Toward an exit strategy in Afghanistan: a nice present for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda?

di Salvatore Manconi,

When Obama became President of the United States, he inherited two wars. As for the Iraqi war, that he criticized vehemently during his electoral campaign, the United States were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As for the war in Afghanistan, that Obama labeled the «just war», pundits, military experts and politicians were insistently talking about the exact opposite, that is, «surge»[1]. So, while in Iraq the situation had improved significantly thanks to the surge proposed by Gen. David Petraeus, in Afghanistan the political and military milieu was far from being reassuring[2]. In this sense, Obama was called to face probably the most difficult (and expensive) decision of his term: how to get out of the Afghan quagmire. The paradox consisted on the fact that it was deemed necessary to inject new and more troops into Afghanistan in order to get out as quickly as possible. In March 2009, he outlined the guidelines of the new Af-Pak concept, as it was labeled: escalating the military presence in Afghanistan of 21.000 more troops, reinforcing the Afghan security forces, increasing the financial assistance in order to sustain the economic development of the country.

From September to December 2009, an internal bureaucratic squabble erupted among the members of the Obama Administration about the necessity of a new and more substantial injection of troops. This squabble treated the nature of US involvement in Afghanistan as peripheral, since both the media and the Administration focused less on the strategic implications of this surge than on the number of troops to deploy. Important issues such as whether the war in Afghanistan had to focus more on a counterterrorism strategy, as Vice-President Biden implied, or on a pure counterinsurgency strategy, as Gen. McChrystal proposed, were treated as nonessential. In December 2009, Obama proposed a plan that was perceived by many as a middle ground solution: he agreed that a surge of 34.000 more troops was necessary but he also established the summer of 2011 as the deadline for America’s commitment in Afghanistan. No new strategic concept was proposed. Indeed, the priorities remained the same that were outlined in March: decapitating al-Qaeda leadership, defeating hard-line Taliban and appeasing the so called moderate Taliban. At the eve of the first set of 10.000 troops that will begin the withdrawal this July, it is necessary to assess whether these three major goals have been accomplished or not and to discuss in which ways the choice to start the exit strategy will affect the security and the political fate of Afghanistan in such a delicate moment for this country.

There is no doubt that the death of Bin Laden has seriously undermined Al-Qaeda. However, this death may foster the process of «delocalization» of the terroristic organization, by making the terroristic networks more difficult to track and therefore to destroy. The members of the core organization, that still find a safe haven at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have declared via internet that Ayman Al-Zawahiri has taken the leadership of Al-Qaeda. It is to be seen if this nomination will affect the relations and the already precarious balance between the Pakistani branch and the other affiliated groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), guided by Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Shabaab in Somalia or Al-Qaeda in Northern Africa. That said, it is not a secret that the Obama Administration is tempted, after the killing of Bin Laden, to declare «mission accomplished». The premise under which the war in Afghanistan has been declared a «just war» was precisely the need to focus on bringing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice, killed or alive. The constant reliance on predator drones inside the Af-Pak region and beyond has put a considerable amount of pressure on the terroristic network. Plenty of Al-Qaeda’s leaders have been killed, forcing the affiliated groups to carry out less magnificent terroristic attacks. However, it is likely that the new leadership will seek with every means to conduct new and formidable attacks, in order to boost the opaque image of the organization itself. Therefore, pushing for troops’ withdrawal on the sole basis of the presumed and premature end of Al-Qaeda will be a tremendous mistake: the terroristic threat to American and world security is diminished but not completely wiped out. Moreover, given that the organization is suffering precisely now a major setback it is time to act in a coordinated way with Pakistani authorities, in order to eliminate definitively the presence of the sanctuaries at the border with Afghanistan.

Defeating the Taliban is far from being an easy task. Contrary to the Al-Qaeda network, they are an indigenous phenomenon that is deeply rooted in the social, cultural and political reality of the region. Moreover, the original group of the Taliban has become just a part – by far not the biggest one – of the more multifaceted Taliban network, that comprehends ex Mujaheddin that fought against the Taliban, like Hekmatyar; ex Mujaheddin, like Haqqani, that allied with them when they first appeared on the Afghan political arena; or the more indoctrinated and motivated group, that was educated in the madrasa to the most radical and puritanical version of Islam. Finally, lots of disaffected young Afghan joined the Taliban not for ideological reasons but for the mere hope of gaining money, in a country were corruption, drug traffic, and political connivance produce a lethal mix that kills any prospect of a sane economic, political and social development. That’s why a new terminology has begun to appear among pundits and scholars, that refers to Neo-Taliban, a neologism that catches the different nature of this phenomenon in comparison to the «original» Taliban. A proper definition is necessary in order to face the Taliban threat in the right manner.

That’s probably why President Karzai has incessantly – yet unsuccessfully – pushed for a process of national reconciliation with the so-called moderate Taliban: he relies on an interpretation of the Neo-Taliban phenomenon that is basically wrong. Since 2003, he has tried to persuade his «brothers» Taliban to abandon the logic of the violence and to join the democratic process. Some of them have already joined his administration without ceasing the level of violence and diminishing the pace of the attacks in the country. At the London Conference of January 2010, the program for national reconciliation received an international recognition for the first time. Obama’s special envoy, Richard Hoolbroke, was strongly in favor of this program which established a series of bonus, incentives and financial aids for those who decided to endorse Karzai and his administration. He argued that «the overwhelming majority of these people are not ideological supporters of Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda. Based on interviews with prisoners, returnees, experts, there must be at least 70 percent of these people who are not fighting for anything to do with those causes»[3]. However, human rights associations accused the hypocrisy of the program, since they believed that at stake there were the rights of the Afghan women: it was – and it is still – unclear according to which characteristic the program would have been considered a Taliban moderate or not[4]. All these problems notwithstanding, the Obama Administration has decided to step in and to conduct autonomous talks with Taliban leaders[5]. In a remarks in mid-February Hillary Clinton confirmed that the Obama Administration was ready to «support an Afghan-led political process to split the weakened Taliban off from al-Qaida and reconcile those who will renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution with an increasingly stable Afghan Government»[6]. As we have already said, it is since 2003 that these endeavors do not bear fruits and this is so for three basic reasons.

First, these talks are based on the false assumption that Pashtun members of the new Afghan elite have endorsed from the beginning of the US invasion: the idea that without the consensus of all the Pashtun of Afghanistan it will be impossible to rule the country and to put it under a condition of security. Historically speaking, it is true that non-Pashtun rulers have stayed in power for very limited amount of time. However, the ways in which the Pashtun rulers have retained the reins of power show that they adopted violent and brutal means – like internal colonialism – manipulated the discourse of Islam, played the ethnic card and imposed a person-centered rule[7]. Unfortunately, the problems of Afghanistan will not be resolved through the presumed unity of the Pashtun ethnic group. Indeed, the bulk of the problems is rooted in a specific type of centralistic and person centered governance, that historically has always failed in Afghanistan to produce a social, political and economic take-off, since it has absorbed at a centralistic level the needs and requests of the local communities, thereby causing corruption and ineffective policies[8]. Politics as well as the means for social and economic development in Afghanistan has to be established at the local level, since only at the local level it is possible to understand and accommodate the needs and wishes of a specific community in a vast and diverse country such Afghanistan.

Second, Karzai sees in the Taliban insurgency a mere ethnic or tribal phenomenon moved by a sense of alienation among the Pashtun against the new post-Taliban order. However, this interpretation has to be rejected, since Taliban are not only joined by strongly indoctrinated youth but also by Afghan people who do not share Pashtun ethnic background. Even if Pashtun are largely the most representative ethnic group within the Neo-Taliban network, they tend to use jihadist ideology as an instrument through which absorbing ethnic and tribal differences.

Finally, it is not clear why should the Neo-Taliban accept the conditions posed by Karzai or the Obama Administration, given that they are bargaining from a position of strengths. The recent attack at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul shows how strong Taliban are. Indeed, while in the south they have encountered a renewed American presence, in the east and northern part of the country the situation is far from improving. At this point in time, whatever compromise or agreement President Obama will be able to reach with the Neo-Taliban, he cannot be sure that they will abide that agreement. At the London Conference of 2010, a human rights activist put it: «The Taliban are not fighting for money, but for power. They want to depose the Afghan government, and to expel foreign troops»[9]. Contrary to the belief of many pundits and experts, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will probably galvanize the Neo-Taliban instead of persuading them to put an end to the insurgency.

The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan necessitates a regional approach in order to get Pakistan to cooperate and to abandon its historic foreign policy of supporting and harboring jihadist groups and organizations. Finally, it is vital to review the governance structure by adopting local based institutions: giving back the power to the people has to be the key principle in Afghanistan politics, otherwise it will be impossible to think about Afghanistan as a country void of corruption, violence and even religious extremism.


[1] Briefly, surge means injection of new troops.

[2] However, the process of empowerment of the tribes – one of the pillars of the surge proposed by Gen Petraeus in Iraq- is showing its deleterious effects on Iraqi political stability. For example, some tribal leaders are refusing to give their weapons back to the central government. Paradoxically, it seems that Iraq will pay an high price in terms of long-term security for the decreased level in violence due to the surge. In Afghanistan, the process of empowerment of local leader is dated back the beginning of the Operation Enduring Freedom, and it has been characterized less by successes than failures.

[3] Robert Marquand, Karzai reaches out to Taliban at Afghanistan conference, Christian Science Monitor, 28/01/2010.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] According to Ahmed Rashid the first meeting between the Taliban and the US diplomats has taken place in Germany, near Munich on November, 28th 2010; the second meeting has taken place in Doha on February, 15th 2011 and the third in Munich again on March, 7th and 8th. Diplomatically speaking, the Security Council has accepted Washington’s proposal to treat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda separately: Ahmed Rashid, The truth behind America’s Taliban talks, Financial Times, 06/29/2011

[7] For a deeper analysis see: Nazif M. Shahrani, War, Factionalism, and State in Afghanistan, in “American Anthropologist”, Vol. 104, N° 3 (September, 2003), pp. 715-722.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Robert Marquand, Karzai reaches out to Taliban at Afghanistan conference, Christian Science Monitor, 28/01/2010.

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  1. Pingback: World In Progress No.9 | World In Progress

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