With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire

June 9, 2010

TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan – The most powerful man in this arid stretch of southern Afghanistanis not the provincial governor, nor the police chief, nor even the commander of the Afghan Army.


A security post on the road controlled by Matiullah Khan in southern Afghanistan. He leads a private army that earns millions of dollars guarding NATO convoys

By DEXTER FILKINS

It is Matiullah Khan, the head of a private army that earns millions of dollars guarding NATO supply convoys and fights Taliban insurgents alongside American Special Forces.

Read the rest of this entry »


Can Afghanistan Taliban absorb blow to Quetta Shura?

February 26, 2010

The Afghanistan Taliban is under pressure with 7 of 15 members of its top leadership council, the Quetta Shura, recently arrested. But still in place are senior leaders who might step up and other senior Taliban councils responsible for different parts of the country.

By Anand Gopal


Afghan army commandos stand on a sand bank as a US army Apache helicopter flies above them on February 24, 2010. While the recent capture of Quetta Shura leaders was in Pakistan, the organization runs operations have a wide reach, including within Afghanistan.

Kabul, Afghanistan: The Afghan Taliban now faces what may be its biggest test in recent years, with 7 of 15 members of its leadership council, the Quetta Shura, recently captured by Pakistani authorities.

From its perch in Pakistan, the Quetta Shura is said to act as a nerve center for all of the Afghan Taliban’s operations, formulating military and political strategy, appointing field commanders, and managing a shadow government.

Yet still in tact are a roster of experienced leaders who can take their arrested comrades’ place as well as several subcommittees that each oversee sections of the country.

This report on the Taliban’s leadership structure is based on interviews with two Taliban figures who claim to belong to the council and with Afghan intelligence officials.

A wide-reaching organization

The Quetta Shura’s is described as assigning and replacing field commanders in Afghanistan, overseeing the Taliban’s parallel government in Afghanistan, and fielding complaints from Taliban members. In some cases the Taliban’s control over some parts of Afghanistan is so strong that nongovernmental organizations working there – such as the United Nation’s World Food Program – have first sought permission from the Quetta Shura to enter the region.

In addition to the top council, the Taliban relies on a number of other shuras to oversee the insurgency. All of these councils answer to the supreme body in Quetta, and membership in the different councils or shuras sometimes overlaps.

Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir, the movement’s leading military commander and a member of the Quetta Shura, who was arrested in Pakistan’s recent crackdown, headed two such bodies.

Like the top council, these two shuras are based in Quetta, Pakistan, and are responsible for military affairs in southern and western Afghanistan, including resistance to the ongoing United States-led offensive in the town of Marjah.

A third council is based in the North Waziristan town of Miram Shah, where insurgent leader Sirajuddin Haqqani directs the Taliban’s operations in the southeast, according to former insurgents and Afghan intelligence officials. Mr. Haqqani is considered one of the most dangerous foes of the Western forces, and has been behind a number of high-profile attacks in recent years.

[A Pakistani Taliban commander in North Waziristan was killed in a suspected CIA missile strike in northwest Pakistan, officials told the Associated Press Thursday. Mohammed Qari Zafar, wanted for a deadly 2006 bombing of the US consulate in Karachi, was among at least 13 people killed Wednesday when three missiles slammed into a compound and a vehicle in the Dargah Mandi area of the North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan, two Pakistani intelligence officials said. ]

A fourth shura, based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, serves as the hub for Taliban operations in the eastern and northern parts of Afghanistan. Maulavi Abdul Kabir, the Taliban’s governor of Nangarhar Province when the group was in power, headed this body, according to Afghan and US intelligence officials. Maulavi Kabir was also caught in the Pakistani sweep.

Can the leadership spring back?

Some Taliban figures who do not belong to the Quetta Shura still hold important roles. One example is Qudratullah Jamal, who deals with fundraising and outreach to other groups and potential donors and is believed to be based in Pakistan. Another is Hafez Majid, who has headed a number of military committees over the years.

While the recent crackdown may put pressure on the Taliban, the movement has survived the loss of senior leaders before.

In early 2009, Pakistani authorities announced that they had captured Ustad Yasir, at the time the Taliban’s chief of military operations. His current whereabouts are unknown. In 2007, Pakistani officials captured Mullah Obaidullah, then considered the movement’s No. 2. Other senior leaders have been killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The current sweep, however, marks the first time so many members of the leadership have been apprehended at once.


America’s Jilted Lover In New Delhi

February 22, 2010

India is one of the reasons for the US debacle in Afghanistan.

By AHMED QURAISHI

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan-Pakistan army chief has offered to train the Afghan army. This is part of a list of demands – not all of them made public – that seek to correct a basic American mistake: While courting Pakistan as an ally, Washington secretly empowered India.

Until last month, Washington was hoping that India’s relatively cheaper soldiers will come handy where the Europeans won’t, and that a bungled Afghan project could be continued on, well, a leaner budget.

Washington is now in the process of correcting this mistake. And not because of any real change in heart. It’s just that Islamabad is reasserting itself.

This has sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. And within the pro-Indian media in Washington.

Exhibit A: an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Let India Train the Afghan Army , written by Indian analyst Sumit Ganguly on Feb. 14. The op-ed could have been written in the national security adviser’s office in New Delhi. The talking points might as well have originated there.

Mr. Ganguly basically begs Washington to consider the Indian army for a role in Afghanistan. Not doing that, he warned, would amount to ‘a grave strategic error’. The op-ed actually ends with these three words.

The Indian analyst sounded almost desperate with his pushy sales pitch [Example: India's army enjoys ' an optimal "teeth to tail" ratio, specifically trained in counterinsurgency operations'].

But there are genuine reasons why Mr. Ganguly’s idea is a bad one.

India is one of the reasons for the US debacle in Afghanistan. Back in 2002, self-styled Indian experts on Pakistan and Afghanistan convinced Washington that India can provide better intelligence on extremist groups than the double-dealing Pakistanis. Washington listened. The Bush White House and Pentagon were more than happy to buy Indian theories on who to deal with inside Afghanistan and how to keep Pakistan at bay.

Partly due to this (ill) advice, discredited Afghan warlords were brought on board. Indian intelligence agents were given a lot of space in Afghanistan. New Delhi used this space against Pakistan. Not all of the terrorism inside Pakistan over the past five years is the result of Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Indians misled the Americans not just on the ground in Afghanistan but also in the corridors of Washington’s think tanks. Indian experts offered provocative ideas on how Pakistan is ripe for a redrawing of borders along alleged linguistic and ethnic fault lines, a la Iraq. Bush-era Washington listened eagerly as Indian experts promoted the idea of using these fault lines as a negotiating card with Pakistan to secure its cooperation. This is how a separatist insurgency in Pakistan’s Balochistan province was born in 2005.

Needless to say, Indian involvement backfired. Spices are not good in every dish.

As the Indian fingerprints became clearer, a feeling grew among Pakistanis that Washington took Pakistan for a ride since 2002. Never before in the half-century of US-Pakistani relations has anti-Americanism been this high in Pakistan. It’s totally unheard of.

Now Washington is realizing its mistake and adjusting its Afghan policy accordingly. The United States must not be distracted again.

No one in Washington is really enthusiastic about the Pakistani offer to train the Afghan army. You will not see Wall Street Journal publishing an op-ed advocating Pakistan’s viewpoint anytime soon. But this festering anti-Pakistanism in the US media should give way to a new way of looking at Pakistan, America’s demonized ally.


Taliban bombs hinder Afghan offensive

February 18, 2010

By Patrick Baz

Thousands of US-led troops fighting to capture a key Taliban bastion in Afghanistan risk becoming bogged down as they run into resistance from mortars and scores of buried bombs.

The slowing progress in what military officials have billed as the biggest operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion coincided with reports that a senior Taliban commander had been arrested in neighbouring Pakistan.

“We are advancing slowly because areas have been mined,” Afghan army chief of staff Besmillah Khan said on Tuesday on the fourth day of the massive offensive on Marjah, in the opium heartland of the southern province of Helmand.

The assault on the militant stronghold is the first major test of US President Barack Obama’s strategy to crush an eight-year insurgency launched after the Taliban were ousted from power.

A massive force of 15,000 Afghan, US and NATO troops are taking part in Operation Mushtarak (“Together” in Dari), seeking to drive out militants and allow the Western-backed Afghan government to re-establish control.

Thousands of people from at least 1,240 families have fled the area around Marjah, a cluster of villages with a population of about 80,000, and are sheltering with friends and relatives, said the provincial government.

While death tolls are impossible to confirm independently, officials have said that 30 Taliban, two NATO soldiers and at least 12 Afghan civilians have been killed in the Marjah battle.

Limiting civilian casualties is key to winning hearts and minds in the operation against a Taliban force estimated at up to 1,000 fighters.

Remote-controlled bombs have hampered the progress of the assault in an area controlled for years by militants and drug lords.

“Hundreds of mines have been discovered in different areas,” Khan said, referring to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which are the principal killer of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

“We are definitely finding more than we expected,” said Lieutenant Josh Diddams, of Taskforce Leatherneck, adding: “It’s a slow process.”

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, who commands the Marines in southern Afghanistan, expected the operation to last for 30 days, Diddams said.

An Afghan army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that troops were meeting “more than a little resistance” inside Marjah from Taliban armed with anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and 82mm mortars.

The Red Cross said IEDs planted on roads were preventing casualties from getting to hospital in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, 20km away from Marjah.

A NATO air strike elsewhere in Helmand killed a Taliban commander known as Sarraj-Uddin, said to have coordinated foreigners fighting for the militia, and four Arab fighters, the provincial government said.

But the Taliban sought to compete with the Western and Afghan militaries who have journalists “embedded” in units, inviting journalists on Tuesday to tour the battle lines to witness the assault “with their own eyes”.

Reversing the insurgency is an enormous challenge in Afghanistan, where the hardline militia is said to be present in most of the country and central government control is weak.

Obama has ordered more than 50,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan since taking office in January 2009, with the final reinforcements due to bring to 150,000 the total number of US and NATO-led troops in the country by August.

Despite Taliban denials, the New York Times and other US media reported that US and Pakistani spies had recently captured the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

In Kandahar province, which is next to Helmand, a roadside bomb attack on Tuesday killed three policemen and wounded five, provincial police chief General Shair Mohammad Zazai said.


Xe Services aiming for Afghan police training deal

January 11, 2010

By RICHARD LARDNER, Associated Press Writer Richard Lardner, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Blackwater Worldwide ‘s legal woes haven’t dimmed the company’s prospects in Afghanistan , where it’s a contender for an important role in the U.S. strategy for stabilizing the country.

Now called Xe Services, the company is in the running for a Pentagon contract potentially worth $1 billion to train Afghanistan’s troubled national police force. Xe has been shifting to training, aviation and logistics work after its security guards were accused of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.

Yet even with a new name and focus, the expanded role would seem an unlikely one for Xe because Democrats have held such a negative opinion of the company following the Iraqi deaths.

During the White House campaign, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton , now President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, backed legislation to ban Blackwater and other private security contractors from Iraq .

Xe eventually lost its license to operate as guardian of U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Clinton’s State Department decided not to rehire the company when the contract expired in 2009. Delays in getting a new company in place led to a temporary extension of that contract.

A federal judge on New Year’s Eve dismissed criminal charges against five of the Blackwater guards, citing repeated missteps by federal prosecutors . The Iraqi government has promised to pursue the case, a new strain on relations between the U.S. and Iraq.

Xe on Wednesday reached a settlement in a series of civil lawsuits in which dozens of Iraqis accused the company of cultivating a reckless culture that allowed innocent civilians to be killed. On Thursday, however, two former Blackwater contractors were arrested on murder charges in the shootings of two Afghans after a traffic accident last year.

Despite the scrutiny, the U.S. relies heavily on Xe (pronounced “zee”) for support in Afghanistan; the workload may grow significantly.

Xe spokesman Mark Corallo declined comment on whether the Moyock, N.C.-based company is bidding for the Afghan police training contract. But a U.S. official knowledgeable of the deliberations said Xe is competing. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information about the federal contracting process.

Xe provides security services in Afghanistan, though on a smaller scale than it did in Iraq. As of November, Xe had more than 200 security personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, according to documents highlighting Xe’s operations.

Two Xe guards were killed Dec. 30 during a suicide bombing attack at a CIA base in southeastern Afghanistan, again raising questions about services the company provides for the CIA.

Late last year, CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated the use of Xe personnel in loading and other logistics for airborne drones used to hunt militants in Pakistan .

Xe is also a prolific provider of aviation services in Afghanistan, where travel on land is complicated by the rugged terrain and roadside bombs. In airplanes and helicopters, Presidential Airways , a Xe subsidiary, has carried thousands of passengers and millions of pounds of cargo and mail under contracts with U.S. Transportation Command with a potential value of nearly $870 million, according to the command.

In 2009 alone, Xe projected total revenues at $669 million, the documents state, and three-quarters of the total stems from federal contracts to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

he Afghan national police training contract is expected to be awarded soon; Xe is among five companies eligible to compete.

Obama is ramping up efforts to expand and improve the Afghan army and national police into a force able to handle the security burden so U.S. troops can begin withdrawing in July 2011. The private sector’s help is needed because the U.S. doesn’t have a deep enough pool of trainers and mentors with law enforcement experience .

Under an existing defense contract, Xe already trains the Afghan border police – an arm of the national police – and drug interdiction units in volatile southern Afghanistan, according to the documents.

The Defense Department’s plan is to fold the border police training into the broader contract.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore Law School, says Xe’s foothold in Afghanistan could give it an edge over other competitors.

“Blackwater ‘s current contract for the border police means it already has assets – experience, a proven record and existing capacity and personnel in Afghanistan – for a contract to train the Afghan national police,” said Tiefer, a member of the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting.

The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal , wants to build the Afghan national police to a force of 160,000 by 2013 – up from the roughly 94,000 now.

The Afghan army is in better shape than the national police, an organization riddled with corruption and generally unable to control crime or combat the Taliban .

Since 2003, DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va., has held a large State Department contract for training Afghanistan’s national police. The most recent installment of the training contract was awarded in August 2008 and it generates about $20 million in revenue a month for DynCorp , according to company spokesman Douglas Ebner.

But a decision by McChrystal to give U.S. military officials control over all police training contracts is ending DynCorp’s run and creating a major opportunity for Xe and the other companies.

DynCorp has filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, alleging that the approach is “procedurally and legally flawed,” according to company vice president Donald Ryder.


Face Down the Militarists and Get Out of Afghanistan

November 19, 2009

Simon Jenkins

Go to Washington any time in the past eight years and ask what influence Britain has over America’s Afghan policy. The answer is a thumb and forefinger joined in a simple zero. The same was true in Iraq. Ever since Tony Blair kowtowed to George Bush at Crawford in April 2002, Britain has been the patsy, the poodle, the dumb ally in Washington’s wars of ideological empire.

Britain’s military failures in Basra and Helmand, rescued in both by the Americans, increased this subservience. While French and German governments assess their nation’s interest, Blair and Gordon Brown have been me-too kids on the block, panting after Washington’s every wild venture. Despite 412 British soldiers dead, Brown indicated in his speech on Monday night that nothing had changed. The torture continues. London twitches only when Washington kicks.

Almost nothing Brown says on Afghanistan makes sense, and he seems painfully aware of it. He must say that soldiers are dying in Helmand to make Britain’s streets safe, even when intelligence reports say the opposite. He must remain obsessed with “training bases”, as if the 9/11 plotters had learned to fly in Tora Bora. He must believe that building an Afghan security force and ridding Hamid Karzai’s regime of corruption can be achieved, and that they hold the keys to a British withdrawal. Pigs will fly.

Brown must also know that his Foreign Office thinks the Afghan venture mad, and sets up its hapless boss, David Miliband, to repeat that counter-insurgency is counter-terrorism. It is not. It is counter-insurgency. To equate the two is like the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blaming foreign states for what is essentially a domestic threat – in Britain’s case from a tiny fraction of its Muslim community.

The favored military option said to be emerging from Obama’s agonizing review of Afghan policy is to “fall back on the cities”. This seems the only way of marrying the military’s desperation for ever more troops to the raw, bleeding fact that the Afghan war is hopeless. The killing can go on for ever, but the war is lost.

Falling back on cities was the last gasp of the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam. It can work if you are a native population ceding countryside to an invader. But in Afghanistan Nato is the invader. Cede the country to the Taliban and you cede every city market place and street corner. It will not work. Nato has hi-tech weapons but it forgot to pack its rucksacks with an old-fashioned, mark one historian.

As for the even more desperate idea of “talking to the local Taliban”, what do you say to a tiger in mid-leap? Could you eat just an arm and a leg and leave me the rest? It is on a par with Boris Johnson’s brainless argument that to pull out would be to betray those who have given their lives so far. Nobody dares call a spade a spade. Were Osama bin Laden given to laughter, which I understand he is not, he would split his sides.

The suspense of Obama’s “decision” on Afghanistan is acquiring epic proportions. It recalls the Delphic oracle’s reply when Croesus asked if he should declare war on Persia. If he does, the oracle said, “He will destroy a mighty empire”. It turned out to be his own.

We assume Obama favours withdrawal because, if he had thought more troops would defeat the Taliban, it was criminal not to have sent them a year ago. His decision has thus become a trial of strength between his view and the massed ranks of America’s military/industrial complex, with its $1bn-a-day interest in the continuance of war.

If militarism wins and Obama commences a 10-year battle over the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, it will spell the end of America’s status as cold war victor and putative world policeman. The complex will have him trapped. The Taliban will have him cornered, as will Bin Laden. America’s democratic leadership will have been pitted against American militarism – an informal component of the republic since the founding fathers – and will have capitulated. So will Britain’s compliant party leaders as they continue to utter weekly banalities over the coffins of Wootton Bassett.

If, on the other hand, Obama takes courage in both hands and announces a withdrawal, by hook or by crook, next year, the impact will be dramatic. Enemies at home will declare that America’s first black president has led his country to defeat. But the boil will have been lanced. Afghanistan and its patchwork of tribal chiefs, warlords and Taliban commanders will have to write “the invaders” out of their script. Karzai must cash in the deals of the past seven years. The Taliban, no longer a monolith, would forge pacts and coalitions, as they were doing prior to 2001. Terrible things will happen in many places but, as in Iraq, they were bound to happen from the moment the west intervened.

An American withdrawal would force Pakistan once again to be the power broker and guarantor of regional stability, albeit on new terms. The Pashtun would lose interest in their al-Qaida guests, who in turn would lose their anti-American rallying cry and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The region would regain an equilibrium it can never achieve under western occupation.

Britain and America should demilitarize the war on terror, surely the most counterproductive main-force deployment in recent history. They need no longer rely on grand armies, popinjay generals and crippling budgets; on bringing death, destruction and exile to hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the faint belief that this might stop a few bombs going off back home. They would hand that job to the appropriate authorities; to the police and security services.

The modalities of withdrawal need obvious attention. Only idiots talk of leaving “overnight”, but only idiots make departure conditional on some unachievable objective, such as more European troops or an operational Afghan army or honesty in Kabul. Defeat must be spun as victory. Retreat must be covered by the smokescreen of a loya jirga or “surge, bribe and leave”. But it cannot be conditional on fantasy.

This war was never to be won, any more than that in Iraq. Both were neocon nation-building stunts that ran amok on too much money. Three million Iraqis, including almost all Iraq’s Christians, were driven into exile. The same is starting in Afghanistan and will become a flood as NATO retreats. That nation’s agony is not over yet, but the end cannot begin until the invaders depart. That will happen only when the pain outweighs the pride. The question is, how many corpses will that take?

This post originally appeared in the Guardian.


Who Are the Taliban?

October 27, 2009

Gilles Dorronsoro

In recent weeks, reporters have seized on intelligence analyses concluding that most of the Taliban in Afghanistan are economically motivated, and only a small percentage are actually committed to the fight on principle. After extensive travels in Afghanistan in the spring and summer of 2009, Gilles Dorronsoro discusses who the Taliban are and what motivates them.

We often hear that the Taliban are 90 percent hired hands. Is that accurate, and if not, why do people join the Taliban?

No. Analysts who describe a 90/10 split between the so-called “$10 Taliban,” who are said to fight for money, and committed core fighters are mistaking the fact that some Taliban are part-time, non-professional fighters to mean that they are non-committed. That’s not true.

Most of the fighters do not join the Taliban for money. They join because the Afghan government is unjust, corrupt, or simply not there. They also join because the Americans have bombed their houses or shown disrespect for their values. For young people, joining the Taliban is a way to earn social status.

The Taliban may give fighters money, for example, if they want to marry. And some part-time fighters may fight for money, though in my experience, that’s becoming increasingly rare. If you’re in an area where the Taliban are fully in control, they can also pressure a family member to join the group.

As for buying allegiances in the interest of fighting al-Qaeda, we have never been able to buy out the Taliban. It’s never worked. You can give them money, but that doesn’t mean you can split the movement, or bring about changes of strategic significance. They’ll accept your money simply because it’s in their interest at the moment to do so, but buying out these people is not a realistic option, because money is not their main objective.

Whatever his initial motivations in joining the Taliban, once a fighter has seen a friend or family member killed by foreign forces, he becomes fully committed to the cause. The fighting builds solidarity with the Taliban. Recruits train with the Taliban, they live among the Taliban. And the way they fight shows that they’re serious about driving foreign troops out of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns made their point with the Soviets, and they are making it again with us. They do not surrender. They fight very, very courageously.

Fighters can stop fighting to work, or to tend to their families, but that doesn’t mean they want to work for the Karzai government. And loyalty is often not a matter of individual choice; it’s a matter of family honor to fight the people who’ve killed your father or your brother.

That’s why it’s difficult to divide the Taliban. The idea of jihad is a very strong one.

How many Taliban are there in Afghanistan?

U.S. estimates Taliban strength in Afghanistan at around 25,000. I’m skeptical of that figure, because there are part-time as well as full-time fighters. There are also seasonal variations. When fighting occurs, the Taliban leadership can send reinforcements from Pakistan or mobilize more locals. It’s not a regular army; there’s no formal payroll, even if they are increasingly professional. So it’s difficult to estimate their numbers.

What do the Taliban want?

To drive out the international coalition and reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with a Sharia-dominated society.

Are the Taliban local?

Yes, most of the Taliban fighters are local, and they are largely accepted by the Afghan population in Pashtun areas. There is an understanding that if you don’t mess with the Taliban, they won’t enter your house. They provide judges and Sharia-based justice. When people grow opium, they do not interfere, though they do collect taxes on it. I’ve never heard of people complaining because Taliban taxes were too high.

The Taliban are locally accepted in Pashtun areas because what they are doing makes sense. They say “we are waging a jihad against the foreigners,” and most of the Pashtuns agree.

Are the Taliban ideologues?

Most of the Afghan people are illiterate. They don’t have political education as we understand it. So they are not, in the modern sense of the term, “ideologues,” but they do have values. Traditional Pashtun values include protecting the honor of women, dressing modestly, and other conservative Muslim customs.

Many westerners interpret the Taliban’s lack of sophisticated ideological discourse as a lack of commitment. The fighters are basically farmers. Most of them are very young. Their world view is not very complex, but they certainly have one. It is a narrative of morality, justice, religion, and freedom from foreign forces. These values resonate deeply. The Pashtuns may be inarticulate in explaining it, but their way of life is still very much there.

They know what they stand for, and they view the foreigners as a threat to their families and their values.

Is there an economic and smuggling dimension to the Taliban’s work?

Yes, but while the Taliban have an economic dimension, they’re not driven by it. They need money to buy arms, food, and the like. So they levy taxes on opium and other agricultural produce.

It’s impossible to know exactly where and in what quantities the Taliban get their funding. This is a complex and fluid situation, and there are no open sources providing comprehensive information. In some places, Taliban funding clearly comes from outside the country, meaning from Pakistan, or from Arab countries by way of Pakistan, or from Afghan citizens in Pakistan. Right now, Helmand province is in a state of open war, so the Taliban have deployed professional, full-time fighters, and that takes money. In Badghis province, in the Northwest, it’s more low-key.

The Taliban also try to maintain control of contraband, like opium, or make deals with the people who control it. The networks running opium in the South of Afghanistan are linked to the Karzai government, and the Taliban merely take a cut of the business.

In the East of Afghanistan, in particular, Taliban commanders used to kidnap people like businessmen for ransom, and some of them kept the money for themselves, rather than for further Taliban operations. But Mullah Omar instructed fighters only to kidnap people for political objectives, and to stop kidnapping on an economic basis.

When a foreigner is kidnapped in Afghanistan, there’s no way of knowing how much money the interested parties have paid for his release, and they’re quite understandably reluctant to share that information. When countries want to recover their nationals, they have ways of making payment through third parties, and they can arrange prisoner exchanges. When Taliban fighters under the leadership of Mullah Dadullah captured Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo in early March 2007, the Italian government pressured the Afghan government to release five Taliban prisoners, including, apparently, Dadullah’s brother.

Are the Taliban less messianic now than they were before? Have they become more moderate at all?

To a certain extent, we’ve created the Taliban’s world view. Historically, the Taliban did not oppose Western countries. They were mostly a local, national movement, not very interested in Western countries, and with no real grievances against Westerners. The Taliban’s radicalization, or, I would say, their breakaway from the international system, came in 1998, with the bin Laden question, and the imposition of UN sanctions, which they believed were unjust. They came to believe that the Western countries would never accept them as the rulers of Afghanistan. That changed their perspective.

During the war with the United States, in 2001−2002, the Taliban also got the feeling they were considered subhuman, especially when it came to the way they were handled as prisoners. That deeply changed the nature of the relationships they can have with foreigners. They were not treated as enemies, with some kind of respect, they were treated as criminals. And they don’t see themselves as criminals. They see themselves as mujahideen-freedom fighters.

Now the Taliban are ready to make a deal with the United States, but only on the condition that we leave Afghanistan. That’s the only thing they want to discuss with us; the timetable for our withdrawal.

How are the Taliban different from al-Qaeda?

In every respect. Al-Qaeda fighters are mostly urban, have little religious training, and wage international jihad. Their objectives are global.

The Taliban, on the other hand, are mostly from the countryside, their leaders have more religious training, and they have mostly local objectives. They just want to take Afghanistan back.

How are the Taliban connected to al-Qaeda?

The Taliban inherited al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan before the Taliban were, as were all the Pakistani groups, the Uzbeks, the Chechens, you name it. The Taliban did not invite al-Qaeda into the country. Al-Qaeda was there, and was later connected to the Taliban through personal relationships-familial ties-between Mullah Omar and bin Laden. Their families are intermarried.

So they are connected in a certain way, they are also connected by people like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has been in contact with the Arabs since the 1980s.

What is the likelihood that the Taliban will give safe haven to al-Qaeda if they win in Afghanistan?

The Taliban don’t need al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda doesn’t need the Taliban. If the Taliban takes the Afghan cities, al-Qaeda could again use them as a sanctuary. Beyond that, though, I don’t see a strong connection. For the most part, al-Qaeda works not with Afghan radical groups, but with Pakistani ones, like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Karachi, where some neighborhoods are clearly outside the control of the police and the army, is probably a better al-Qaeda sanctuary now than the Afghan mountains.

But if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, it will be extremely difficult to control whether al-Qaeda is there. Almost impossible. The Taliban are very secretive. Most of the time in Afghanistan, when you want to know something that is secret, you just ask. But when the Taliban were in control, nobody knew what they were thinking. It’s almost like a secret society. They have always worked like that. We cannot do much to infiltrate the Taliban movement.

How many of the Taliban are based in Pakistan?

It varies, depending on the season, but it’s somewhere in the thousands. It’s impossible to answer, but when Taliban fighters are close to the border, they go frequently to Pakistan.

In Helmand, for example, a small group will fight on the front line for a few weeks, then go back into the mountains or into Pakistan. In the eastern provinces, when there’s a lot of snow, they’ll stay a few months in Pakistan. And they’ll come back when there’s a big offensive or when it’s summer. So the numbers are still, to a certain extent, cyclical, but these days, that’s less and less true, because people tend to fight, even in winter.

Who are the “traveling Taliban?” Those who train local militias, then move on?

There are different types. First, there are the foot soldiers, who go to Pakistan either to rest or to work. Some go back to Pakistan because they have jobs there, or they need money, or it’s winter, or there’s not enough fighting. But fighting for six months at a time is very hard, so most Taliban take time off now and then.

Beneath the Quetta shura-the leadership of the Afghan Taliban-you have the middle ranks, who can move readily to Pakistan, and from Pakistan to other parts of Afghanistan. They tend to move a lot.

Then you have a third group, the foreign fighters. These are generally Pakistanis-Waziris, for example-who have been fighting in Helmand and also in Laghman province. They come to Afghanistan to fight, then they go back to Pakistan for a few months. The current Pakistani offensive in Waziristan could push hundreds, or even thousands of fighters into Afghanistan.

Can General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy succeed in Afghanistan?

No. If the White House heeds General McChrystal’s advice and sends more troops into the South and East of Afghanistan in hopes of retaking Pashtun population centers, American casualties could rise close to what they were in the worst years in Iraq-leaving President Obama worse choices, and fewer options.

As McChrystal tells it, the key element of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is to “secure the population.” The thinking is that the population centers of the Pashtun belt must be cleared of Taliban insurgents, and that a significant military force can win hearts and minds through development projects. But McChrystal’s report is ambiguous in its definition of a “population center.” My interpretation is that he uses “population center” in reference not to urban areas, but to more densely populated rural areas-clusters of villages-in the Pashtun countryside. So McChrystal’s strategy naturally requires reinforcements, because troops will have to be in contact with the population, patrolling constantly to make their presence felt and keep out the Taliban. Over time, the population will come to feel protected, and the insurgents will be marginalized. So goes the plan. But after eight years of war, this approach is surprisingly ignorant of the realities of Afghan society, and the limitations of America’s tolerance for casualties.

As I saw in Afghanistan over the summer, 20,000 coalition troops were unable to retake more than a third of Helmand province, which is only one of eleven provinces now under de facto Taliban control. Imagine how many troops-and how many casualties-it would take to secure every one of those provinces, even under the most promising circumstances.

And the circumstances are not so promising. In two centuries, the Pashtuns have never once desired a permanent presence of foreign fighters. Westerners rarely understand how unpopular they are in Afghanistan due to real grievances, from smaller matters like the road-hogging conduct of NATO patrols, to the mistreatment of prisoners and the killings of relatively small, but significant numbers of civilians.

In the countryside, Western countries are essentially perceived as corrupt and threatening to traditional Afghan or Muslim values. Contrary to our self-perception, the villagers see us as the main providers of insecurity. The presence of coalition troops means IEDs, ambushes, and air strikes, and consequently a higher probability of being killed, maimed, or robbed of a livelihood. Any incident quickly reinforces the divide between locals and outsiders, and the Afghan media provide extensive coverage of civilian casualties. In April of this year, the Afghan networks showed graphic coverage of children killed in a botched NATO air strike, with predictable effects.

Frankly, we don’t have the human resources to do the work General McChrystal envisions. Very few Westerners speak a local language, and it is too much to expect soldiers carrying 100-pound packs to have sustained contact with the population in hostile villages, where the threat of IEDs is always present.

What, then, of “an Afghan partner?” The Afghan police, the crucial element in any counterinsurgency strategy, remains weak, routinely infiltrated by the Taliban, and rarely able to help the coalition. Without local help, U.S. troops cannot distinguish between civilians and Taliban, most of whom are locals, anyway.

NATO’s current projections of building a 250,000-strong Afghan army in a few years are not realistic. To build an army of 150,000 by 2015 would be a good result. Afghanization is a long-term process. That means any strategy implying high casualties will be politically unsustainable for the coalition. So far this year, 130 coalition troops have died trying to implement the “clear, hold, and build” strategy in Helmand, with little to show for it. The same strategy, at a national level, and for an undetermined number of years, is politically unfeasible.

What strategy should the NATO coalition pursue instead?

To succeed, the coalition must control Afghanistan’s cities, where institution building can take place, and the population is neutral or even favorable to the coalition. The Afghan army and, in certain cases, small militias must protect cities, towns, and the roads linking them together. That will reduce the number of coalition troops who get killed. And fewer casualties will buy the coalition more of the resource it needs most-time-helping it build up the Afghan security forces to the point at which they can stabilize the country and keep out al-Qaeda.


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