Afghans Can Win This War

The fight in Afghanistan is difficult, but with a strategy that fully empowers the Afghan people to defeat the Taliban, it is still winnable.


It was the spring of 2001. I was in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, together with my brother Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban, and Bismullah Khan, who currently serves as Afghanistan’s interior minister. One of our commanders, Commandant Momin, wanted us to see 30 Taliban fighters who had been taken hostage after a gun battle. My brother agreed to meet them.

I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, "There are still many sun- worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?"

Indeed, the Taliban are prepared to go very far in their jihad. They will spare no human life or piece of their country’s history in their attempt to remake Afghanistan in their image. If it were within their powers, they would not even stop with the sun.

I was thinking about this episode recently when, at the July 20 conference in Kabul, international powerbrokers rededicated themselves to seeing the mission in Afghanistan through to the end. "We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Too many nations … have suffered too many losses to see this country slide backward."

It will be no small feat to match the Taliban’s commitment. Over the duration of this nine-year conflict, U.S. and European leaders have discovered that it will take more than the same old methods to fix Afghanistan. Rather, what is needed is a new understanding of the complex dynamics of the current war and of Afghan society as a whole.

NATO members are increasingly showing concern over the lack of progress in the counterinsurgency campaign, which has concentrated on the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. So far, the results have been mixed: Although the 15,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops who participated in the military operation in Helmand’s Marja district largely managed to clear the area of insurgents, the process of establishing legitimate and trusted institutions and security forces in the region will remain on the agenda for a long time.

The military operation in Kandahar will likely experience similarly inconclusive results if NATO and Afghan forces fail to counter the Taliban strategy in the area. To lay the groundwork for the Kandahar operation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled twice to the province; he was followed by a joint Afghan-U.S. delegation led by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These officials were right to make Kandahar the centerpiece of their efforts to combat the insurgency. Along with Helmand, this area forms the core of the Taliban’s stronghold in Afghanistan; it is the source of the group’s most ideologically committed fighters and also the home of most of its leadership. Helmand in particular is also an important source of revenue for the Taliban: The province accounts for nearly 50 percent of the world’s opium production, and profits from the drug trade are funneled back into the insurgency.

Kandahar and Helmand are also important geographic links connecting the Taliban’s insurgent network in Pakistan to the rest of Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura, the council of Taliban leaders that includes Mullah Omar, reportedly resides on the other side of the Pakistani border in Baluchistan. Quetta and the neighboring areas play a crucial role in the supply, finance, and management of the insurgency. From these safe havens, militants now have easy access to Helmand and Kandahar — and from there can spread out across Afghanistan.

Helmand and Kandahar are not only top priorities for the Afghan government and NATO forces — the region is a top priority for the Taliban as well. The insurgency has exploited its enemies’ mistakes, conducting a war of attrition in the region that is designed to sap the American and European will to fight.

The Taliban’s strategy has so far met with success. It has succeeded in expanding the insurgency from its southern heartland all the way to northern Afghanistan. In the process, it has recruited a large number of new Taliban fighters to its cause: NATO officials estimate that the number of Taliban fighters grew from 400 in 2004 to approximately 30,000 today.

To reverse the Taliban’s gains, the international community and the Afghan government must recognize that, in addition to following basic tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine, there are a number of unique aspects of Helmand and Kandahar that will affect the potential success or failure of their mission.

Most importantly, controlling the Pakistani border, which abuts long sections of Kandahar and Helmand, must be a top priority for international forces. The interlinking network of insurgent groups, from Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura to the forces led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, sponsor attacks within Afghanistan and also play an important role linking al Qaeda to the Taliban. Diminishing their capabilities is a precondition for success in Afghanistan.

Striking a crucial blow against the insurgents can only take place with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. The international community must pressure Pakistan to deploy enough force on its side of the border to stop further cross-border movement of insurgents. Our sad experience over the last nine years has demonstrated how the Taliban used the undefended border with Pakistan to strike the Afghan people and international forces. Some pessimists have argued that securing the frontier with Pakistan is impossible, due to the mountainous terrain and vast 2,430-kilometer border. They cite the failures of the Soviet Army and previous Afghan governments, which were unable to exercise effective control of the region.

However, given the current cooperation between the Afghan government and NATO forces, these arguments should not hold. Proper monitoring of the border will require hard work by the Afghan government and ISAF, utilizing both hard and soft power. For its part, ISAF must commit the manpower and resources to strictly monitor and control the movement of goods and people. Meanwhile, the Afghan government should strive to develop efficient and scrupulous institutions in these long-neglected areas, in order to convince the Afghan people that they have a stake in stemming the flow of insurgents coming across the Pakistani border.

This may seem a daunting task. But Afghans, Americans, and Europeans alike should realize that, even if the war effort succeeds on all other fronts but fails to protect the border, the struggle against the insurgents will be lost.

ISAF and the Afghan security forces must also work to prevent the creation of new Taliban supporters inside the country. The government has so far tried to achieve this result through a top-down approach, flooding regions with international aid and attempting to impose solutions by bringing in greater numbers of troops. But recruiting and training more Afghan police and Army units will not be enough to win the support of the population. The solution must form through a bottom-up approach that provides locals with ownership over their own communities and encourages efforts to challenge the Taliban’s authority.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is virtually no popular enthusiasm for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, the support is not genuine and largely comes from lack of a better option. The Afghan people have suffered at the Taliban’s hands for more than 16 years. Afghans generally consider the Taliban as a foreign force, sponsored by Pakistan, which imposes its will through violence, terror, and fear. The Afghan government and its allies should exploit the Taliban’s dismal reputation to their own advantage.

So far, the government has missed an opportunity to use the media to advertise the Taliban’s shortcomings and rally its supporters in popular protests against the insurgency. The voice of the people must be heard on this matter. Media, civil society, and local leaders should open channels to express popular resentment against the Taliban — and ISAF and the Afghan security forces should publicly commit to ensuring their safety when they undertake these efforts.

There is a great potential in local, bottom-up action: No one should underestimate the commitment and power of ordinary Afghans. It was ordinary Afghans who successfully resisted 150,000 Soviet soldiers and won the war with far less international backing than the Afghan government receives today.

The impact of these missed opportunities is beginning to be felt by the Afghan government’s international partners. War fatigue is beginning to grip Europe and the United States. Under public pressure, Canada has already announced its withdrawal from Kandahar, and the Netherlands is very likely to follow suit in the wake of the collapse of its cabinet over the issue of extending its mission in Uruzgan. Obama has also announced that the United States will commence a gradual troop withdrawal in 2011. It is clear that Afghanistan’s allies face serious economic and political limitations at home and cannot function as an unending source of support.

The outcome of the operations in Kandahar and Helmand has the potential to reverse this gloomy state of affairs. A victory would be a boon to the counterinsurgency campaign, possibly even leading some governments to reconsider their planned troop withdrawals. Discernible progress would also allow NATO forces to begin the important task of transferring responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Army, a crucial step for the Afghan government in reassuming control over its own security.

For these reasons, much hinges on the campaign currently being waged in Afghanistan’s southern provinces. The Afghan government and its international partners must act jointly and swiftly for these operations to succeed. Only then can Afghans finally achieve the peace they have long strived for, and will U.S. and European leaders rest assured that this country will no longer act as an incubator for extremists who threaten not only Afghanistan’s population, but the entire world. This war is tiresome, but it can be won.

Yahya Massoud is the brother of Ahmad Shah Massood. He joined the Afghan resistance following the 1979 Soviet invasion. This article was translated by Djeyhoun Ostowar, a graduate student at the University of Oxford.