By: Nida Afaque
Coalition forces have announced the end of their operations in Afghanistan by 2014 and reconciliation processes to hand over control to local forces is underway. Will US and its allies be effective in terminating the threat of militants by that time or will the War on Terror pick a new adversary and venue for its genocide?
The 9/11 disaster made it obvious that the US were going to rout out the terrorists who had infringed upon their national security. The Authorization for Use of Military Force was passed by the Congress soon after the incident. It authorized the US president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons… [who]… planned, authorized, committed… aided or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism…” This loosely formulated bill was the golden ticket to take an anti-terrorist war to any corner of the earth. But after 10 years worth thousands of lives and millions of dollars, the goals of this war are becoming foggy.
The US government claims to follow the Law of Armed Conflict in its international war against terrorism. This law regulates the conduct of forces involved in conflict and seeks to protect civilians, the wounded and prisoners. According to the law, the conflict must be military necessary i.e. only those acts are allowed which are necessary to achieve military goals, the combatant must be clearly identified and distinguished from non-combatants and the force used must be proportionate so that collateral damage can be minimized.
But the very term “armed conflict” is disputed. How can one know for sure the exact conditions that constitute this conflict? The presence of an armed conflict will affect the way opponents are treated in captivity- he/she could be tried as a civilian in the host country or treated as a combatant if war conditions prevail. Rules of war must be used when no alternative law enforcement system is present, not when it suits the purposes of the defender.
Furthermore, identifying a combatant is difficult if not impossible. Many soldiers admit the variables in the battlefield make it difficult to make these decisions in a timely manner. A combatant is one who actively participates in hostilities against the other party. However, when it comes to terrorism, these activities are likely to be covert and so the links between these activities and violence might be blurred. In addition, military necessity and proportionate force cannot be measured and would be interpreted differently by different parties. All this makes it easier to get away with offenses against international laws.
Under the terms of such laws of war, the US military and its allies targeted al-Qaeda in Iraq and gradually took down most of its senior leaders. The Abbottabad raid that killed Bin Laden was the last straw for al-Qaeda. But just like Ex-President Bush claimed the war will not end with al-Qaeda even though it started with it. US forces now focused their attention on Afghanistan to destroy it as a base for al-Qaeda. This move however, opened the door to many other militant organizations like Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), Haqaani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc which might or might not be linked to each other.
There are multiple narratives of the war in Afghanistan. US set out to annihilate those persons or organizations which were a threat to its national security. They believed al-Qaeda grew in areas with fragmented governance and after reducing al-Qaeda’s power, it tried to install a political stable anti-terrorist Afghan government to prevent Al-Qaeda from returning to this region to build its forces.
The Afghan Taliban were targeted by US forces for providing a safe haven to Bin Laden. Foreign intervention however, was seen as an encroachment on their fundamental rights. The battle that ensued defeated the Taliban and a pro-American Afghan Government was set up under Karzai. This further angered the Taliban who fought to regain their position as leaders of the nation.
Militant groups like the TTP and the Haqqani network, whose grievances were against the Pakistani state, are said to be supporting the Afghan Taliban against the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistan Taliban hold Mullah Omer to be their leader even though Afghan Taliban have disapprove of their attacks on the Pakistani government and people. But Afghan Taliban need the TTP to maintain their refuges in North and South Waziristan and to also recruit new soldiers and suicide bombers for their fight. Some reports believe the Haqqani Network is used by the Afghan Taliban to maintain peace between TTP and other Taliban factions.
The American Military feel its mission is greatly hindered by the presence of these additional insurgents. They are deeply concerned about the recruitment activities held in Pakistan which provide a never-ending supply of militants and the production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which have been the cause of many deaths amongst the international forces. Material used in these bombs such as fertilizer has been traced back to Pakistan. For this reason, the US forces have enlisted the support of Pakistan to control militants on its soil. Pakistan receives $800 million annually from the US under the Coalition Support Fund.
Al-Qaeda’s power has indeed been diminished but it is still suspected of aiding militants on either side of the border. Many make the mistake of believing the Taliban and al-Qaeda to be one in the same thing but in reality the two groups are quite distinct. Al-Qaeda is a global movement which is treated as a threat by the Americans. The Taliban are, however, a more localized force and are not interested in international terrorism. The two groups interact on an individual, religious or contextual level (as in the case of the War of Terror). Worried about their own security, the Afghan Taliban have refrained from openly denouncing al-Qaeda but have still tried to keep themselves separate from them. To the disappointment of elder Taliban leaders, their new generation which is less nationalistic and more radical-minded is malleable to the ideologies of Al-Qaeda. The Afghan Taliban want to establish a government to their liking that abides by the Islamic laws and wishes to get rid of any foreign influence in Afghanistan. Mutual interests have promoted collaboration between al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban.
The situation holds true across the border too. The Pakistan Taliban have similar ideologies as al-Qaeda. They believe the parliament to be un-Islamic and the government to be a traitor for associating with Western powers. Despite its close relations with Pakistan’s ISI, al-Qaeda leaders saw Pakistan inclining towards the US and offered its help to the local militants. It has reportedly mediated amongst Pakistani militant groups and factions and has even provided human resources for suicide missions to the Haqqani Network to use in Afghanistan. Over the past year or two, TTP have been involved in many high profile kidnappings and the ransom collected is often sent across the border to the Afghan Taliban.
Foreign occupation of Afghanistan gave birth to the ideal circumstances Al-Qaeda could ever wish for. Religious scholars’ decrees about fighting non-Muslim occupiers could be fully realized. They used the Taliban’s dissent against NATO forces to further their goal of resisting western domination and creating a radical Islamic world. A longer foreign presence would give them the opportunity to unite more and more people under their movement.
Earlier this month, reports claimed that Al-Qaeda’s threat had been misjudged and home grown terrorism maybe on the rise. At the moment, Al-Qaeda is involved in small scale skirmishes against governments and the Western powers through its offshoots like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and most recently, with Islamic militants in Somalia called Al-Shabab.
The War on Terror has changed its dynamics over the last decade and its loosely defined boundaries have only permitted it to continue unchecked. It is extremely likely to meet a set of different conditions in the field. With unknown adversaries, unfamiliar surroundings and no manual to handle such situations, decision are made which have even changed the course of this war. In heading out for al-Qaeda, NATO troops have clashed with local leaders and the death of innocent civilians has transformed many natives into militants. This has only made their mission more complicated.
Both intentionally and unintentionally, the Taliban, TTP and al-Qaeda have come to mean the same thing to the common man. They all represent an ideology, a mind-set which involves violent means of opposing western influence and protecting their religious beliefs. So like President Bush said back in 2001, “Our war on terror will be much broader than the battlefields and beachheads of the past. The war will be fought wherever terrorists hide, or run, or plan.”
War narratives will vary depending on which camp you belong to and this very fact makes negotiations a challenge. It remains to be seen how Western powers will leave the Afghan battlefield; the extent to which they will give in to the demands of the Afghan Taliban without undoing the fruits of their labor. Changing the ideology of your enemy is the most sustainable way to ensure peace but it is also the toughest task to implement. If negotiators are not careful, a disagreement or cut off could set off a sequel to War of Terror.