The Return of the Taliban
Afghanistan: NATO challenged by the Taliban Threat
LEMONDE.FR | 12.FEB.07 | 11:31 • Updated 15.02.07 | 16:04
Chat with Etienne de Durand, Fellow, IFRI, expert in defense and security matters, Thursday, February 15th, 2006
Q. What are the reasons for the initial withdrawal by the Taliban, then their return in force today?
A. This looks like an innocent question, but in fact this question raises the issue of Western intervention in Afghanistan. We should recall the context in which intervention occurred. The US invasion to place following 9-11 –a plot that directly implicated the Taliban in that they had close ties to the leadership of al-Qaeda.
This time, the Taliban were attempting to win a victory in the long civil war in Afghanistan and to put an end to the Northern Alliance for good. It was no accident that Commander Massoud was assassinated just before 9-11, on September 9th. Locally, the Taliban were in the process of winning their victory.
At the same time, the policies that they conducted alienated the vast majority of the Afghani people, including the Pashtoon. Consequently, when the Americans and the Westerners arrived, they were welcomed at first as liberators, both in the political sense (because of the extremely repressive measures put in place by the Taliban, especially the moral clampdown with prohibitions on music, film, dancing, and even kite flying, a traditional Afghani pastime) and in the economic sense-the Taliban period proved to have been a catastrophe.
In fact, the only satisfaction achieved by the Taliban in the eyes of the Afghani population was the restoration of security following the ravages of the warlords.
Once again, the Westerners were relatively well regarded by a population that is relatively suspicious of the foreign presence in Afghanistan. But the population had great expectations of the Westerners, most of which were unrealistic, as to reconstruction and economic development. The Afghanis had less desire for “civilization” –the Western political model– than for Western prosperity.
From this point of view, there was actually a window of opportunity in 2002 and 2003. Unfortunately, the window was not correctly leveraged by the West. On the one hand, the Americans were satisfied with merely pursuing al-Qaeda militants and the remainder of the Taliban as they turned their attention more and more to Iraq. On the other hand, the Europeans were at first extremely timid and contented themselves with patrolling Kabul.
But the expectations of the population, especially in the Pashtoon areas, were not satisfied and the progress achieved by the West in rebuilding the economy and stability was not rapid enough to compensate for popular disappointment. We now find ourselves in a situation in which the insurrection has been able to reestablish itself politically and therefore civically, especially in the Pashtoon areas, as the West concentrated on the military and financial aspects.
Q. Will the intensification in combat and the increasing losses lead to a retreat of the contingents of certain contributors? Can we expect the Taliban and their allies to strike Europe?
A. The first question is pertinent, because this is certainly the strategy of the Taliban. The Taliban know very well that they cannot take Kabul by force as long as the West and especially the Americans remain.
They have adopted a classic insurrectional strategy: discourage the Western powers by increasing the political costs of their presence, especially by killing Western troops, and generating an atmosphere of insecurity throughout the country in order to slow and even block the reconstruction of infrastructure and the Afghan economy, thus sowing discontent among the population and therefore stronger support for the insurrection.
The second question is far different -predicting what will happen if we abandon Afghanistan as we did after the Soviets withdrew. The first consequence would surely be the resumption of the civil war, with on the one side, a stronger Taliban supported by the Pashtoon and backed by Pakistan, and the other, a heteroclite alliance essentially composed of minorities (Tadjiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks) and supported to varying degrees by India, Iran and Russia.
If the neo-Taliban regain power, the fallout could be the reversion to the situation prior to 9-11 and the use of the country as a gigantic sanctuary in which Bin Laden's organization could recruit and train a new generation of Jihadists.
Q. It is certain that NATO will deploy troops to Afghanistan who can do the job? Should they convince or win a victory?
A. That’s a very good question! NATO has to do both. NATO cannot win until it convinces the Afghanis. NATO troops are perhaps in a position to do so. The main problem is the lack on a genuine agreement among the Western powers as to the objectives to be pursued. This fluid situation can be translated into rules of engagement (“caveats”) that vary widely, introducing losses in efficiency.
Q. Is NATO intervention sees as backing President Karzai? Is Karzai discredited? Is NATO doing the right thing?
A. The question is whether the West entered Afghanistan with a strategy in the first place. NATO deployed to Afghanistan only progressively and there was a dual chain of command between Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO until 2005.
Q. How do you explain NATO’s diverging objectives?
A. The aim of an alliance is to unite member states which could have very divergent points of view on the nature of the mission and the most suitable methods.
Q. Since it is known that the insurgents (the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) use Pakistan as a refuge, how can the conflict be settled in Afghanistan if Musharref does not “clean up" his own country?
A. It’s true that historically it is very difficult to defeat an insurrection that benefits from a cross-border refuge. From this point of view, the cooperation of Pakistan has been essential.
Unfortunately, given the instability in the country, the fragility of the Musharref régime, the existence of strong currents of extremism in Pakistan itself, and –last but not least- Pakistan’s possession of a nuclear arsenal, it is very difficult and dangerous to put heavy pressure on that country. We’ll have to get along with Pakistan’s half-measures.
Q. How long and at what price can Pakistan continue to support the Taliban?
A. As long as it takes, because Afghanistan represents a vital interest to Pakistan. Pakistan’s nightmare scenario is an alliance between India and a hostile regime in Kabul. Give this perspective, the Afghan government is going to have to make a few concessions to Islamabad, such as recognizing a permanent frontier between the two countries.
Q. You mention the support of Pakistan for the Taliban. So what about this “War on Terror” that the US and Pakistani government are allegedly waging together?
A. At the outset, Pakistan cooperated rather well with the West, probably until 2005. However, they were never prepared to go all the way given the political danger that overly repressive policies would pose to Pervez Musharraf.
But later, either the Pakistani government or certain elements within the ISI (Inter Service Intelligence, the Pakistani clandestine services) decided that the war was taking a new tack and that it was necessary to revert to the strategy prior to 9-11.
Given the Taliban’s weapons and training observed last fall, it is almost certain that these recruits were receiving high-level support from the other side of the frontier.
Q. Bin Laden is still at large. Do you suspect that the United States and Britain have no desire to capture Bin Laden? Could the US and the UK possibly be using Bin Laden and the Taliban in their strategy for the Middle East?
A. That’s just not believable. Number 1, because it is extremely difficult to pinpoint in a land of almost inaccessible deserts and mountains. With drone cameras or satellite images it is very difficult to discern an Afghan civilian from a Taliban: both would have a turban, a beard and a Kalashnikov.
Number 2, a cynical manipulation like that, if uncovered, would cause an unprecedented political scandal. In the United States especially, there are always leaks and in the end, everything is revealed (e.g., the political machinations preceding the war in Iraq).
Q. Would Iran use Afghanistan as a nursery and a lever against "The West”, despite the traditional schism between Sunnis and Shi’a?
A. It is certain that a Western military operation against Iran because of its nuclear program would create innumerable problems in Afghanistan, especially where it enjoys local support (the Western Tadjiks and the Hazaras). In general, the Iran’s main concern in Afghanistan, if not to counter Pakistan, it is to ensure that the regime in Kabul is not hostile to it (in 1997, Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban). In this situation, like many others, Iran is playing a double game at several levels (it sheltered Sunni extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for quite some time).
Q. Is the Karzai administration, supported by Western forces, especially the United States, sufficiently solid to introduce reform across the country and begin rebuilding?
A. It is obvious that the Karzai government is very weak. That said, Afghan governments are traditionally weak, and it is not certain that it wouldn’t create more problems than it would solve should it attempt to build a strong central government.
Moreover, in the short term the country has more of a need for economic gains and improvements that would be apparent to the Afghani people rather than deep reform. It is up to the Afghani people whether to make these reforms.
Q. Opium production has recovered since the fall of the Taliban. How does this complicate NATO’s mission? Is it marginal or central?
A. There is a lot of debate about that. Some believe that the cultivation and trafficking of opium are at the heart of the instability in Afghanistan. If this is correct, then the revenue from opium permits not only the local warlords to assert their power to the detriment of the government but adds to the generalized corruption that rages throughout the country and provides financing to the Taliban.
Others believe that it is necessary to distinguish the "geographic security" of Afghanistan, i.e. the battle against the Taliban, and the repair of the internal situation. In other words, should the West become massively engaged in the prevention of opium trafficking, that carries the risk of alienating large swaths of the population, because the Afghanis heavily rely on opium revenue. But if this is so, then fighting opium trafficking plays politically into the hands of the Taliban.
Q. What is the role of the Afghani people in all this? Could they promote a new era, oriented to the West, or restore the Taliban to power?
A. Given the insurrectional context, the population is naturally a central strategic stake. It is their attitude that will determine whether the current pro-Western political system survives in power or whether the country is plunged back into civil war. That said, the Afghani people are less preoccupied by big questions of an ideological nature (rapprochement with the West or not) than with daily survival.
Once again, rapid and visible improvement in the conditions of daily life (economic growth, access to a minimum of health care, the safety of persons and things....) is likely to rally the population to the Karzai government. The West can only offer assistance to the rebuilding process, which is up to the Afghanis.
Chat moderated by Philippe Le Cœur and Gaïdz Minassian