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How long is the Afghan insurgency going to take?

Sanjar Quiam’s reflective commentary on what International forces face in Afghanistan
Sanjar Quiam
Tuesday 6 May 2008

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The current conflict in Afghanistan is a battle of will, the war challenges the will of international community to fight in Afghanistan, the will of Afghans in the future of their country, and finally the will of Taliban and insurgents to continue their battle against foreign troops. This story measures the will of Afghans and the lack of a self-rooted cause for having a peaceful country.

The will and motivation of international community to continue the war is less than their resources. The will and support for the war in Afghanistan lies in Western democracies such as Britain. The will and support of the public is going to be challenged as the price of war, both in human heads and dollars climb. The war is basically challenging the resources of international community in Afghanistan. The question is how tough the war going to be and whether it will need more resources and can the international community afford it?

The will of Afghans for any future peace is affected by their perception of the politics in their country, deeply affected by the war in the past, and the instigator of those wars. Militarization of politics in Afghanistan in the last three decades has turned the population into political cynics, distrusting politics and political leaders. Wars and armies in Afghanistan became heavily politicized in the 1970s as a result of two military coups. The politicisation of wars and the militarisation of politics continued as the country saw over a dozen regimes; ideologically opposing each other. War and politics got very dirty in Afghanistan when gradually military factions relied on their relevant ethnic groups for recruitment; gradually giving power to a variety of ethnic-regional factions, self-serving warlords, and criminal freebooters.

The situation fostered an intense competition for growth in factional militias through indiscriminate recruitment from their respective ethnic constituencies or, in the case of some parties, increased reliance on non-Afghans. The process not only ethnicised the warring militias but also brought large numbers of bandits, thugs, and criminal elements to the ranks of the competing factions. Factional—and nominally national—leaders were reluctant to prevent their allies from criminal activites, fearing their defection to a rival party. This gave a free hand to armed groups that had carved the country into fiefdoms and were involved in narcotics, plundering public and private property, extortion, corruption, rape, war crimes, and violence. The result was a population that lost trust in any military faction, political party, or self-declared leader.

The Afghan conflict is characterised by international intervention, and the international community has supported their own favourite factions over the last three decades. These factions including the ones currently in power, are involved in gross human rights violations. UN plans for peace in Afghanistan have always failed and resulted in further bloodshed. The UN plan for peaceful transfer of power from the Najib regime to a transitional government, was a set up to oust Najib from power.

It led to an intense power struggle among the Mujahideen groups who had taken over different parts of the country and seized or looted the government. Foreign supported groups in Afghanistan have been cleverly drafted to emphasize in an internal division within the opposing camps, resulting in the country sinking into devastating civil wars leading to foreign invasions, i.e. soviet 1979 - 1989, Pakistan 1994 – 2001 and international since 2001.

Political polarization of the county intensified as the wars developed. The wars in the last three decade assisted by foreign interventions have caused tremendous social change, ripping society apart vertically and horizontally. The wars have been a battle of Afghan against Afghan, and at the end it has been realised that they are not the ones who benefit; it’s the self-dubbed leaders and their foreign backers. Resulting in Afghan loss of trust in leaders and any political structure.

The reason for the growth of anti-foreign and government insurgency after international intervention is the lack of sympathy among the population to the government and the international community. The population stands by as Taliban and insurgents disrupt the state building process. In the current intervention, the international community has an agenda, which is to root out terrorism so it’s no longer a threat to them.
The question for Afghans is what is there for Afghans in it? Do they gain anything? Yes, their country is getting reconstructed. But the people who have been brought to power by the international community are not popular in the public eye. The international community seemed to intervene only to destroy the Taliban and opposition to its power.

The international community intervened with 6000 troops while they committed 40000 to Kosovo a country which is one sixth the size of Helmand, one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, under British auspices.
The international community clearly didn’t intervene to stabilise Afghanistan because the proportion of force was not enough for stabilisation. They depended on criminal elements and warlords accused of war crimes to control their respective territory. International troop size swelled as the fight with Taliban got tougher. The international community now has 50000 troops to fight the insurgency. The insurgency is not going to be won without public support, which lacks the will to support the government.

The Taliban were not ousted because of their poor human rights record, nor isolated internationally because of their medieval treatment of women, or their imposition of far-reaching social restrictions such as compulsory beard, dress code etc., or because of national economic failure. The Taliban were ousted merely because of extensive links to Deobandi religious schools - ‘madrassas’, to foreign extremist networks, and to wanted terrorists such as Osama bin laden.

As a matter of fact the Taliban implemented several good social policies, such as eradication of administrative corruption, disarmament of fighting groups, stabilising society and putting an end to village-level ethnic conflict, and prevention of poppy cultivation and drug production. These are all provisions which the current government and the international community have failed to prevent. This is compounded by rising social inequalities fuelled by drug money and generous bonuses to allies of the international community generous.

The war against the Taliban is going to be a long battle; the question I posed at the beginning was whether the international community has the resources to fight this war. The insurgents are mostly the product of the past wars and guerrilla warfare, the military establishment is conceptually oriented toward a war of attrition. It is a guerrilla war. This orientation shapes the underlying principles of its tactical and operational manoeuvre: elusiveness is considered the key to survival in drawn-out combat; the fight for survival calls for survival to fight; and trading territory for time constitutes the basis of operational resilience.

The tactic is vivid in Helmand where the towns switch control between the British army and the Taliban. The Taliban are reluctant to defend defensive lines at any cost. They have a good understanding of foreign armies tactical weight and their enemy’s offensive momentum. The Taliban know they can’t stand against well-armed western armies but they know foreign armies are overstretched and sporadic attacks will pressure their resources and morale.

The Taliban are light force mounted on pickup trucks or motorbikes tailored to ambush forward enemy bases, caravans and the government establishment. The war is against a ghost enemy, which retreats behind an imperceptible border into Pakistan. Pakistan is a safe haven for Taliban where international forces are denied entry. The Soviets lost the same war and history shows how difficult it is to defeat a cross border insurgency. Americans lost a similar war in Vietnam against Vietcong.

The Taliban rely heavily on the ethnic participation of Pashtuns, who see themselves isolated in the foreign mediated power share of the current government, and popular support in the south, south west and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban relies on religion to justify their fight and brutal punishment of civilians and enemies to intimidate the public.

The fight against Taliban cannot be won unless there is a positive change in the will and aspiration of Afghan public. Democracy is an empty word for many Afghans, pronounced by political leaders to exploit the ideology for their political ends. The word was popular from the 60s to late 80s. It has resurfaced after the international intervention. More than words such as democracy is needed to reinstate Afghan trust in the government. The insurgency is not beatable and its going to draw more support from the public as the conflict escalates.

The will of the Afghan people might be positively affected if they see changes in their daily lives. The current government is far too corrupt, and manipulated by criminals to be trusted. To change the government, the international community must pour more resources into Afghanistan. More money is needed to reform the government bureaucracy, rebuild infrastructure, and deliver more troops to provide security. Coupled with new state building strategies, foreign aid need to stop spending so much money on themselves and more on Afghanistan. Otherwise this is going to be a long and bloody war, not new to Afghanistan, but challenging to the will of international intervention.

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