NATO in Afghanistani Doldrums

These faces of war in Afghanistan are a grim reminder that the Taliban are evolving their tactics better than the ISAF in this war on terror. The increased levels of sophistication and expertise in using IEDs and conduct of guerrilla warfare indicates the tenacity and vibrancy of the so called backward Taliban to contest all that is Western in this war. They have the most important attributes of a war on their side, “Time”.


This is the very commodity US is running out of. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the July 2011 date is set in stone, while the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus, articulates he might recommend against a withdrawal depending on conditions on the ground. With coalition patience running thin and the support for war hitting an all time low, the ISAF is forced to speed up operations against the Taliban. It is exactly this desperation of coalition forces which is being targeted by the Taliban. Lay back and attack at will on ISAF facilities and troops with the new and improved version of Guerrilla Warfare. Amidst mounting casualties, Vice President Joe Biden argues that they have not lost the war yet.

He says, “We now are only beginning with the right general and the right number of forces to seek our objectives”.

What force and what objective is what Biden is confused about along with a majority of coalition nations.

Whether Coalition forces are in Afghanistan for a war on Terror or are they to construct Afghanistan. The debate about whether the U.S. armed forces should be involved in nation-building was big in the 1990s, but the nation-builders have won the argument hands down.

The terminology has shifted, to be sure, from “nation-building” to “stabilization and reconstruction” missions, but these include efforts to improve governance and the economy as well as security and stability. A tall order in a country that has never understood democracy as a nation and has thrived and lived under it’s own tribal dispensations. It would do well to remember that the Afghans, through history, have not been defeated in reckon-able memory. That is a major departure from America‘s war in Iraq. The belief that Afghans like Coalition presence and the Taliban don’t, is a myth. The Afghans know that the coalition will go away but the Taliban will stay.

The coalition took 9 long years of attrition  to surmise in the London Conference that “talking to” and not “fighting” the Taliban was the only way forward. This realisation has been forced upon the coalition by the resilience and convictions of the Taliban –  that they can and will repeat history. Ahmed Rashid had articulated this aspect in February 2010 after the London Conference. Six months and Kabul Conference later, the coalition does not seem to have made much headway in talking to the Taliban – an aspect laboured on in an earlier post.

The involvement of Pakistan army in the floods has further weakened the ISAF operations on the Eastern front along Khyber Pashtunwala and Balochistan. The Taliban have used this opportunity to spread their influence in the North weakening the Plan B. According to this analysis in Washington Post by Rangin Dadfar Spanta, national security adviser of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Pakistan is the Afghan War’s real aggressor.

Amongst all this America seems to have little time to dismantle the al Qaeda in Af Pak region – the very reason they are in Afghanistan in the first place. The American estimates may indicate a low al Qaeda foot print but they still hold sway over a large population in the muslim world and especially in this region. They have a huge impact on the Taliban. As per one report, “The Pakistani madrassahs are still the big recruiting and training place. The Afghans go to a madrassah in Pakistan, where an Arab is typically like the dean, or headmaster, and learn how to fight.

Then the Afghan goes back home and teaches others to build bombs or fight — and gets paid handsomely for it.”. More on this can be read here. The al Qaeda, suspicious of the Taliban, has started participating selectively in the insurgency to maintain the pressure. They are also getting innovative with their tactics and techniques of war fighting, as is apparent in this article.

Over time and especially after the faulty analysis of situation reports of WikiLeaks, an impression is gaining ground in the West that Al-Qaeda has become a “afterthought” as troops battle the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to a Washington Post analysis of classified documents. This may spell doom for the coalition. The al Qaeda doesn’t figure in the WikiLeaks as these are situation reports where every hostile casualty might be treated as Taliban. The analysis of the thousands of documents from 2004 to 2009 back US claims that al-Qaeda has become a “marginal player on the Afghan battlefield,” as per an analysis of the Washington Post. Nothing could be farther than the truth.

The Coalition is in a quandary fighting this war on multiple fronts where its ally Pakistan is manipulating all the pieces of the Zigsaw puzzle, often to its own peril. The Taliban and al Qaeda signatures indicate a paradigm shift in their capability to continue with their Jihad against the infidels. Pakistan is currently down but is not willing to let go of the pie in Afghanistan for its misplaced sense of Strategic Depth against an Indian threat.

Patraeus would do well to address the issue of Taliban and Pakistan under an overarching umbrella of al Qaeda. The “build” phase may be out of context in Afghanistan – “stabilization and reconstruction” well that will take time and that is a commodity coalition is running out of.

  • LRR
About the Author

A strategy and security expert on South Asia. Research and exploratory work is aimed at authoring a series of books on what makes South Asia tick.

  • Qasim Sharief

    al Qaeda is no longer a tangible entity but a mindset that will haunt the west for times to come. What ISAF manages to kill are some cadres, the larger pervasive concept lives on and is getting multiplied over time.Pakistan has been the supporter and beneficiary of this concept since 9 / 11. But the concept has long transcended the physical domain and become amorphous and all pervasive not only in the mountains of Af Pak but through out the world.

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