Analysis: Taliban resurgence —Najmuddin A Shaikh
Barring some voices, the general consensus in the US is that America has no choice in Afghanistan but to stay the course. The new president, whoever he might be, will have to send additional troops to Afghanistan
Recent attacks on American troops
in Eastern Afghanistan, notably the deadliest in Wanat which killed nine soldiers, are evidence of Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, just as events in Hangu show their growing assertion of power in Pakistan.
The Pakistan army is closing in on the militants’ redoubts in Hangu and commanders are not being deterred by the threats that the Taliban will start killing the hostages they hold unless the operation is halted. The fighting is likely to spread to the Orakzai Agency where militants retreat after operating in Hangu and adjoining areas. Will this operation be allowed to continue? Will the Pakistan army be authorised and willing to hit the militants hard enough to permit the tribal elders of the region to come to the negotiating table, agree to expel all foreign militants and end the use of the area for cross-border operations in return for economic development and the dispensation of quick justice?
Meanwhile, the Taliban have set up permanent courts in Mohmand Agency and these bodies are dispensing justice to supplicants. This suggests further erosion of state authority in the Tribal Areas. Reports in the US press claim that the number of foreign insurgents in the Tribal Areas is increasing and that in a reversal of past trends militants seeking martyrdom have now chosen to move to this area rather than go to Iraq.
This is an ominous development. It needs to be determined how they are entering Afghanistan or the tribal areas. Could it be through the smuggling routes using dhows from Dubai or even our own airports? Can we ensure that our immigration officials who may be allowing other smuggling intercept at least the foreign insurgents coming from the Middle East?
Despite the Taliban ultimatums, the Frontier government is still anxious to preserve the peace deal it made earlier in Swat. Can this hold if the Swat negotiators are taking orders from Baitullah Mehsud who has made it clear that he would not agree to stop cross-border attacks because “Islam does not recognise frontiers and borders”? The most benign interpretation of this statement means that Mehsud is seeking a merger of the Tribal Areas and the Frontier province with Afghanistan.
NWFP chief minister, Ameer Haider Hoti, claims that past governments had built up armed factions as a tool of foreign policy and now no one knows how to handle this monster. True. But now the monster has to be leashed and the Frontier government has to take the lead in devising policies that would erode the support-base of this monster and interdict the funding that is keeping it alive.
Some of their funding comes from the Taliban in Afghanistan who, says the UN, are earning USD100 million annually from the imposition of ushr on opium farmers. This figure is clearly exaggerated. Much of the ushr goes to local warlords and to Karzai’s officials. The last reliable estimate that I heard from American scholars was that about $32 million are collected by the Taliban and this is not enough to cover more than a small part of the expenses of the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan itself. The Havala system continues to function but there is no doubt that much of the money still comes in briefcases and could be interdicted at our border points. Can we do it?
In Afghanistan, the Americans have abandoned the new post they were setting up at Wanat but they have launched a number of operations that have perhaps killed major Taliban leaders at the cost of civilian casualties. Of particular significance is the killing of Nasrullah Khan of the Shindand region. He was labelled a prominent Taliban by the Americans but he was also the man seated next to Karzai when he last visited the region.
The two developments call into question two basic tenets of the revised American policy in Afghanistan. The first was contained in the 2006 counter-insurgency manual and exhorts the occupation forces to “protect the population”: these forces must not only “find, fix, finish” the enemy but to “clear, hold, build”.
Local commanders in Eastern Afghanistan were given funds to undertake projects and win over the local population. This required them to have on hand the troops that would protect local “collaborators” against Taliban reprisals. Now the locals who facilitated the setting up of the American base at Wanat will be on their own against a substantial Taliban presence in the area. Not exactly the formula for securing local collaboration in other areas. The second tenet was promoting reconciliation with the reconcilable Taliban. The killing of a tribal leader of Nasrullah Khan’s status will certainly jeopardise this process.
There seems little prospect of the Karzai government improving its governance or of the Allied campaign to win the hearts and minds succeeding in the near future even as reports in the US media increasingly focus on Afghanistan and the fact that more allied lives have been lost ther than in Iraq during the last two months.
Barring some voices, the general consensus in the US is that America has no choice in Afghanistan but to stay the course. The new president, whoever he might be, will have to send additional troops to Afghanistan. In an off-the-record briefing, President Bush warned that the new president will have to worry not about Iraq or Afghanistan but about Pakistan.
Pentagon has sought USD62 million funding in the 2008 budget for an ammunition storage facility at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base, arguing that “a forward operating site, Bagram must be able to provide for a long term, steady state presence which is able to surge to meet theatre contingency requirements”. I have no doubt that the Americans will not leave Afghanistan until the threat they believe exists in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal area has been eliminated or at least reduced to insignificance.
The positive development is the bill presented in the Senate by Senator Biden and Senator Lugar to pledge USD15 billion in economic aid to Pakistan over the next ten years and to ensure that any military aid granted in addition should focus exclusively on augmenting the Pakistani capacity to fight the insurgents.
But alongside this are reports that examine the legal dimension of the doctrine of hot pursuit that the Americans with their legendary impatience are going to try to eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan with or without Pakistani cooperation. Some observers warn that President Bush is desperately looking for some success in the last days of his Presidency and may well authorise some ill-advised action.
The New York Times in an editorial warns that “sending United States troops into Pakistan’s border regions... would provoke even fiercer anti-American furies across Pakistan”, but demands that “Pakistan’s civilian leaders and the new military commander, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, will need to commit to fighting the extremists...”.
The editorial recognises that “local tribal leaders also need to be weaned away from the Taliban. That would only happen if Islamabad and Washington back their exhortations with substantial economic assistance”. This along with the measures on depriving the Taliban of their base of financial support is what we should as a united country focus on.
The writer is a former foreign secretary