Is America Taking on the Neo-Taliban and Missing the Point?
Why is Afghanistan at the nexus of a regional crisis that threatens the security of the United States and the very existence of Pakistan?
Because Afghanistan is awash with money, arms, and foreigners. The Obama administration should think twice before assuming that injecting more money, arms, and foreigners into Afghanistan is going to solve the problem.
When you’ve got a hammer, you look for a nail. The United States has money, military power, and considerable hands-on experience in applying them to counterinsurgencies.
So it’s not a surprise that the U.S. wants to apply these skills to the mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And, since counterinsurgency is a step up intellectually over the Bush administration’s simplistic invasion = liberation formula, it’s not surprising that the Obama administration is willing to consider that an intelligent, broad spectrum application of American military, ideological, financial, and intellectual power will enable us to gain the upper hand over the Taliban.
However, a case can be made that injecting more money and more arms, even with the noblest purpose and finest Ph.D.s, is part of the problem and not the solution.
First, an anecdote, then a bit of information, and finally some analysis.
The anecdote comes from Gary Schroen’s book First In (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005).
Schroen, as the title states, was the first CIA officer inserted into Afghanistan after 9/11 and tasked with establishing contact with the Northern Alliance. His book, which was intensively vetted by the CIA, offers a remarkably prosaic picture of the Afghan war.
Schroen and his team flew into northern Afghanistan with several cardboard boxes filled with millions of dollars in US greenbacks. For the duration of the book, Schroen is hunkered down in the Panjishir Valley, dispensing cash, writing long-winded memos to Langley, and mapping the GPS coordinates of Taliban positions for bombing raids that, at least while he’s there, never came. The big event: the arrival of 100 pounds of Starbucks coffee that allows Schroen to drink a decent brew while composing his cables.
Schroen’s book is enlivened by descriptions of actual combat experienced by others. In this passage, a C.I.A. operative, “Craig” is with a ragtag force of 60 Afghans organized by Hamid Karzai facing a Taliban position 600 yards away across a valley:
There was movement on the hilltop, and Craig could make out the figures of two, now three men dressed in black clothing…each holding an AK-47…Then the three men stepped forward and began to move down the slope toward them…The three men reached the level ground of the valley floor and, without breaking stride, picked up their pace until they were jogging…What were these three guys up to? They were moving effortlessly, running about three to four feet apart, maintaining a line...
Then, from down the line, one of the Afghans watching the three men steadily cross the open ground shouted, “Chechnya! Chechnya!” A wave of panic and fear, so intense that Craig could feel it physically, swept through the line of men on the hilltop.
[The Chechens] were reported to be fanatical, fierce fighters, well trained and experts with their weapons. After one particularly tough engagement…a number of the dead…had been found to have been killed by a single shot to the head. This was incredible to the Afghans, none of whom actually aimed their weapons but rather trusted Allah to guide their bullets. They thought that such accurate fire had to be the work of the Chechens.
Craig turned in wonder to look up and down the line of Afghans. He could see panic setting in. Sixty men, all armed, frightened by three men running toward them. He grabbed Sergeant Haidar and shouted, “Tell the men to shoot. Shoot!”
[The Karzai troops] began to fire long bursts, guns bucking skyward against the prolonged-recoil, panic firing. After a few seconds the firing reached a peak, and Craig watched in amazement as the three men continued to jog forward through the hail of lead slamming the earth around them. ..The three men did not alter their pace or break formation but jogged on…
[The Karzai troops exhaust their 30-round magazines, reload, and empty their magazines again.]
But again the three fighters ran on untouched.
There were now nearing the base of the hill, and as silence fell along the line of men at the top of the hill they could hear the three men shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” over and over as they ran on. It was too much for the Afghans…As if on signal, the entire group of sixty men turned and began to run from their positions.
[T]he three Chechens…were now casually going through the items left by the fleeing Afghans…Craig watched the three men, who now were shouting what had to be obscenities at them. One of the men stood spread-legged and grabbed his crotch with both hands, making hip movements to emphasize his statement. Another turned and pointed his butt at them, shaking it, then turned and pointed toward them, laughing.
Craig and his CIA mate could have killed the three men as they worked their way up the hill, sho’ nuff. But in order not to further humiliate the Karzai troops, Craig calls down an airstrike from a circling B-52 instead. The three Chechens are disintegrated by a 2000-pound bomb just as one of them is giving Craig the finger. Everybody gives a big cheer.
The item of information comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007 :
First, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no longer associated with poverty – quite the opposite. Hilmand, Kandahar and three other opium-producing provinces in the south are the richest and most fertile, in the past the breadbasket of the nation and a main source of earnings. They have now opted for illicit opium on an unprecedented scale (5,744tons), while the much poorer northern region is abandoning the poppy crops.
Second, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is now closely linked to insurgency.
The Taliban today control vast swathes of land in Hilmand, Kandahar and along the
Pakistani border. By preventing national authorities and international agencies from
working, insurgents have allowed greed and corruption to turn orchards, wheat and
vegetable fields into poppy fields.
Third, the Taliban are again using opium to suit their interests. Between 1996
and 2000, in Taliban-controlled areas 15,000 tons of opium were produced and
exported – the regime’s sole source of foreign exchange at that time. In July 2000,
the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, argued that opium was against Islam and banned its cultivation (but not its export). In recent months, the Taliban have reversed their position once again and started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics and militia pay. [emphasis added]
The UN press release, entitled Opium Amounts to Half of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2007, drives the point home:
In its final Afghan Opium Survey for 2007 issued today, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that opium is now equivalent to more than half (53%) of the country's licit GDP. … the total export value of opiates produced in and trafficked from Afghanistan in 2007 is about $4 billion, a 29 per cent increase over 2006.
Approximately one quarter of this amount ($1 billion) is earned by opium farmers. District officials take a percentage through a tax on crops (known as "ushr"). Insurgents and warlords control the business of producing and distributing the drugs. The rest is made by drug traffickers.
In 2008, opium production dropped because of a combination of bad weather and good policies in government-controlled provinces. However, the Taliban, traffickers, and corrupt officials still extracted $70 to $80 million in taxes on farmers’ output and over $200 million in processing and trafficking revenues from the opium industry.
And a new problem emerged:
Opium poppy eradication has become more risky
Eradication activities in 2008 were severely affected by resistance from insurgents. Since most of the poppy cultivation remains confined to the south and south-west region dominated by strong insurgency, eradication operations may in the future become even more challenging.
Security incidents associated with eradication activities in Hilmand, Kandahar, Hirat, Nimroz, Kapisa, Kabul and Nangarhar provinces included shooting and mine explosions resulting in the death of at least 78 people, most of whom were policemen. This is an increase of about 75% if compared to the 19 deaths in 2007. The major incidents were in Nanarhar and Nimroz provinces.
One of the most serious incidents happened in Khogyani district of Nangarhar, where 20 policemen were killed together with Fazal Ahmad, a MCN/UNODC surveyor whose job was to collect the data that feed into this report. Other incidents happened in Khashrod district of Nimroz, where 29 people died along with the district police chief. Both attacks were carried out by suicide bombers. The Poppy Eradication Force (PEF) faced a large number of rocket attacks while carrying out eradication in Hilmand province.
The nature of the attacks changed between 2007 and 2008. In 2007, police deaths were the result of violence by farmers whereas deaths in 2008 were the result of insurgent actions, including suicide attacks. [emph. added]
Now, the analysis.
Left to its own devices, Afghanistan is not a threat to the safety of the world.
Even with the support of the ISI, the Taliban was little more than an obnoxious gang of bumpkin theocrats unable to project its power beyond the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.
In 1997, when the Taliban tried to stake its claim as ruler of all Afghanistan by conquering the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, bad things happened, as Steve Coll writes in Ghost Wars [New York: Penguin Press, 2004]:
Mazar became a Taliban death trap. Within days…the city’s Uzbek and Shia populations revolted against their Pashtun occupiers. They massacred three hundred Taliban soldiers. They took another thousand prisoner and sent the militia reeling back down the Salang Highway…
What allowed the Taliban to slip the ISI leash and become a dominant factor inside Afghanistan was its alliance with al Qaeda, an alliance that turned into an intensely symbiotic relationship after 9/11.
Al-Qaeda fighters provided the hard core for the Taliban army, as Schroen’s account illustrates, turning the Taliban into a superior fighting force instead of just another warring faction.
Al-Qaeda also extended the Taliban’s reach through assassination and terror squads. Most famously, al Qaeda operatives assassinated Ahmad Shah Masood, the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, on the eve of 9/11.
Illicit drugs, the mother’s milk of successful modern insurgencies, are keeping the Taliban-al Qaeda axis alive, and giving it the capacity to entrench itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even as it became the target of an intensive military and intelligence effort.
Foreign fighters and local opium have extended the reach of the Taliban and turned it into a regional threat.
There’s one other factor.
Paradoxically, the United States forced the Taliban to become the Taliban on steroids, or the neo-Taliban, as it’s sometimes called.
Confronted with an existential threat from the biggest, richest, and most experienced counterinsurgency force on the planet, the Taliban had to elevate its game far above the usual level of cruelty, greed, and venality that is in the skill set of every Central Asian warlord.
Nowadays, the Taliban isn’t just surviving.
It’s pushing aside overmatched government security forces in its areas of operation.
Not only in Afghanistan, where it has a major presence in over half the country. Also in Pakistan, where the Pakistan Taliban dominates the tribal areas (FATA), is pushing into the settled region of the NWFP, and extending its reach by way of cells and terrorism into Pakistan’s heartland.
And it’s not flourishing because it represents jihadist, Islamist, Afghan, or Pashtun aspirations.
The Taliban is flourishing because it is so well-armed, well-funded, well-trained that it attracts the allegiance of commanders and compels the obedience of the local civilian population, and because it’s engaged in the fight of its life against the U.S., NATO, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at the same time and has learned to exploit its resources to the nth degree
In other words, it’s doing well because it’s biggest, meanest, most paranoid, and scariest guy on the block.
It’s also hooked on opium revenues and dependent on a cadre of professional foreign and domestic fighters to intimidate governments and ordinary citizens.
Think of the Taliban like the Mafia of Sicily and Naples, which are perhaps its closest analogues.
It can’t coexist with pluralistic pro-Western governments, even in the unlikely event that the West agrees to allow the Taliban to participate in coalition rule in Kabul. A bulked-up organization that possesses more money and power than the central government is an unacceptable threat to public safety.
At the same time, the Taliban can’t downsize and become the “good” Taliban because it can’t risk giving up the protection that it gains from drug running and maintaining an extra-legal cadre of assassins and terrorists.
In a head-to-head match-up with the Taliban, which side has the money, weapons, ruthlessness, and desperation to project power into Afghan homes, mosques, and government institutions?
The good news is that the United States and NATO have more money. The bad news is, in an impoverished, tribal society, having a lot of money doesn’t do a lot of good. If the Taliban is able to extract $100+ million from the opium trade, it doesn’t need a lot of foreign sources of revenue like repurposed zakat (Islamic tithes) or contributions from rich armchair jihadists in Saudi Arabia.
The good news is that the United States and NATO have more weapons. The bad news is, there’s more than enough weapons in Afghanistan for everyone.
The bad news is, the Taliban is fighting for its life with every weapon at its disposal. The other bad news is, U.S. and NATO are fighting for…well, a modern Afghan democracy is off the table, so basically we’re fighting the Taliban because they’re fighting us.
The bottom line is that the U.S. is facing an extremely ruthless and capable group with the trappings of a criminal organization that uses money, violence, and intimidation to operate among a dispersed population in a rugged region where the borders leak like sieves and law enforcement is virtually non-existent.
It’s not an environment conducive to the conventional counter-insurgency doctrine of using military and economic measures to secure an ever-growing zone of loyal and grateful citizens.
In its current configuration, the Taliban has enough money, reach, and motivation to challenge the security measures of the U.S., NATO, and the Kabul government throughout contested Pashtun areas.
Perhaps the Taliban should be considered an organized crime problem instead of a counterinsurgency problem.
Leave aside the counterinsurgency tropes about winning the hearts and minds of the people by providing them with security because a) we probably have the hearts and minds of many of the unfortunates living under Taliban rule already b) we can’t provide the sustained security that turns hearts-and-mind affection into active resistance to the Taliban and c) the Taliban is self-sufficient in money, arms, and supplies thanks to its position at the nexus of the cross-border trades in drugs, contraband, and necessities and doesn’t need the support of the people in the way of a traditional guerilla force.
Instead of turning a blind eye toward local opium trafficking by anti-Taliban governors and warlords in the hope that extending the official reach of the Afghan government into those areas will yield security gains, the main security effort should be devoted to denying to the Taliban the fruits of the opium industry—not only the revenue, but the illicit cross-border financial channels and the avalanche of contraband across hundreds of unofficial border crossings it engenders.
Buy it, burn it, eradicate it…do whatever it takes to crimp the financial self-sufficiency of the Taliban.
The U.N. has made the point concerning opium with desperate urgency:
"Since drugs are funding the insurgency, NATO has a self-interest in supporting Afghan forces in destroying drug labs, markets and convoys. Destroy the drug trade and you cut off the Taliban's main funding source", said the UN's drug chief [Antonio Maria Cost].
Drug metastases have spread throughout Afghanistan, providing capital for investments, foreign exchange for expensive imports, revenue to underpaid officials as well as funding for weddings, burials and pilgrimages. Corruption has facilitated the general profiteering. The government’s benign tolerance of corruption is undermining the future: no country has ever built prosperity on crime. [emphasis added]
NATO to help taking on opium labs, markets and traffickers. The opium economy of Afghanistan can be bankrupted by blocking the two-way flow of (i) imported chemicals, and (ii) exported drugs. In both instances several thousand tons of materials are being moved across the southern border and nobody seems to take notice.
Since drug trafficking and insurgency live off of each other, the foreign military forces operating in Afghanistan have a vested interest in supporting counter-narcotics operations: destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets, seizing opium convoys and bringing traffickers to justice. This will generate a double benefit. First, the destruction of the drug trade will win popular support (only 1 out of 10 Afghan farming families cultivate opium, earning a disproportionately large share of the national income). Second, lower opium demand by traders will reduce its price and make alternative economic activity more attractive.
It’s a lot easier to destroy opium than the Taliban. Opium doesn’t run away.
But it still isn’t easy.
Contra the U.N.’s optimistic assertion that destroying the opium trade will win hearts and minds, the opposite will probably be true in the first stage.
Opium is the backbone of whatever prosperity there is in southern Afghanistan today, and not just for a minority of farmers. Virtually all of the funds in the halawa system of traditional finance in Kandahar and the other major cities in the Taliban area are opium-derived. The graft that fattens the local officials comes from opium. Opium pays for weddings, cars, and tractors and injects money into the economy. If the opium boom goes bust, there are going to be a lot of poorer and pissed-off people.
A second point is that an opium war will take years not months. According to the U.N., Afghanistan is over-producing opium at such a furious rate that it is exceeding annual global demand by several thousand tons. That opium—actually, the heroin it was refined into--is sitting somewhere against that rainy day when the West finally decides to get serious about the Afghan opium industry.
In fact, in 2008 the U.N. hypothesized that the Taliban might be anticipating a campaign against its opium revenue base, holding back heroin stocks from the market and ready to engage in sophisticated price manipulation to undercut the eradication campaign:
A wild card in the hands of insurgents. If the Taliban are holding major drug stockpiles, they may welcome lower opium cultivation. The resulting price increase would revalue their stocks and improve war financing. Indeed, news picked up by UNODC surveyors in a number of eastern and southern provinces confirm that the Taliban are taking a passive stance at this time of opium planting, as against past efforts to promote it. If opium prices are allowed to increase because of a moratorium on cultivation supported by the Taliban, the resulting market manipulation would spell disaster in the north-east of Afghanistan where so many provinces have abandoned opium cultivation voluntarily, enticed by expectation of development assistance and good revenues from wheat. If wheat/opium terms of trade change again in favour of the latter, this would spell trouble for Afghan counter-narcotic policy.
The second point is much more counter-intuitive and calls into question America’s self-appointed mission as hammer of Islamic terrorism and the savior of Afghanistan.
More is less.
The threat posed by U.S. and NATO forces is a key element in Taliban unity and effectiveness. Not everybody wants to fight the Great Satan, but those who do fight smarter and harder. The alien presence also sucks in foreign jihadis, increases Taliban reliance on hardened fighters like the ones who routed the Karzai forces in Schroen’s account, and emphasizes the necessity of maintaining and deepening the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship.
Surging more U.S. troops will cause greater Taliban casualties; but an expansion of military operations will probably increase violence and civilian casualties, and will feed general weariness and disillusionment with the U.S. intervention.
U.S. gains may also be unable to remove the well-founded concern that the U.S. is not in it for the long haul and can’t guarantee that transitory security gains achieved under its aegis can be made permanent or even sustained.
My recipe for success:
The Taliban has entrenched itself in the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan to resist counterinsurgency campaigns originating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its program of terror, intimidation, and propaganda has succeeded in cowing and deterring Afghan and Pakistan forces. Instead of taking the Taliban on head-on where it’s strongest, in the mountain bastion it has prepared so well in anticipation of this battle, fight a war for the relatively open and agrarian opium-growing areas in the southwest.
Stop contending with the Taliban for control of populations in Taliban-dominated areas.. Instead of fighting for territory, fight to deny the Taliban access to opium resources and obstruct its major source of funding.
Throw the main NATO resources into the opium war with the full understanding that it will a) hurt the economy and b) alienate a lot of people. But rely on the fact that more people understand and accept the immorality of opium than accept the U.S. intervention or acknowledge the merit of an extensive and violent counterinsurgency campaign that yields a lot of civilian casualties. Bank on the expectation that there are only a limited number of people willing to die to protect the opium industry.
Reduce the Taliban’s opium revenue to and try to force it to operate more like a true guerilla force sustaining itself off the local population, instead of riding a wave of general, if relative, prosperity.
My prediction: people will be pissed off at the U.S., NATO, and Karzai. But, as the Taliban tries to squeeze money out of a depressed economy to maintain a force of bigoted theocrats and foreign fighters, people will get pissed off at the Taliban, too. And local fighters and commanders will drift away from the Taliban.
Then, as the Taliban faces competition for scarce resources and is deprived of the unifying factor of an direct and immediate existential threat, perhaps it will be further weakened by internal divisions, Taliban allies of convenience will defect and, at last, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or somebody like him will finally take the fight to the Taliban/al-Qaeda core.
Who is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the only major insurgent commander in the field in Afghanistan who is independent of the Taliban and not beholden to al Qaeda.
He is an experienced and brutal son of a bitch with a rich history.
Hekmatyar was the mujahideen commander who received the bulk of U.S. and Saudi funding--$600 million or so—during the anti-Soviet jihad. He was the preferred client of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service until he was unable to establish a stable regime in Kabul after the Soviets withdrew and Islamabad made the disastrous decision to back the Taliban instead. He adheres to a modernizing strain of Islamic fundamentalism along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood that is far removed from the obscurantist indoctrination the Taliban leadership received in the Deobandi madrassas of western Pakistan.
After the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, Hekmatyar fled to Iran, was expelled and had his bank accounts confiscated by Tehran, and survived a CIA assassination attempt using a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. He returned to Afghanistan and somehow (insert suspicion of ISI funding here) managed to draw commanders and troops away from the Taliban and re-establish a fighting force in eastern Pakistan.
Despite the fact that he is credited with one of the bloodiest anti-ISAF actions of the Afghan war—an ambush that claimed the lives of 10 French soldiers last year—Hekmatyar is being cultivated by every anti-Taliban force to an extent that is almost ludicrous.
The Karzai government has consistently wooed Hekmatyar with offers of a role in the Kabul government. A rump faction of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami party was allowed to contest Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in 2005 after it made an unconvincing formal break with its founder—it won 34 seats. When Saudi Arabia invited the Taliban and the Karzai regime for peace talks in Riyadh in July 2008, Hekmatyar’s representative was included as separate, third party. At the end of 2008, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law was transferred to Afghan custody (Pakistan had arrested him at American insistence), where he was released, ushered into the Presidential Palace for discussions with Karzai, and given a hero’s welcome in Kabul.
Then Pakistan released Hekmatyar’s brother from custody in January of this year.
China, which provided the lion’s share of Hekmatyar’s arms as the CIA-funded quartermaster of the anti-Soviet war, recently invited Hekmatyar’s designated link to the ISI and Pakistan government, the Pakistan Islamic political party, Jamaat-i-Islami, to Beijing for talks.
Beyond Hekmatyar’s traditional fan club of Karzai, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China, the United States is aware of his potential as an anti-Taliban asset.
In a November 2008 article entitled Afghan Rebel Positioned for Key Role, the Washington Post provided an insight into U.S. thinking:
[W]ith casualties among foreign forces at record highs, and domestic and international confidence in Karzai's government at an all-time low, U.S. and Afghan officials may have little choice but to grant Hekmatyar a choice seat at the bargaining table.
Top U.S. military officials have indicated in recent weeks a willingness to cut deals with rebel commanders like Hekmatyar to take insurgents off the battlefield.
However, Hekmatyar has made it clear that he will never enter the field as part of any U.S. or NATO anti-insurgency force.
He has reiterated this stance too many times for there to be any ambiguity about it. As an example, the Jamestown Foundation quotes Hekmatyar on the issue:
"We want all foreign forces to leave immediately without any condition. This is the demand of the entire Afghan nation.”
Doubtless Hekmatyar distances himself from the United States in order to maintain his credibility as an Afghan fighter.
But maybe he also understands that, even if he enjoys the covert backing of the ISI, he will have little chance against a Taliban united and energized by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan and swollen by opium profits.
In the end, Hekmatyar, who was notorious for killing more Afghani rivals than Soviet invaders during the jihad, might have the magic formula for cutting the Taliban down to size that the West is looking for.
In 2002, Time Magazine quoted him as saying:
"We prefer involvement in internal war rather than occupation by foreigners and foreign troops".
Hekmatyar would probably enjoy his "internal war" even more if he got effective backing from the ISI (and profits from his own drug business; Hekmatyar pioneered the refining of heroin inside Afghanistan, instead of just taxing opium) while the Taliban’s opium revenues withered.
A bitter, ugly, underfunded, and depleting civil war devoid of theological, religious, ethnic, or international implications, between two diminished and destructive gangsters unable to project their power beyond the Pashtun heartland.
Maybe this is the best we can hope for in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the time being.