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Afghan Conflict: Myth and Reality

July 5, 2010

General Stanley McChrystal may have shot his mouth deliberately. Operation Moshtarak (meaning ‘together’ in Dari) did not go particularly well. The allied forces have yet to take control of Marjah decisively. Afghanistan seems to be a ghost out of the wilderness to those in the west. The death toll of the US troops has crossed the 1,000 mark and for the limited British troops the toll has crossed the 300 mark, more than those killed in Iraq. Experts are still trying to come to term with the war that is going on in Afghanistan. Where there is so much uncertainty there are myths and assumptions. Several such myths are doing the rounds. I have outlined some below:

  1. Taliban are fighting the war: This is the first myth. Taliban are a rag-tag organization that is basically Pashtun and are radical Islamists. To fight a well trained army with modern weaponry one needs to operate at that level. Taliban on their own could never stand up to the might of the allied troops. The death toll shows that the allied forces are up against a well trained foe. I agree that these Pashtun fighters have been doing battle for decades now. For them there is one war after another. Generations are fighting, and for many Afghans fighting is all they know. But still, to stand up to the most powerful coalition force is no mean achievement. Most of the allied casualties are because of IED’s. They may be improvised but they are definitely not easy to detect or dismantle. Nor are they benign. These are rudimentary landmines. Where are the Taliban getting all this ammunition? Pakistan ordnance has been found on Taliban many a times. Pakistan has also never ceased their training of these Pashtun fighters. The radicalization of the Pashtun’s was to ensure that their allegiance remains with Pakistan and not with India or the western nations. Radicalization of these tribal was one sure way of ensuring that they are with Islamabad. The training and the arms supply further ensured their faithfulness to an Islamic Pakistan. The Quetta shura has representative of the ISI. It will not be wrong to say that in effect the allied forces are fighting the Pakistan army by proxy. That is the only way one can explain the high casualty rate in Afghanistan. Ironically, Pakistan is getting huge sums in aid, which is being diverted for the purposes they would hate to admit. They allow the drone attacks and made some military forays into Swat, but that was mostly to assert the writ of Islamabad and to make sure Taliban do not over-run the country. Pakistan’s close tie to the Haqqani’s is well known. Washington must not be lulled into believing that Islamabad is fighting the ‘war on terror’. Taliban are trying to assert their brand of Islam and the recent attacks on Sufi shrines is their way of putting pressure on Islamabad. The way Islamabad is trying to extract the maximum from the west, the same way Taliban try to keep up the pressure to get the maximum out of Islamabad.

    Map of Marjah, Afghanistan

  2. There is a good Taliban and a bad Taliban: There is a theory that the US can make deals with sections of the Taliban. It is true that Taliban are not quite as homogenous as many believe. There are no ‘moderate Taliban’ as is appearing in the press. There are only Taliban. Period.
  3. One can buy the loyalty of Taliban: This is an extension of the above myth, that there is a section of the Taliban that is moderate and with whom one can do business. This is the easy way out. They will take the money and buy arms with it and at a late date use it against the west. These simple tribal people have been radicalized to such an extent that they see the west as an enemy not only of the people of Afghanistan but of Islam. That makes it incumbent upon them to fight such an enemy.
  4. Pakistan is helping the west in its war against terror: Pakistan is making conciliatory noises and is the transit nation through which the supply lines pass. In that Pakistan is critical to the success of the war in Afghanistan. The west is paying Pakistan millions of dollars as transit fees. Pakistan is financially weak and needs the west’s financial benevolence. Yet they would be loath to let go their sway in this strategically critical nation. Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be its extension. They are therefore using all means to make sure that the Taliban are strong. Obama’s declaration of a pullout in 2011 has emboldened them further.  Pakistan does not want to let go Afghanistan. They let the US use the drone and that is their certificate of cooperation with the west. But it is also true that the drone strikes have yielded little results and are being used by Pakistan to further antagonize the Pashtun’s against the west.
  5. The Afghan war is un-winnable: Yes, this is a difficult war because the enemy is hiding. But it is also true that allied forces have faced little resistance. The strategy of the Taliban is to keep withdrawing leaving a trail of IED’s which slow down the allied forces. They then resort to limited engagement in places that they feel strategically safe to attack from. The ravines and valleys and the hilly terrain give them ample opportunity to use small arms effectively for maximum damage. Small shoulder held rockets and arms can be lethal in such engagement. In such a scenario, what is required is better training for the forces especially in countering guerrilla warfare. The Taliban lack sophisticated arms but they make up this deficiency by the fact that they know the terrain like the back of their hand. Use of air power in such conflicts cannot be overemphasized. Collateral damages will be there, but if the allied forces can build a rapport with the local population which are not always on the side of the Taliban, then the war should become much easier. This is not a conventional war between two armies and that must be understood. Saddam’s army was manageable as it was a conventional army, here the enemy can mingle into the crowd and pass off as villagers in no time. Building a rapport with the local population therefore becomes very important. The allied troops must be encouraged to learn Pashtu, Dari or Urdu. That will help a lot.
  6. Afghans hate foreigners: Like any other people the Afghans will not encourage people from other nations to run their country. But human beings are the same. They have their needs and they have their desires. A few friendly words go a long way. The important thing for them is to know that the west is here for their security. That they mean no harm. And that they do not intend to be in their country forever.
  7. One can impose western style democracy in Afghanistan: This is again a myth that should be done away with. The Afghans have their own tribal parliament called the Loya Jirga where the various tribal chiefs meet and issues are discussed. A western style democracy is desirable and west’s efforts are commendable, but their own tribal culture gives them enough democracy and they have lived like this for centuries. Must we impose our way of life on them?
  8. There is massive corruption: From the western point of view, yes. There is corruption. But the west must pause and think as to why a people are carrying suitcases full of currency to Dubai and other places. The reason is simple. The west is loath to commit itself for more than a couple of years. The ruling aristocracy knows that once the west is gone it is but a matter of time before the Taliban will be on the doorsteps of Kabul. Must they not think of their future post American withdrawal?  If the West were to assure the Karzai government that they will not withdraw till the Taliban is uprooted and the devil of terrorism is marginalized conclusively, then Karzai and his cabinet will deal with the situation differently. Pointing fingers at the Afghan government that has limited powers and mandate helps no one. The first thing that the west needs to do is to throw the timetable for withdrawal into the dustbin and think about a protracted engagement with the Taliban. The attitude must be that the west is here to win the war and nothing less will do.
  9. The west can clean up the place and go back: It is not as simple as that. For Afghanistan to stand on its feet will take some time. The west will have to be there all through. This is not a switch on/switch off button. This is a process and the reconstruction and development of infrastructure and institutions is a gradual process. Afghanistan has a lot of possibilities and this can be a modern prosperous nation, as it was till the ‘70’s. The first few years will be difficult, but once the Afghans realize that the world will be there for them come what may, the progress will be faster and smoother.This is a very different war. This is a war worth fighting for. A moderate, modern Afghanistan will be an asset for the world. A hashed up, half baked job could spell disaster. Let us not kid ourselves, terror does emanate from the Af-Pak region and Obama was right when he focused on this volatile region. The Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad also comes from this region. But the war must be seen in its totality and not stop at the Durand Line. If it means redrawing of boundaries, the west should not hesitate. Pashtunistan is a demand of the Pashtuns on both sides of the border for long. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will expand inwards. Sindh and Balochistan may also want autonomy. Pakistan will be restricted to Punjab of today. Kashmir may merge with India including the Northern areas.  Or it may become independent. The Af-Pak region needs some radical rethink. Conventional solutions to a problem that is a festering wound will ultimately mean that we are pushing the solutions to another day. Nuclear assets will have to be controlled and made benign. A permanent solution to this volatile region is a must. Peace around the world demands this. Besides, fighting a war on another’s terms is doing injustice to the young men and women that have gone in a foreign land to keep the stars and stripes aloft.

Update 11.07.2010: The death toll in a double suicide bombing in a Pakistani tribal village on the border with Afghanistan has risen to more than 100, officials say. Two bombers struck seconds apart in Yakaghund village in the Mohmand tribal region, devastating government buildings, shops and houses.Mohmand is part of Pakistan’s tribal regions where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have a strong presence.

A Taliban spokesman said they claimed responsibility for the attack.

Ikramullah Mohmand said their target was a meeting of local officials and anti-Taliban elders from the Anbar Utmankhel tribe. Initial reports put the death toll at about 50 and said one bomber was responsible. However, officials later said that at least 102 had died and more than 115 were wounded. More bodies were recovered from wrecked buildings and others had died from their injuries in hospital. Source : BBC

There is a tug of war going on between those who are with the Taliban and those that are siding with the western powers. It is any body’s guess as to who was behind the blast although the Taliban have claimed responsibility.

Update 26.07.2010: The recently published WikiLeaks which have been made available to the Guardian, Der Spigel and the New York Times, it is mentioned that the US forces have a special cell that is entrusted with the task of hunting and eliminating Taliban leaders. One can assume that their number one target and task is to look for Osama bin Laden and to kill or capture him. The way they are going about their task, as per these leaked reports, smacks of arrogance and contempt for the people of the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan. They have killed more civilians, including women and children than actual Taliban fighters and their leaders. They come out as people who are trigger happy and who are as much into using and demonstrating technology that they have than actually fighting the al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

While a covert operation, in this case named Task Force 373, should have been expected, it is the manner in which this covert force is going about its task that is a cause for concern. Such aggression where you shoot first and ask questions later, can boomerang badly on the coalition forces. This can be a problem as far as the overall military objectives of the coalition forces go. In one instance they killed more than half a dozen children who happened to be in a madarsa where al-Libi was supposed to be hiding, in another instance they killed seven friendly Afghan policemen and injured some more. The Polish forces mortared a marriage party in which women and children were also killed (they were not a part of Task Force 373), one of them pregnant. Such irresponsible, blind attacks are exactly what is not required. It is true that war is dirty and it is when one is in the zone can one understand the difficulties one faces. Even so, in such an unconventional war where the enemy is intermingling with the civilian population, one needs to be extra cautious. The presumption should be that the people are friends of the allied forces, unless proved otherwise. It seems the attitude of the coalition forces is that the people are their enemies, unless proved otherwise. This change of attitude could be the difference between success and failure in the war in Afghanistan.

It is true that Gen Stanley McChrystal and his commanders tried to inculcate this cautious approach among the men, but it seems that ‘mistakes’ have been rampant and this more than anything else should be something that the top military and civilian leadership needs to look into seriously, if they want to exit Afghanistan with some sense of achievement.

The Pakistan link to the Taliban does not surprise anyone at all. It is just that the Taliban have access to hi-tech weaponry like heat seeking anti-aircraft missiles, that worries one a bit. Clearly, Pakistan is diverting aid and resources to the Taliban and that should be a cause for worry to the coalition forces.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Arun Bhagat permalink
    July 14, 2010 10:44 am

    The Pak intervention in Taliban control may just be a sham, yet it is required. A necessary evil! If there is no deterrence at Pak-Afgan border, they may spill over into India. America is in a hurry to withdraw, and the best they can do is to put Pak in charge. leaving them to clean the mess, while Americans go back to their heaven.

    • sharma24 permalink*
      July 14, 2010 1:27 pm

      America- a heaven – well yes, relatively!!

  2. September 22, 2010 2:12 pm

    Though it is a copy paste job from Melissa Roddy article, but you should have the audacity to provide the links

    • sharma24 permalink*
      September 24, 2010 12:53 pm

      Do you mean I have lifted this from somewhere? You are wrong. I have not seen any article by any Melissa Roddy. I do not know what you are talking about.

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