in the police, or the protection offered to drug traffickers. A recent media comment on corruption in Afghanistan stated that “in the top levels of power…perhaps only the president’s brothers, Qayum and Mahmood, have taken possession of more land with no understandable way to pay for it.” It is of course widely known that the third Karzai brother, Wali, is accused of being a key player in the Kandahar opium trade.
The opium trade continues to be the mainstay of the Afghan economy. The Americans have now secured NATO support for the task of interdicting opium processing and smuggling in association with the Afghans, while leaving the interdiction of cultivation to Afghan authorities. The drug trade yields around $4 billion annually.
The Taliban receive an estimated $100 million from the tax they impose on growers and traffickers. This figure may be exaggerated, but it is clear that the Taliban and the drug lords have a common interest in fostering instability throughout the country, particularly in the opium-growing south and south-east. Officials in the Karzai regime are beneficiaries of this trade and are not expected to help curb it.
The Americans do not seem to have a clear strategy in Afghanistan. Various agencies in Washington are undertaking reviews, the most recent being one ordered by General Petraeus, the new CENTCOM commander. This review would cover the entire region, from Iraq to Pakistan, and would have two major themes: government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war.
Separately, the US President’s senior advisor on Afghanistan and Iraq has tasked various agencies to re-address basic questions, including American objectives in Afghanistan, what can be achieved and what can be expected from the Pakistani and Afghan governments.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Gates is pushing US allies to provide the funding needed to expand the Afghan army to 134,000. Apart from the $20 billion needed for this task, a further 2 to 2.5 billion dollars would be needed annually to maintain the force. This would obviously have to be paid by the US and its allies.
It is ambiguous what such an army would mean for the regional balance of force. Further, it is not clear whether raising a force of this size, given the difficulty of recruitment in Pashtun areas, will create an ethnically balanced force or further alienate the Pashtuns. Some reports suggest that currently, almost 70 percent of the officer corps is Tajik.
There have also been reports suggesting that US forces are now considering using local tribal militias to combat the Taliban. This in effect will mean a reversal of the UN-led disbanding and disarming of illegal armed groups and a return to the warlord culture that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the ouster of the Taliban.
The new US administration will try to chalk out a workable strategy for Afghanistan. It is clear, however, that American withdrawal is not on the cards for some time to come. By the end of this year, an additional US brigade will arrive in Afghanistan and another two will follow next year if the situation in Iraq permits.
US pressure on NATO allies to increase their commitments will continue. Despite the setbacks, the coalition will not leave the area until it is reasonably sure that the Al Qaeda threat has been eliminated.
Is there any substance to the talk of Saudi-brokered reconciliation between the Taliban and the Karzai government? Their only condition is for the Taliban to break their ties with Al Qaeda and, by implication, drive it out of Afghanistan. One hopes this happens, but prospects are slim.
For the moment, the Taliban are doing well. While their success is largely due to the blunders of the Karzai government and the coalition, Al Qaeda support has played a significant role. It is clear that the Taliban are not as monolithic as sometimes assumed. Various power centres have developed and many vested interests have been created. The Taliban that have spoken about negotiations do not represent mainstream Taliban.
Pakistan must therefore formulate its policy on the assumption that the Americans are in Afghanistan for quite some time, and that reconciliation is a long way off.
The writer is a former foreign secretary
Daily Times, 24/10/2008