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    South Asia
     Mar 28, 2012

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Taliban's peace options limited
By Brian M Downing

Over the past 10 years, the Taliban have recovered from their ouster and established a presence in half of Afghanistan's districts, where they have become a de facto government in many of them. The Afghan government is frail and unwilling to reform. The United States is war-weary and looking for the way out. Negotiations are in the offing.

One American and two Britons were killed this week by Afghan soldiers in separate incidents, bringing the number of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops killed in 2012 to 16. These 16 service members - 18% of the 84 foreign troops killed so far this year - have been shot and killed by Afghan soldiers and policemen or militants disguised in their uniforms.

Such attacks are a severe test of the relationship between the


foreign troops and the Afghans they are training to take over security of the country after the United States-led coalition withdraws most of its combat forces by the end of 2014. They also serve to speed up the peace process with the Taliban.

At the same time, the recent Koran-burning incident by international forces and the massacre of civilians in Kandahar by a US soldier have raised the ire of Afghans and reduced the US's bargaining position with the Taliban. The Taliban's position seems quite strong and many see them eventually reasserting control over the country. They are indeed strong, but they have little chance of conquering the country or imposing a settlement on it.

The Taliban will eventually resume talks with the US, a former commander said, but it will depend on how Washington repairs trust damaged by a string of incidents, notably the killing of 16 Afghans blamed on a US soldier, Reuters reports.

The Taliban suspended earlier contact, blaming the US for failing to deliver on a promise to transfer five of its leaders held by the US military in Guantanamo Bay.

Stalemate, attrition and the limits of insurgency
It is often noted that the US is mired in a stalemate, but it is seldom noted that the Taliban are as well. Generals since Antiquity have known that stalemates, long sieges and lack of momentum can take larger tolls than battles can.

In the mid-1990s, Taliban bands swept up from the south and took control of Kabul and a good deal of the country, though by no means all of it. Unlike today, their successes were not based on insurgency. The Taliban cobbled together various madrassa (seminaries) and tribal militias and fought in a more or less conventional manner. Using trucks and captured Soviet armor, they seized strategic crossroads, outmaneuvered their enemy, and pushed them into a northern pocket of resistance, where the Northern Alliance maintained a foothold until the Taliban were ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001.

The Taliban's resurgence has been much slower and has been based on insurgency, not conventional warfare, and this presents serious limitations for them. Taliban bands parley with local tribes, identify grievances, then form a shadow government and operate guerrilla bands in the district.

In 2007 and 2008, the Taliban began to attack in larger formations and tried to hold positions, thereby approximating conventional war, but they took heavy casualties doing so and had to retreat to mountain sanctuaries.

Since then, the Taliban have relied more on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and assassinations than on ground engagements, idling many fighters. Large-scale attacks occasionally take place, likely to show the capacity to strike unexpectedly, appease firebrand commanders, and maintain morale in guerrilla bands that are otherwise unoccupied.

The Taliban have gained as much control of the country as possible. They have been successful in the Pashtun areas of the south and east, but have made only limited headway in the north among the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Most of those northern peoples despise the Taliban and will not abide their return.

Furthermore, in the estimation of those who have faced them, whether in the present war or in the Soviet war of the 1980s, the Pashtun mujahideen or Taliban are tenacious and knowledgeable of the terrain, but unskilled in basic ground tactics and infiltration/exfiltration techniques. This is the baleful result of basing warfare on tribal customs, which served them well since the days of Rudyard Kipling and before in the 19th century, but which an adaptive enemy will recognize, exploit, though never honor.

Limited use and almost no progress may be taking a toll on Taliban bands. They are not fanatical warriors eager for heavenly reward. They are mainly practical soldiers, dedicated to ridding their district of corrupt officials and foreign troops. As many districts are now rid of both and as the US withdraws from many others, Taliban fighters may be less motivated to stay on with their bands rather than return home.

The Taliban faced desertions and flagging morale in the mid-1990s as their siege of Kabul dragged on for months, until al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden convinced some eastern Pashtun bands to reinforce them. The stalemate of the past two years presents them with a similar problem. The tedium of being simply lookouts for IED teams and hefting supplies across long distances, the frustration of sudden and lethal fire from unseen snipers and drones, and the toll from the elements and treacherous paths along mountain crags will weaken resolve and morale.

Northern peoples, then and now
The opposition of northern peoples form a serious obstacle to a Taliban-dominated country. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, the Taliban drove the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias into a northern pocket, but could not vanquish them. It was essentially the same pocket from which the famed Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud had held off the Russian army for many years.

Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 on the US, the northern militias, with only a modicum of US air support, rolled up Taliban position one after another. The Taliban could not stand up to the Northern Alliance once the latter obtained US support. Since then, the Taliban have lost their mechanized infantry and armor assets and they fight solely as networks of small guerrilla bands and bomb-makers.

The northern militias have allegedly disbanded - their armor, artillery and troops now parts of the Afghan National Army (ANA).

Americans think of military service as an institution that integrates disparate people into a national whole; Afghans see it as an institution in which one people tries to dominate others. Historically, that has meant the Pashtuns over the others. Northerners predominate in the rank and file while southerners (Pashtun) the officer corps, especially battalion commands and higher.

Northerners greatly mistrust the Kabul government as another Pashtun-dominated nuisance and one that may be so weak and foolish as to give too much to the Taliban in a settlement. Northern officer networks remain intact while the rank and file resent and mistrust Pashtun officers forced upon them. Northerners are capable of reforming in the non-Pashtun regions and fighting the Taliban once again.

As the Taliban have little popular support there, the war would not be an insurgency. It would be a conventional campaign, as it was in the 1990s - a form of warfare at which Taliban guerrillas do not excel. As noted, the northerners thrashed them in 2001 with US help. Even should the US abandon Afghanistan once more, the northerners can rely on a considerable amount of help from other sources.

Regional powers
The interests of neighboring countries greatly disfavor the Taliban and pose a serious if largely unstated warning to their ambitions. The Taliban have the open support of only Pakistan, which sees them as an ally against India and a partner in Central Asian commerce. Pakistan's interests are strong; its stability is not.

Saudi Arabia and China may be silent backers as well. The Saudis see them as Wahhabi cousins and staunch enemies of Shi'ism and Iran. China sees Afghanistan as rich in commodities, especially copper, iron, rare earths and hydrocarbons.

It has many enterprises already in operation and has delivered handsome subsidies to the Kabul government, or at least a minister or two. But China is hedging its bets as some of its assets are in districts with strong insurgent groups which have thus far not interfered with business for one reason or another. Perhaps China has also delivered handsome subsidies to the Pakistani government, or at least an insurgent commander or two.

Northern peoples have much more substantial international support. They have long been backed by Russia, India, Iran and the Muslim republics to the north - all of whom oppose the Taliban and will use their resources to prevent their return, perhaps by reconstituting and rearming the Northern Alliance.

Russia views the Taliban and other militant groups arrayed in eastern Afghanistan as an Islamist threat to it and client states in Central Asia as well. Islamism is a rising movement in the world and could spread into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where militancy is in ferment.

Remnants of the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan operate with al-Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan and seek to regain influence up in the "Stans". Ties between al-Qaeda in the AfPak region and terrorist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan are also worrisome. Better to halt such groups in southern Afghanistan, Moscow reasons. And the northerners will be key partners in that endeavor.

Iran plays both sides in Afghanistan, but long-term interests lie with northerners. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps delivers some supplies to the Taliban and trains some fighters inside Iran, but this is more of a warning to the US: attacking Iran will have consequences in Afghanistan.

Tehran recalls the Taliban's inhuman treatment of Shi'ites in central Afghanistan, where thousands of Hazaras were killed in rampages. The Taliban also took over the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif (1998) and killed several diplomats and a journalist.

The Taliban are deemed a volatile intolerant Sunni sect tied albeit indirectly to Iran's chief rival for mastery in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, which bestows generous sums on the Deobandi madrassas that impart their militant, anti-Shi'ite teachings to students on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran has cultural ties to the Tajik people, who make up about 25% of the Afghan population. Tajiks fielded one of the more effective fighting forces against the Soviet Union during the 1980s and later against the Taliban, holding out against each foe in their Panjshir Valley redoubt. Paradoxically, perhaps even unknowingly, when the US intervened in 2001, it sided not only with the Tajiks and other northerners, but also with Iran.

Continued 1 2  

Two faces of Islamism in Afpak
(Mar 24, '12)

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9. The China-US rare earth games

10. Takahiro Miyao and William S Comanor

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 26, 2012)


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