As expected General David Petraeus has carried over his trunk of counterinsurgency maxims and acronyms from Iraq to Afghanistan. The positives and negatives are relatively straightforward. While building on past experience is integral to warfare, correctly assessing what does and doesn’t transfer won’t be easy. There’s also the significant caveat that Iraq’s overall condition leaves much to be desired, and that Afghanistan wouldn’t survive a similar withdrawal.
But perhaps the largest challenge is actually living by those truisms that connect all insurgencies. “The Iraqi people are the decisive terrain” Petraeus told military commanders throughout the surge, and he would issue the same directive after assuming command in Kabul: “We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain.” This statement appears to go hand in hand with another mantra Petraeus imported from Iraq.
“We can’t win without fighting, but we also cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” he warns frequently - though that doesn’t mean US and NATO forces won’t try.
The concept of providing better security and services to the population than the insurgent can offer is sound theory. Practical developments limit and sometimes even negate the effects of protecting the population, but the strategy is better suited for decisively defeating an insurgency than reducing it militarily, which leaves the insurgency’s political cause and social network intact. Instead of killing insurgents the idea is to evaporate their motivation and support, limiting collateral damage in the process and developing a sustainable counterinsurgency.
The problem is what to do with the insurgents themselves, along with their arsenal, especially when the insurgents are no band of terrorists but tens of thousands of well-equipped guerrillas.
Here Petraeus is running into a wall. Back in Iraq his strategy board became famous for its complexity. The “Anaconda Strategy,” designed to squeeze an enemy to death, identified six points of attack on al-Qaida in Iraq: “1) Kinetics (combat); 2) Politics; 3) Intelligence; 4) Detainee Ops; 5) Non-Kinetics (education, jobs programs); and 6) Interagency.” A COIN matrix, Petraeus is believed to be customizing his Anaconda Strategy for the Taliban, except it lacks a key kinetic and political element.
Multiple trends are converging towards an explosive future. One is the lack of movement on the Taliban reintegration/reconciliation front. While January’s International Conference on Afghanistan formally launched a Taliban reintegration program, a billion dollar Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund approved by Washington, US doubts have clouded the program before and afterward. Shadowing the general strategy in Afghanistan, reintegration and reconciliation lack a clear, achievable goal.
US officials have listed everything Taliban fighters need to renounce - al-Qaeda, international jihad, aggression towards the Afghan government - and at the same time rule out negotiations with all main elements of the Taliban.
For example Siraj Haqqani of the Haqqani network reportedly meets with Afghan president Hamid Karzai on occasion, news that was followed by fresh connections with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has funded the Haqqanis since the 1980's. US Defense officials correspondingly stepped up their campaign for military action in North Waziristan, Haqqani’s sanctuary, only to abruptly back off. Charlie Rose tried capturing the explicit US position on the ISI and the Haqqanis’ relationship during a recent interview with Richard Holbrooke. The special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan evades the question until finally giving up, pleading the 5th on national security concerns.
But the real answer isn't far from the truth; The Wall Street Journal sparked a round of reports that US officials have now given up on North Waziristan. Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst and leading player in US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, claims Islamabad’s efforts “are so far are too small to have a significant impact.”
"It is mostly show to keep the Americans happy," he said.
If so Pakistan’s strategy hasn’t worked either. Abandoning their nagging as counterproductive, Washington has decided to obliterate the Haqqani network until it has no value left. Indeed, the Pentagon released a press briefing highlighting the capture of several Haqqani officials last week during “48 separate operations.” But considering its leadership still operates out of North Waziristan, the notion of US unilateralism hints towards wider - and covert - military engagement across Pakistan’s border.
Potential dialogue with the Haqqanis has been judged as outweighing the repercussions of alienating Islamabad, even though US strategy is supposed to both convert militants and win Pakistan’s support.
To a point it’s easy to understand why Washington blocks a formal dialogue between the Haqqanis, Pakistan, and Afghanistan - America is the odd party out. But if not the Haqqanis then who? Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, considered the most open Taliban commander, demands that US troops leave Afghanistan, blocking any potential agreement. US Special Forces and drones are trying to kill or capture Taliban chief Mullah Omar, not negotiate with him. US officials have taken to preaching a political solution, but while the Taliban may not accept, no real attempt is being made in the first place.
Reintegration and reconciliation, as the Taliban suspects, are little more than cover in Afghan politics and the international media to justify escalating military operations.
The clearest aspect of Taliban reintegration is that reconciliation doesn’t exist. Though US and Afghan forces are happy to remove foot soldiers from the battlefield, no designs are in place to seriously engage mid and senior level leadership and bring over large numbers of Taliban. The strategy for Haqqani’s network is extermination. Yet minor as they are, not even a thousand “ten dollar” Taliban can be properly cared for, leading to questions of whether America is at all serious about flipping Taliban.
In an interview with Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), commander Nur Gul explains the common experience ex-Taliban go through when they “flip” sides. Gul says that “none of the promises he received beforehand had been translated into action." Afghan security forces routinely interrogate, harass, and at times kill ex-Taliban, driving them back to the only security they know. Others aren’t given jobs or training, which is reportedly demeaning at that.
“The day we surrendered, the Italian PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] gave each of us one sack of rice, a can of cooking oil and a winter jacket,” said Gul, who's back on the Taliban's side. “They showed this on TV, which we found very humiliating, as most people might think we’d been fighting only for some rice or cooking oil.”
Afghan and Western officials admitted to IWPR that funding has been hampered by bureaucracy and inattentiveness, possible euphemisms for corruption. One high-ranking official estimated that of the 1,000 Taliban to sign up, “500 are back fighting the government and the international forces.” General Ekramuddin Yawar, chief of police for the western security zone, confirmed that Afghan intelligence pressured former militants to extract information, admitting, “Some of those who had joined the peace process have gone back... and resumed their activities against Afghan and international security forces.”
So if 1,000 Taliban cannot be managed, the odds of accommodating 25,000 to 36,000 are nil. That is Taliban’s current fighting strength, along with 900 commanders, as estimated in March 2010 by Major-General Richard Barrons. Putting Barrons, a Brit, in charge of NATO’s reintegration program demonstrates how far US officials seek to distance themselves. And regardless of how many Taliban fight for money, underestimating their ideological motives would be fatal.
Now the problem really begins to snowball. It’s one thing to keep the Taliban at a static level through coalition military operations, but the Taliban have boosted their ranks over the years. Their strength was estimated around 20,000 only in fall 2009, meaning the Taliban have undergone a similar surge as US forces. Failing to remove the influx compounds the dilemma of reintegration. The Taliban’s tactics and equipment are also evolving in pace with their numbers. The New York Times recently described a Taliban ambush that severed an Afghan operation, its way of establishing superiority when Afghan troops are on their own.
US troops speak of increasingly complex attacks as the Taliban undergoes its 21st century update.
Topping the list, allegedly, are new Iranian batteries for the SA-7 and Stinger surface-to-air missiles (SAM) that turned up in Wikileaks. The Taliban’s sharpshooting skills are said to have improved, as US soldiers testified in Marjah. While many Taliban still fight in flip flops and traditional attire, the "Taliban cavalry" comes equipped with the latest technology, wearing North Face gear, and riding new motorbikes, all from Pakistan. A new generation of plastic IED’s, nearly invisible to mine detectors, has also been imported from across the border.
And a growing section of the Taliban is computer literate and literate in general. This isn’t the same Taliban from even two years ago. They’re not switching sides, they’re numbers are increasing, and their means are expanding. Not a favorable combination for Washington.
America has three ways out of Afghanistan: kill every last Taliban, leave the Taliban in a power position with a formal or informal agreement, or stay long and build the state to the level where the Taliban are totally outcast from society. The first option is impossible, although it seems to be pursued. The second sounds impossible, but is an inescapable option if America becomes desperate for an exit. The third most favors US interests, and thus is the hardest and commands the most resources.
Petraeus seems to have mixed two parts of the final option with a dose of the first. He truly believes US and Afghan forces can win Afghans over in the end and began pushing back July 2011 before replacing Stanley McChrystal. Petraeus and many other US officials wanted to see a reintegration program after President Barack Obama’s surge, basically another way to disguise the killing option. But with Marjah and Kandahar’s time-lines undergoing extreme lengthening and Kabul showing no signs of rapidly improving governance, doubtful that the Taliban’s back breaks to the point of negotiating in 11 months or by 2014.
The US doesn’t have any room to fit the Taliban if not within Afghan society. An obvious deviation from Iraq is that the Taliban, despite the inclusion of foreigners, aren’t outsiders like al-Qaeda. They need to be bridged like Sunni tribesmen, not slaughtered.
That Petraeus’s anaconda is missing a few coils opens the possibility for the Taliban’s escape.