h) Support for the insurgents arises in part from Afghan anger over their long exposure to foreign (British, Russian and now American) control or occupation. It is also due to Taliban organizational effectiveness and a sensitive and wide-ranging intelligence. Actions demonstrate that the Taliban have the ability to identify and neutralize pro-American Afghans and are believed to have infiltrated all organs of the central regime.
i) Certainly in the Pashtun areas but also even among the minority community areas, there is evident respect for the Taliban as the only Afghan organization fully opposed to foreign domination. Among the Tajiks, for example, the Taliban have significant support.
j) Militarily, of course, American troops win all the battles. But our forces are caught, as in other insurgencies they have been, in a conflict of tactics: if it is to be effective in military terms, it is often self-defeating politically. To catch an insurgent thought to be hiding in a village house, a patrol, usually now a Special Operations force, must search even those parts of the house regarded by the inhabitants as haram (forbidden) territory. Whether or not the soldiers catch the suspect, they almost certainly make enemies of the household and its neighbors. And, using distant forms of warfare, particularly missiles fired from drones, has unavoidably resulted in civilian casualties with the same effect. More subtly, the drone has created a sense of almost-medieval dread of unseen, diabolic powers which, obviously, fix an image of America. Finally, the practice of “taking out” Taliban leaders has not stopped the flow of new recruits. Arguably what it has done is more dangerous for the future: the targeted men are now relatively elderly and their removal has opened the way for younger and probably more radical insurgents with less experience and less balance. This probably will intensify fighting and will make ultimate negotiations more difficult.
k) Counterinsurgency did not work in Vietnam and opinions differ on its results in Iraq. In any case, Iraq is very different from Afghanistan, and it is not working here. Not only the Afghans, but nearly everyone in all cultures and all political systems has a deep aversion to foreigners on his land. As far as we know, this feeling goes back to the very beginning of our species because, simply put, we are territorial animals. Dedication to the protection of homeland permeates history from the earliest times. And the sentiment has never died out. Today we call it nationalism. Nationalism in various guises is the most powerful political idea of our times. Protecting land, culture, religion and people from foreigners is the central issue in insurgency. The former head of the Pakistani intelligence service, who has had unparalleled experience with the Taliban over many years, advised us that the Afghan insurgents see themselves as “… freedom ﬁghters ﬁghting for their country and ﬁghting for their faith.” We agreed with this description when Afghan insurgents were ﬁghting the Russians; now, when many of the same people are ﬁghting us, we see them only as terrorists.
l) Afghanistan is the most dedicated of the Islamic countries. While it is divided between the two major sects, Sunnism and Shiism, it permeates all aspects of Afghan life. The Sunni sect, particularly, is shaped by three currents: Afghan cultural traditions, the salafiyah or “puritan” tide of thought that grew in reaction to European imperialism and colonialism and the educational experience of the refugees in Pakistan. While we can separate these analytically, the Afghans see their confluence as the “real” or correct Islam. Sunnis are wholly dedicated to it; Shiis, while deriving some of their current attitudes from different sources and experiences, are not less dedicated to Islam. Both communities tend to equate American actions in Afghanistan with an attack on their religion. Anti-Muslim sentiments in America, as reported in the Afghan press and discussed from the pulpits, is taken as bearing out this opinion. President Obama’s Cairo speech on multiculturalism was an important deterrent to this belief, but it is of fading effectiveness.
The Taliban derive respect for their religious dedication (even apparently among the Shiis there is respect for the Sunni Taliban as true Muslims) and are able to depict themselves as true Muslims who oppose the foreign anti- Muslim Americans.
m) Historically, Afghanistan has always had a relatively weak central government with a large degree of regional autonomy. American political actions have gone against this historical precedent, accentuating the creation of a strong central government, while at the same time holding serious reservations about the integrity, capacity and durability of current central government Militarily and economically, however, the US has emphasized the provinces. After all, the war it is fighting is a rural war. And to fight that war, the US Army has inadvertently undermined the central government. Economically, this trend is also clear. Some months ago, some 92% of American aid bypassed the central government; today approximately 80% of all US aid and military subventions go directly into the hands of local authorities or warlords. [This is an echo of Vietnam where to avoid aid being stolen by venal officials, aid was delivered by American officials direct to villagers. The aid got through but the effect was to show the villagers that they had no native government. So when Americans withdrew, there were neither effective South Vietnamese institutions nor public loyalty to prevent the take- over of the Viet Minh.]
n) Warlords come in various varieties. The more powerful control whole provinces or ethnic communities. For example, “Marshal” Abdul Rashid Dostam parlayed his Jauzjani militia into control of most of the Uzbek community and area.
But many “power brokers” control only neighborhoods or stretches of roads. One who was discussed in The Washington Post earlier this month has only 40 gunmen and controls only about 4 square miles. Another, was described in The New York Times this month as “an illiterate former highway patrol commander [who] has grown stronger than the government of Oruzgan Province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees and doling out government largess…allegedly, his operations take in about $2.5 million a month by charging $1,200 for each NATO cargo truck to which it gives safe passage.” Groups like this are found all over Afghanistan and in the aggregate the payoff to them is huge. A Congressional investigation entitled “Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan,” published in June this year, showed that to implement a $2.16 billion transport contract the US military is paying tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and (indirectly) the Taliban.
More important from a policy perspective than the money is that is that the American army, the Special Forces and the CIA have associated themselves with, and often paid, warlords to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys and/or to gather intelligence and fight insurgents. As General Petraeus recently told his staff, “Remember, we are who we fund.” Since these warlords are generally at least corrupt and usually are brutal, the association of them with America has undoubtedly been a major asset for the Taliban.
2) As I have said, I will not here discuss Pakistan in detail, but it obviously is playing and will play a major role in Pashtun/Taliban affairs. Its population contains about double the number of Pashtuns as are found in Afghanistan. They were “artificially” separated by the British in 1893 with a new 1,600 mile-long frontier. The British intent was to weaken the tribesmen. Periodically, the Pashtuns have made attempts to reunite themselves and always have moved more or less freely across the Durand Line. Since the capital of Pakistan is about as close to the frontier as Hartford is to New York, Pakistan has a strategic interest in Afghan affairs that transcends, but incorporates, politics, ethnicity and religion. Pakistan’s policy, regardless of the nature of its regime, will also be shaped by Islam. This contributes to a deep emotional and military involvement in the fate of Kashmir. And, since most of Kashmir has been under a harsh military occupation for over half a century, now effected by a 700,000 man Indian army, Pakistan’s fixation on Kashmir both weakens the Pakistani state and forms a part of the basis for hostility to and fear of India. I have discussed the triangle of India-Kashmir- Pakistan elsewhere, but it is too complex to squeeze into this small paper.