Surging over the brink
M Shahid Alam*
holds his breath as the US pursues its latest bright idea in Afghanistan
More than eight years after dismantling the Taliban, the United States is still mired in Afghanistan. Indeed, last October it launched a much-hyped surge to prevent a second Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, not imminent yet, but eminently possible.
The first dismantling of the Taliban was a cakewalk. In 2001, the US quickly and decisively defeated the Taliban, killed, captured or scattered their fighters, and handed over the running of Afghanistan to their rivals, mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks from the Northern Alliance.
Unaware of Pashtun history, American commentators were pleased at the smashing victory of their military, convinced that they had consigned the Taliban to history's graveyard.
Instead, the Taliban came back from the dead. Within months of their near-total destruction, they had regained morale, regrouped, organised, trained, and returned to fight the foreign occupation of their country. Slowly and tenaciously they continued to build on their gains, and by 2008 they were dreaming of taking back the country they had lost in 2001.
Could this really happen? Only time will tell, but prospects for the Taliban today look better than at any time since November 2001. In 2001, the United States captured Afghanistan with the loss of only 12 of its own troops. Last year it lost 316 soldiers, and the British lost another 108. The numbers speak for themselves.
The US occupied Afghanistan with 9,000 troops. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, these numbers had climbed to 30,000. In October, US troop strength in Afghanistan had more than doubled. This does not include tens of thousands of foreign contractors and some 200,000 Afghan troops armed and trained by the Americans.
Yet, NATO could not deter the Taliban advance. That is when United States President Obama ordered a troop surge. US troop strength will soon reach 100,000. At the same time, the US is inviting Taliban fighters to defect in return for bribes. In tandem, President Karzai -- for the umpteenth time -- is offering amnesty to defecting Taliban fighters. So far, there have been no high-ranking defections.
Can the US defeat these men -- returned from the dead -- it calls terrorists? It is a vital question. It should be, since the United States claims that if the Taliban come back, Afghanistan will again become a haven for Al-Qaeda, their training ground and launching pad for future attacks against Western targets.
How did the Taliban stage this comeback? Simply, by finding strength in their handicaps. If you had compared the defeated Taliban in December 2001 to the mujahideen in 1980, you would conclude that history had closed its books on them irrevocably.
The mujahideen brought several advantages to their fight. All Afghans opposed the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. They had financial, military and political support from the Western powers. US president Ronald Reagan honoured them as freedom fighters. They also had support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. In addition, tens of thousands of foreign fighters joined the Afghan mujahideen.
In comparison, Taliban prospects looked quite dismal after their rout in November 2001. Nearly all the factors that favoured the mujahideen worked against the Taliban. Taliban support was confined mostly to one Afghan ethnicity, the Pashtuns. In the US and its European allies, they faced a more formidable opponent than the mujahideen did in the Soviet Union.
There was not a single Muslim country that could support the return of the Taliban: the US forbade it. Worst of all, the Pakistani military, partly for lucre and partly under US pressure, threw its forces against the Taliban. Under the circumstances, few Muslim fighters from outside Pakistan have joined the Taliban.
Their goose was cooked: or so it seemed. Nevertheless, the Taliban defied these odds, and now, some eight years later, they have taken positions in nearly every Afghan province, with shadow governments in most of them. Is it possible to reverse the gains that Taliban have made in the face of nearly impossible odds?
What can the US do to weaken the Taliban? They have few vulnerabilities because the US has been so effective in denying them any help from external sources. They have built their gains almost exclusively on their own strengths: and these are harder to take away.
What then are some of these strengths? Unlike the mujahideen, the Afghan resistance against the US is less fractious. The Taliban make up the bulk of the resistance. Other groups -- led by Haqqani and Hekmatyaar -- are much smaller. The Afghan resistance has a central leadership that the mujahideen never had.
Unlike the mujahideen, the Taliban do not have the technology to knock out the helicopters, drones or jets that attack them from the air. On the ground, however, they have technology the mujahideen did not have. They have acquired suicide vests and, more importantly, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) developed by the resistance in Iraq. Indeed, the Taliban claim to have improved upon the IEDs they acquired from Iraq.
Notwithstanding their apparent lack of sophistication, the Taliban leadership have proved to be savvy in their use of videos, CDs, FM radio stations, and the Internet to publicise their gains, build morale, and mobilise recruits.
Despite the satellites, drones, spies on the ground, and prize money for their capture, much of the Taliban leadership has evaded capture. In particular, Mulla Omar remains a ghost. He has not been seen or interviewed since 2001. Yet he remains in touch with his commanders through human couriers.
Afghanistan's corrupt government is another Taliban asset. It has spawned a tiny class of Afghan nouveau riche battened by drug money, government contracts and cronyism. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai makes matters even worse by implicating the US occupation in the blatant corruption of his own government.
It appears that there is little that the United States can do to neutralise these elusive advantages. Instead, it tries to blame and shift the burden of the war onto Pakistan. It continues to pressure and bribe Pakistan's rulers to mount full-scale military operations against the Taliban support network in Pakistan.
More and more, Pakistan's military leaders have been caving under these pressures, escalating their wars against their own population. This has provoked a backlash. A new faction of the Taliban has emerged to launch deadly attacks against military and civilian targets in Pakistan. These attacks are destabilising Pakistan. In turn, the US uses these attacks to push Pakistani rulers into greater capitulation to its demands.
In addition, Obama has dramatically escalated drone attacks against the Taliban support network in Pakistan. In tandem, Pakistan too has been launching more massive air and ground attacks against their hideouts. However, none of this has deterred the escalating Taliban attacks against NATO and Afghan forces.
No one suggests that the Taliban can match the credentials of America's freedom fighters in the late 18th century. The latter were committed to the proposition that all men are created equal -- barring certain overlooked exceptions. The Taliban are zealots and misogynists, but only a tad more so than the mujahideen whom the West embraced as freedom fighters.
The West celebrated the mujahideen's victory over the Soviets. The same people, fighting under a different name, have now pushed the US into a costly stalemate. Will the US prolong this stalemate, and push Pakistan too over the brink? Or will it accept the fait accompli the Taliban have created for them, accept its losses, and save itself from greater embarrassment in the future?
Once or twice, the United States has retreated from unwinnable wars and survived. It is likely that the surge is primarily a political move to try to pass off the retreat from Afghanistan as another "mission accomplished". Let's hope that's all it is, because the alternative is likely to be much worse for all parties involved in this unwinnable war.
* The writer is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston.