Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Submission from Peter Marsden


  A key element in President Obama's policy on Afghanistan is what is widely referred to as a troop surge—yet there are many who regard an increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan as highly problematic. So what is the thinking behind this? Is it simply that the surge in US troops in Iraq was apparently successful (although this can be questioned) and may, therefore, work in Afghanistan? Or is it based on a view that the Bush administration was diverted by Iraq and that the war in Afghanistan should have been given greater resources from the beginning.

While both of these considerations are likely to have influenced the policy of the incoming US administration, there are other important factors. Not least of these is the fact that the situation in Pakistan is becoming increasingly precarious. Structures such as the Pakistan-based Taliban and Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shari'a Mohammed are thus challenging the liberal consensus of Pakistan's ruling elite and establishing geographical power bases of their own within which a much more conservative vision of Islamic society is being applied.

  This shift in power dynamics within Pakistan is, arguably, a product of the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan of October 2001. Not only did this result in an insurgency which was able to operate from Pakistan but it also led to pressure being applied, on President Musharraf, to send Pakistani troops into the tribal areas in order to both inhibit the operations of the insurgents and search for key individuals thought to be linked to Al-Qaida. This military intrusion into a region of Pakistan which had, historically, enjoyed fierce independence of any central authority immediately aroused the anger of the Pushtun tribes and created a situation in which they were willing to support a new Taliban movement under local leadership. Thus, while there was one Taliban movement which was seeking to undermine what was seen as a US-led military occupation of Afghanistan, there was another which was actively confronting the willingness of the Pakistan Government to cooperate with the US.

  The US Government therefore has good reason to fear a de-stabilisation of both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the face of insurgencies in the two countries. It will also be concerned at the possibility of increased Pakistan-based terrorism in India, exemplified in the attacks in Mumbai of November 2008. These led to increased tension between India and Pakistan and, from the US point of view, a worrying diversion of Pakistani troops from the border with Afghanistan to the Indian border.

  These concerns inevitably give rise to a view that the situation in Afghanistan cannot be divorced from that of the wider region and that a comprehensive approach to the complexities of the region, including those relating to Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian Republics needs to be adopted. This would take on board the active involvement of Pakistan, India and Iran in Afghanistan in support of their respective strategic interests.

  Within Afghanistan, the US Government is mindful of the growing strength of the Taliban since 2006 and of their expansion to the very borders of Kabul. While it is very clear, in its statements, that there is no military solution to the conflict with the Taliban, it may hope, through an increase in the number of US troops, to, at least, contain the insurgency. Thus, the decision to give initial priority, in despatching additional troops, to the provinces of Wardak and Logar, to the immediate south of Kabul, may represent an effort to protect the capital from armed incursions and, at the same time, provide greater security to the northern stretch of the Kabul to Kandahar highway. It has also stated that it seeks, through the provision of more troops, to buy time while it reviews existing approaches. A further stated objective of the increased US troop presence is to reduce the need to call in air power in stabilisation operations.

  The US Government has also made it clear that it seeks to increase the capacity of both international military forces and Afghan National Army troops in order to hold territory which has been captured. It will be aware of the poor performance of the Afghan National Police, in this regard, in the light of many examples of the police abandoning captured ground under pressure from the insurgents. The extremely high death rate of police engaged in counter-insurgency operations is a clear indication that they are neither resourced nor sufficiently trained to take on such a role. Their use, for this entirely inappropriate purpose, also takes them away from their primary role of providing an effective rule of law for the population.

  Careful thought will need to be given, by the US Government, to the relative priority accorded to stabilisation operations, aimed to free specific geographical areas of Taliban fighters, as opposed to the search for individuals in key leadership positions within the Taliban. It is the efforts of the US military to actively target those who are suspected of playing a leadership role which has proved to be among the most problematic. While the US has the technology to pinpoint the exact positions of suspects and to precision-bomb them, its intelligence is often flawed and innocent civilians are frequently killed in the process. The high level of civilian casualties arising from air power has become a major political issue within Afghanistan and has led President Karzai to publicly express his concerns to the US Government on many occasions. It has also greatly strengthened the support given to the insurgency. The US therefore needs to weigh up whether any success that it is having in taking out high value suspects is sufficient to justify the inevitable civilian casualties or the significant political fall-out. It is also far from clear that the successful targeting of some high profile individuals has weakened the Taliban movement.

  Further public anger has been aroused over the continued resort, by US forces in particular, to forced entry into the homes of suspects. There is also widespread concern over the detention of suspects, at Bagram air base and elsewhere, under conditions which do not conform to international human rights standards. The recent decision of President Obama to support the expansion of the detention facilities at Bagram air base and to exclude detainees from the right to challenge their detention in US/courts is of serious concern, in this regard. Thus, while he has made positive changes in relation to Guantánamo Bay and with regard to the extraordinary rendition process, these changes do not extend to Bagram.

  Many reports from the field also speak of public concern that the arrival of international forces, to stabilise an area, simply provokes a response from the insurgents and creates instability in place of the security, albeit of a fragile nature, which had hitherto existed. The ability of the Taliban to create a climate of fear and to intimidate the population links with a perception that international forces will not remain for ever and a consequent conclusion that cooperation with international forces will place the individual at risk once the international forces have departed.

  The hope, frequently expressed by the US, that it will be able to detach part of the Taliban support base away from the leadership through reconstruction assistance therefore has to be set against the fact that the level of outrage felt, by the population, over the actions of international forces may far outweigh any positive response to the construction of a clinic or a school, particularly if these are presented, by the Taliban, as vehicles for Western and, potentially, Christian values to be imparted. The value placed on material benefits may also be insignificant in the face of the loss of honour or dignity arising from an armed intrusion, by US forces, into the family home.

  The US may also find it difficult to generate a sufficient reconstruction effect to create a significant difference to the average Afghan while so much of the country is too insecure for the aid community to operate in. It cannot be stressed enough that Afghanistan is one of the very poorest countries of the world and that the population depends heavily on labour migration for its survival. The new US administration will also need to review the previous arrangements through which much of its reconstruction assistance was channelled through major US contractors. These have fuelled a public perception that only a small proportion of the aid provided to Afghanistan has benefited those on the ground.

  Efforts to build a professional police force and therefore meet the frequently-expressed need for security and an end to police corruption continue to face very considerable obstacles. Public disenchantment with the police is said to be a major factor in the provision of support to the Taliban. However, the hope expressed in the Interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy that a fully professional police force would be in being by 2010 is far from being realised.

  The recent initiative to support the creation of local community-based defence forces may also founder in the face of highly complex power-holding dynamics at the local level. It should be stressed, in this regard, that the tribal structures which used to ensure a degree of stability, at the local level, have been very much weakened over the thirty years of conflict, giving way to multiple commanders and other power holders. The relative order created through the traditional justice system has therefore been replaced by the rule of the gun, with the more self-interested agendas of younger men replacing the collective judgement of the elders.

  The international military is thus not only failing to gain ground against the insurgency by military means but it is also losing the hearts and minds battle. The Taliban are able to benefit from the fact that Afghanistan is seen as a major cause, within the wider Islamic world, in relation to a perceived US-led Christian crusade. They are therefore able to draw volunteers from the wider Islamic world who are simultaneously fired up by developments in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq or Pakistan. Thus, while the recent speech by President Obama on Al-Arabiya Television, in which he stressed his wish to have a relationship of respect with the Islamic world, represented a positive overture, the continued use of drones to attack targets in Pakistan, even under the Obama administration, has provoked strong reactions from an already hostile Pakistan public.

  The international military is also facing major difficulties in ensuring that both its forces and those of the Afghan National Army are adequately supplied. The insurgents have thus launched a significant number of attacks on fuel tankers entering Afghanistan from Pakistan. In addition, a major depot containing NATO military vehicles in Peshawar was torched in December 2008, resulting in very significant damage. Most recently, a bridge on the main route over the Khyber Pass was blown up. The US Government is therefore feeling increasingly uneasy about supplying its forces through Pakistan and has been actively exploring options for delivering supplies through Russia and the Central Asian Republics. This has had positive outcomes. It is not clear, however, whether the US will be able to persuade the Kyrgyz Government to reverse its recent decision to halt the use, by the US military, of the military base at Manas.

  The ability of the US Government to make progress in Afghanistan may also be constrained by growing tensions with President Karzai. It is extremely unfortunate that the tone used and attitudes adopted by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, towards President Karzai have been perceived as insulting by the Afghan public at large. The highly publicised debate as to whether the US will back him, as opposed to other candidates, in the elections to be held in August has therefore caused him to be increasingly critical of the US as well as defiant. Further, it has led him to make public overtures to Russia. If, therefore, President Karzai is re-elected in August, his administration will be even weaker than it is now in that it will no longer have the backing of the international community but will continue to be seen as a product of the US-led military intervention.

  However, any successor will have very little room for manoeuvre in a situation in which the international community and, particularly, the US Government determine outcomes to a significant degree. It will be important that the choice of the next President is not perceived, by the Afghan population, to have been decided, in advance, by the US Government. It should be stressed that, irrespective of whether the electoral process is seen as free and fair, perceptions are everything in Afghanistan. At the same time, both the Afghan population and the international community would be more likely to lend their support to a President who clearly has the necessary qualities for the role and who is not open to criticism in relation to any previous human rights abuses.

  Yet the US will rely on the Afghan Government to reach the political settlement with the Taliban on which the counter-insurgency operation depends. The US has made it clear that any such negotiations should be Afghan-led and that the Afghan Government is the primary vehicle for these. If the hand of President Karzai is further weakened, the political dynamics of Afghanistan will continue to be dominated by the deals that are being struck on a daily basis by the many other actors in Afghanistan, some of whom, including those involved in the drugs trade, have a vested interest in continuing instability and the absence of an effective state. The international community may thus find it difficult to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan and, therefore, a means through which it can establish a face-saving exit from its military involvement.

  It is far from clear what form a political settlement should take. The Taliban leadership has made it clear that it is not willing to negotiate while international forces remain in Afghanistan. The Afghan Government, on its side, has stated that it will only negotiate with those members of the Taliban who are willing to accept the Afghan constitution. Formal negotiations were held last year in Riyadh under the auspices of the Saudi Government but these proved to be inconclusive. A number of Jirgas have been held drawing in tribal representatives and other power holders from both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but the outcome of these is also uncertain. There is widespread concern that any political settlement in which conservative forces dominate would risk reversing the small gains that women have made in terms of political involvement and their greater access to health care, education and employment.

  The principal hope continues to lie in the capacity of the international military to train and strengthen the Afghan National Army. If the international military increasingly withdraws to barracks and supports Afghan security forces to respond to the insurgency, under the direction of the Afghan Government, there would inevitably be a difference in approach which may prove to be more sensitive to the complexities of the situation on the ground. It is important to note, in this regard, that the Afghan Government has recently submitted a formal request to NATO that it should have greater control over international military operations. It has also sought a ban on the searches of homes by international military personnel and has insisted that only the Afghan security forces should be involved in the detention of suspects.

  Thus, the US cannot stand idly by and allow both Afghanistan and Pakistan to become de-stabilised. However, its ability to make significant headway in the face of insurgencies in both countries is heavily constrained. The key question, therefore, is whether a pronounced reduction in the operations of international forces from Afghanistan in favour of those of the Afghan National Army, in combination with a cessation of US military action on Pakistani territory, would lower the political temperature in the region sufficiently for the Taliban or other radical groups to lose a significant part of the support base which their call for jihad has given them.

  Such a lowering of the political temperature would inevitably create a new political space. The hope is that this might enable a more active dialogue, aimed at the achievement of a consensus, to take place between the many actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including those who are currently supporting the Taliban. Such a consensus would certainly build on the inherent conservatism of Afghan and Pakistan societies and on the centrality of Islam within them but it would not need to incorporate the more radical perspectives that the call for jihad has brought to the fore.

  Of course, any intra-Afghan or intra-Pakistani dialogue would be very much influenced by indications, from the international military, of their willingness to link a broad-based political settlement in Afghanistan with an exit strategy. If it appears that the international military presence in Afghanistan is likely to be relatively indefinite, this would not only undermine the political process but it would also undermine the efforts of both the Afghan and Pakistani governments to assert their authority. The continuation of international military bases on Afghan soil can reasonably be expected to be a contentious issue, in this regard. Such a continuing military presence would also influence any dialogue with Iran.

  While the international community weighs up the various risks that it faces, it may also want to assess the risk of taking a back seat and allowing the Afghan and Pakistani governments to make more of the running. In so doing, it will need to take on board the very limited ability of both governments to influence outcomes within a very complex political environment. Expectations of what the two governments can achieve should, therefore, be realistic. Pakistan has good reason to feel aggrieved at the very critical stance that the US Government has taken towards its considerable and, in terms of human life, costly efforts to address the use of its territory as a base for the Afghan insurgency. At the same time, the US should recognise that both governments are attuned to the society around them and can be expected to approach the situation with a greater degree of sensitivity than is possible for an outsider, however well informed. The relationship of respect referred to in President Obama's speech to Al-Arabiya television should therefore underpin his administration's dealings with their leaders. The recent invitation to the Foreign Ministers of the two countries to talks in Washington was a positive step, in this regard.

  The US should also take on board the existence of a very vibrant civil society in both countries. Women's organisations, together with bodies such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the various peace-building initiatives, have an important role to play.

  Thus, while there will inevitably be considerable risks in respecting the ability of the two governments and societies to find appropriate ways forward, there may be value in exploring the potential costs and benefits of such an approach. In a situation in which the international community has proved able to aggravate, rather than alleviate, the ongoing crisis, it may prove to be a risk worth taking.

11 March 2009

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009