‘The proposed new US approach pays very little attention to the reasons why many Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan support the Taliban.’ Photograph: AFP Photo/Getty Images
The most important result of Osama bin Laden’s death is likely to be a new US approach to Afghanistan. President Obama is now essentially in a position to “declare victory and get out”, without risking too much in terms of US public and military opinion. Unfortunately, everything I know of the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as described in my book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, suggests to me that the strategy towards which the Obama administration is tending could have disastrous consequences for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US.
This is above all because the proposed new US approach is structured around the needs of US domestic politics and a crude approach to killing terrorists, with very little attention to the realities of Afghanistan or the reasons why many Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan support the Taliban.
As things stand, the likely Obama strategy will be the following: the US will build up the Afghan National Army to the point where it can hold the main towns in the Pashtun areas without the help of US ground forces. Most US troops will withdraw, but the US will keep bases in Afghanistan from which its planes will smash any concentrations of the Taliban aiming at capturing the cities. US aircraft and special forces will continue to target any identified groups of al-Qaida in the country.
This is basically the Soviet strategy between their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, albeit with the crucially important difference that the USSR did not keep bases in Afghanistan – it did not need to since it had them just over the border in Soviet Central Asia. And it must be said that up to a point, the Soviet strategy worked: the Afghan regime of Najibullah Khan which they left behind outlasted the Soviet Union itself. I was a British journalist with the mujahideen at the siege of Jalalabad in March 1989, when they were indeed decimated by the government’s airpower when they concentrated to attack the city.
For Washington, this strategy appears to meet several objectives: It would greatly reduce US numbers and US casualties in Afghanistan; it would be in accordance with Obama’s declared approach of reorienting US strategy towards targeted operations against terrorists; it would prevent Taliban victory and scenes of US defeat like Saigon in 1975, and at the same time avoid the perceived humiliation of having to negotiate with the Taliban leadership whom the US has spent years denouncing; and it would keep US bases in Afghanistan, which sections of the US security establishment see as useful to threaten Iran, raid Pakistan and maintain US influence in the region.
What is wrong with this strategy? Firstly, it means that the Taliban will continue their war. Their leadership have declared categorically that they will fight on as long as any US forces remain in Afghanistan. In the absence of any peace settlement giving them a share of power, the Taliban will also go on fighting against the Kabul regime.
US air and ground raids will go on infuriating the Pashtun rural population and encouraging them to support the Taliban. Because the war will continue, so will the Taliban’s reliance on al-Qaida as a source of expertise, and on heroin as a source of revenue. And while the Afghan army may be able to hold the cities, it is obvious that it and the rotten Afghan state will never be able to extend real authority into the countryside.
Secondly, will the Afghan army even be able to hold the cities? The Soviet-backed regime after 1989 did, but it was in many ways a much more cohesive regime than the one that the US has created, with an army based on the old Afghan Royal Army, and led by a Pashtun with real authority among Pashtuns. The present Afghan civilian state is terribly weak, while the army, though large and heavily armed, is demoralised and deeply divided between Pashtuns and Tajiks.
A horribly plausible scenario for the future looks like this: the Afghan civilian regime disintegrates after Karzai steps down in 2014, leading to a coup by the Tajik commanders of the army. This is followed by a counter-coup by Pashtun troops, and civil war in the government-controlled areas. The US is faced with the choice either of pulling out, and allowing Taliban victory in the Pashtun areas, or of sending US troops back in to take over again.
Faced with this scenario, far better would be an attempt at a peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban, starting with the creation of a Taliban office with diplomatic immunity in some other Muslim country, and peace-building measures such as local truces. The broad outlines of a possible settlement have emerged from conversations with former leading Taliban officials such as Mullah Zaeef and Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.
They involve the phased withdrawal of all non-Afghan armed groups from the country: on the one hand al-Qaida and all terrorist groups (including those targeting Russia, India, China, Iran and Pakistan), and on the other, US and Nato forces; de facto Taliban control of most of the Pashtun areas, with some form of power-sharing in a weak government in Kabul; and a Taliban commitment to stop heroin production in their areas in return for international aid to those areas.
This last is a question usually neglected by the US but is of crucial importance to the UK, Russia, Iran and increasingly China. Heroin has done more damage to our societies than terrorism; and we need to remember therefore that for more than 30 years, only the Taliban (in 1999-2000) has been able to prevent heroin production, because only the Taliban has exercised effective control over the Pashtun countryside. The idea that our allies in the Kabul regime and the Afghan army will be willing or able to do so is ludicrous given their record.
Would such a settlement hold? The Afghan Taliban must realise – and their allies in the Pakistani military certainly do – that whatever happens it will not be possible for them to conquer the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan in the face of US, Russian and Indian help to their local enemies. After all, they had a real fight to do so in the late 1990s when only Iran and a weak Russia were ranged against them. US carrier-based aircraft would still give the US great ability to coerce the Taliban and back their enemies if the Taliban broke the treaty.
On the other hand, everything I know about Afghanistan, and everything we see in the news about the Kabul regime and its armed forces, tells me that what is certain is that the US strategy sketched above will not work. As to whether the Taliban would agree to such a deal – well, we won’t know that until we’ve asked them.