Best Defense

Taliban without al Qaeda? (II): Why it is a bad bet

One of the great things about CNAS is the quality of the interns. One of them now is Kyle Flynn, who is studying at Georgetown and is helping with research on my next book. He is a former Special Forces NCO who served two tours in Afghanistan. He mentioned that he was struck by the ...

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One of the great things about CNAS is the quality of the interns. One of them now is Kyle Flynn, who is studying at Georgetown and is helping with research on my next book. He is a former Special Forces NCO who served two tours in Afghanistan. He mentioned that he was struck by the comments Peter Bergen made at a congressional hearing last week on Afghanistan. I asked him to share his thoughts, and here they are:

On Oct. 7 Sen. John Kerry chaired a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the current threat posed by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Invited to participate in the discussion were three highly-respected experts on terrorism and Al-Qaeda: Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation; Dr. Mark Sageman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Homeland Security; and Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the DCI Counterterrorist Center. Drawing from my own assumptions and experiences with 3rd Special Forces Group in Khost province in 2005-2006 and Oruzgan province in 2007-2008, I found myself falling in line behind Mr. Bergen’s observations most often in regard to Afghanistan-in particular on the close ties that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have formed since 9/11 and the problem of developing a centralized Afghan army to help combat the insurgency. It is also my belief that generalizations made on Afghanistan often lack utility because the conditions on the ground vary greatly from province to province and even district to district. So even my own experiences in Afghanistan may not actually depict reality on the ground in most places.

Below, Mr. Bergen comments on the current relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban:

Al Qaeda has influenced the Taliban ideologically and tactically to a very great degree. The reason that we’re having an epidemic of suicide attacks and beheadings of hostages and IED attacks is because the Taliban sent people to Iraq to learn from the insurgency and they copycatted the insurgency, and al Qaeda and the Taliban today are far closer than they were before 9/11.

The idea that if the Taliban were in power, they wouldn’t bring back al-Qaeda is absurd. The whole Taliban project has been about protecting al Qaeda, and if international forces pull out of Afghanistan or we lowered our commitment, the Taliban would eventually take control of part of the country and could even take it over entirely, not because the Taliban is so strong, but because the Afghan government and the Afghan military right now are so weak.

Al Qaeda is a force multiplier. It’s like having U.S. Special Forces. So even-you know, General Jones, the national security adviser, said there were 100 members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan right now. Those are the people who are helping with IEDs. Those are the people helping with the training. Those are the people with experience. So, while the number may be small and al Qaeda’s always been a small organization, just fixating on the numbers doesn’t-isn’t very helpful because it’s about their influence ideologically and tactically that’s important.”

What interested me here was that Bergen spoke directly to the ongoing debate over U.S. political aims and military strategy in the region. It is worth asking therefore whether anyone is still debating seriously the idea that disparate elements of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now more closely aligned than they were eight years earlier? More often than not, we still attempt to categorize Al-Qaeda and the Taliban separately in regard to our vital national interests but not to strategic objectives on the ground. In theory, we are in the region to deny a centralized Al-Qaeda a sanctuary from which to train and operate. In reality, however, we are there executing a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy against a largely decentralized and disorganized Taliban movement comprised of Afghan, Pakistani, and foreign nationals.

If only Al-Qaeda poses a strategic threat to U.S. national interests but we must defeat an element of the Taliban to defeat Al-Qaeda, then how can we logically separate the two in terms of policy but not strategy?  Although I believe strongly in the Accidental Guerilla syndrome, I also believe that we sometimes forget that the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, and the Haqqani networks are comprised primarily of Afghan nationals. From my experience and to our own detriment, I believe that we often overlook the local nature of this conflict. At what point do we finally admit that we are fighting an enemy that will never align its interest to those of Coalition forces and our host-nation allies? Clearly then, to defeat the insurgency we have to eliminate the insurgents. The notion that we can today somehow align ourselves with a moderate Taliban that tomorrow will not realign itself with the same fanatics with whom it’s been fighting all these years is ridiculous. 

On a different note, Mr. Bergen also has some valid concerns on the effectiveness of the Afghan national army:

And my concern is that the Afghan army, in much of the country, is essentially a foreign army. Doesn’t mean that it has the active opposition of much of even the Pashtun population, but it’s not a Pashtun army. And if they come in, I think most people will be content to do with them as they are essentially doing with American forces now, and that is to sit on the fence and wait and see who wins this thing. Unless we have their active cooperation, I just don’t think that we’re going to get any real traction in this campaign. And so the concern that I have is that we are placing much too much of the emphasis currently on the buildup of an Afghan army.”

My experience in Deh Rawod supports Mr. Bergen’s observations on many counts. Foremost, it is no secret that for security to exist in Afghanistan, a bottom-up approach which begins at the tribal and district level must be adopted throughout the country. Therefore, transplanting an Afghan army battalion comprised of Tajiks, Hazaras, or Turks to the Pashtun belt does not make sound policy, at least not to me. During my second deployment, I witnessed everything from good old-fashioned fisticuffs to full blown armed standoffs between the “foreign” army and our local Afghan security forces. Which begs me to ask why a Pashtun tribe would assist what they perceive as a foreign army more than a localized insurgency comprised of members of their own tribe and perhaps even family? The very idea of a developing a 200,000 strong Afghan army which can operate freely and effectively throughout the heart of the insurgency is a non-starter. While we should be focused on developing localized defense forces to combat and defeat an internal insurgency, we are instead creating an army better positioned to combat external threats. Again, we seem to have a knack for confusing the bottom-up and top-down approaches to strategic success in Afghanistan.

Some may argue however that a non-Pashtun army will be more willing to engage a Pashtun insurgency and more importantly not succumb so easily to Taliban infiltration. While I agree to some extent with both assumptions, I would also argue that only localized security forces have the ability to collect the intelligence necessary to defeat this type of insurgency. Thus, the risk of Taliban infiltration of localized security forces is unavoidable because without the collection of localized intelligence, the war is all but lost. So if the local population has no intention of assisting an Afghan army battalion comprised of different ethnicities, then in my opinion the battalion’s tactical value is close to zero. I also agree with Mr. Bergen regarding the use of warlords and other localized power structures which could help accomplish that which should be our primary goal: that is, to defeat both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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