So I’m breaking my own rules in this second post (a little bit). I said these posts would only be buitl around the interviews in this PBS documentary, but then Peter Bergen had to go and write a really important piece in TNR that merits some comment.
The central thrust of Bergen’s argument is:
“Today, at the leadership level, the Taliban and Al Qaeda function more or less as a single entity.”
Bergen here means the high leadership level of both the Afghan Taliban (or more properly Quetta Shura led by Mullah Omar) and The Tehrik-i-Pakistani, i.e. The Pakistani Taliban (now under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud).
The evidence he provides is substantial with Bergen arguing that al-Qaeda has essentially become a kind of embedded military trainer for The Taliban leadership.
Bergen then proceeds to knock down various counterarguments that for example al-Qaeda will move to Somalia or Yemen and thereby be as effective as in Pakistan-Afghanistan. Or that the internet allows for more training or that urban centers in the West are grounds for the training of terrorist attacks. As to the latter, the real operational training took place in Afghanistan and Pakistan, whatever logistical and coordinational plans were hatched in Western cities (e.g. Hamburg in 9/11).
Bergen is the Western world authority on al-Qaeda, so I think he makes a persuasive case that the leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are in deep symbiosis.
However there is this point:
And it is also true that Taliban foot soldiers today are fighting for any number of reasons–ranging from cash payments, to tribal opposition to the government, to a hatred of foreigners.
This leaves a potential opening for what in COIN terminology is called separating the reconcilables and the irreconcilables. The reconcilables being drawn from the “foot soldier” ranks, the irreconcilables being the top layer leadership.
Now reconciliation to what? And here I think Bergen near the end of the article leaves something to be desired.
Of course, the centrality of Afghanistan to the war on terrorism is separate from the matter of whether we can actually secure the country. But, while Afghanistan will not be transformed into a stable country easily or quickly, we should take heart from the fact that the Afghan people want us to try. Most polls since the fall of the Taliban have found that a majority of Afghans hold a favorable view of the international presence in their country. Nationwide surveys conducted earlier this year showed that 62 percent of Afghans view the United States favorably and 63 percent support the U.S. military. By contrast, the Taliban’s favorable ratings are consistently below 10 percent.
That first sentence is killer. Whether “we can actually secure the country” is yeah sort of important. And not something we should probably try to skip over in one sentence. The poll for example was conducted earlier tihs year. I wonder if opinions have changed relative to the international security forces? [The Taliban are undoubtedly not substantially more popular than they were.] Also does that approval necessarily mean the populace supports the creation of a strong central government, and many more thousands of troops? Maybe. But maybe not.
So Bergen’s thesis that Afghanistan is central to the war on terror can I think be accepted, also that at the leadership level there is a strong interconnection (very likely indissoluble) between al-Qaeda and The Taliban(s). Those ideas dovetail with Steve Coll’s assessment that The Taliban are a regional threat to South Asia. So the country is central to the war on terror and the stabilization of that very important region in the world.
And yet Afghanistan is the fourth poorest country in the world and “will not be transformed into a stable country easily or quickly.”
As a counterpoint to Bergen’s idea, consider this op-ed from Robert Pape (foremost expert on suicide terrrorism) on how to undertake a counterterrorism (instead of a COIN) strategy with regard to Afghanistan. For those who remember Pape’s absolutely must read and absorb its ideas text, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, argued that suicide terrorism is almost without exception the tool of nationalist or sub-nationalist insurgents/non-state actors against Western democractic occupations. And it is brutally effective.
Adding more troops into Afghanistan will consequently lead to more suicide bombings.
America will best serve its interests in Afghanistan and the region by shifting to a new strategy of off-shore balancing, which relies on air and naval power from a distance, while also working with local security forces on the ground.
Fortunately, the United States does not need to station large ground forces in Afghanistan to keep it from being a significant safe haven for Al Qaeda or any other anti-American terrorists. This can be achieved by a strategy that relies on over-the-horizon air, naval and rapidly deployable ground forces, combined with training and equipping local groups to oppose the Taliban.
Now this strategy of course would end up in more civilian deaths via the use of air power. That has to be balanced (if it’s possible to make these calculations) without how many civilians will be killed in the crossfire between a US army underataking more forward kinetic operations in a COIN style and The Taliban.
But I think Pape is on to something with this:
Further, the United States and its allies have made some efforts to lead Pashtun tribal militias in the southern and eastern areas to abandon their support for the Taliban and, if not switch to America’s side, to at least stay neutral. For instance, the largest British gains in the southwest came from winning the support of Mullah Salam, a former Taliban commander who is the district governor of Musa Qala.
Early this year the United States started what it calls the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program, offering monthly stipends to tribal and local leaders in exchange for their cooperation against the Taliban insurgency. The program is financed at too low a level — approximately $20 million a year — to compete with alternatives that the Taliban can offer like protection for poppy cultivation that is worth some $3 billion a year.
Again this would require working around the central government as well as the creation of a national army/police force.
In other words, combining Bergen and Pape, we could look towards a ocunterinsurgency (i.e. population-centric stance) which would be a light footprint and work with tribal leaders instead of trying to build a national government. It still would be opposed to the Taliban and could use its air and naval power to support various local “bought” allies.