September 20, 2011

Standing Still In Afghanistan

The Taliban, as most of the observing world knows, has struck again in spectacular fashion. Unlike last week’s assault in Kabul, when Taliban gunmen stirred up anarchy for 20 hours, a substantial military event lies within the media blast-waves. Whereas attacking the U.S. Embassy was designed to undermine the impression of Afghanistan’s security, the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and political figurehead in the National Alliance, is a direct blow to the country’s stability.

Rabbani’s positive influence amongst Afghanistan’s Tajik is modest for his stature, but many local and regional analysts suspect that hawkish Tajik commanders will capitalize on his death to reengage the Taliban in earnest. Rashid Dostum, the Alliance’s most infamous general and warlord, immediately comes to mind. Dostum told The Washington Times in 2009, “If you support me, I will destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda. I don’t want to be a minister, not even the defense minister. I need to be with my soldiers. Give me the task and I will do it.”

The prevailing fear is that Rabbani’s death will now serve as a prelude for civil war between Pashtuns and Tajiks, releasing a decade of pent-up energy that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was trying to minimize through the Afghan Peace Council. Rabbani’s absence will surely impact Afghanistan’s social fabric across the country. Yet reconciliation in the strictest sense was always unlikely, and both low and high-level progress has failed to materialize. The New York Times recently reported that out of 173,000 army recruits enrolled since 2009, only 1,200 hailed from the Taliban’s spiritual heartland in Kandahar and Helmand, where America’s surge was supposed to drive the Taliban’s rank-and-file into the government’s arms.

And while Rabbani managed to soften his image from the 1990’s, when his presidency collapsed from infighting and external forces, he isn’t the saint that Western officials are making him out to be.

"The face of the peace initiative has been attacked," said U.S. Gen. John Allen, the commander of the international military coalition in Afghanistan. "This is another outrageous indicator that, regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war.”

Rabbani attracted a good deal of suspicion for accepting the chair of Karzai’s Peace Council. The aged politician presumably wished to avoid another direct war with the Taliban, or blunt its momentum at the least. Perhaps Rabbani wanted to take the high road so that when negotiations did inevitably fail, the Northern Alliance would hold the upper political hand in justifying a military campaign (not that NATO wouldn’t support one anyway). Others believe the $200 million fund for reintegration - and the power that went with it - can be attributed to Rabbani’s decision.

Never a true friend of Karzai’s, he contemplated a 2009 presidential run according to Time: “Every year the problems are getting worse, security is deteriorating, corruption is getting worse and national trust in government is being lost. I see the roots of these problems in the weakness and incapability of the government.”

Furthermore, Washington is no less insincere about negotiating than the Taliban, only using the political track to buffer criticism of a militarized surge. The U.S. doesn’t seek a compromise so much as total surrender, demanding a long-term military presence and the Taliban’s disarmament. In a farewell speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen admitted that Iran has also been left out of the picture, warning that the U.S. “won’t get it right” without non-existent regional input. As much as Rabbani’s assassination sticks a dagger through the reconciliation process, removing an anti-Taliban figure and simultaneously shocking the Tajiks cancels out any major shift in the odds.

They remain slightly above zero.

Rather than a formal resolution between all ethnic parties and the Afghan, Pakistani, Iranian and American governments, the political situation would level itself out according to the post-2014 military situation. A de facto equilibrium would set in, with each side positioning themselves towards Kabul. This is the same way Afghanistan's last civil war started, and both Taliban and Northern Alliance leadership remain unwilling to accept the other’s rule. A partition is then thrown into the mix, further complicating a permanent conclusion to decades of war.

In any event, Rabbani’s assassination has once again undermined the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. From the physical bombing to its psychological impact, to U.S.-Pakistani relations and upcoming international summits, the Taliban is sending progressively larger shockwaves through Afghanistan’s environment. Once again an operative detonated a turban bomb inside a major politician’s home, apparently under the guise of “talking peace.” Bashir Pizhand, a political analyst, visited the house after the explosion and spoke to Mr. Rabbani's relatives, saying he “came back today from Dubai, because he was told that an important Taliban negotiator wanted to meet him.”

Karzai’s former strongman in Oruzgan, Jan Mohammad Khan, met a similar fate in his home when two Taliban “students” duped his security detail. The string of attacks in Kabul has put much of the country on heightened alert, and wrecked havoc on U.S. assessments of the war. Nor do many Tajiks possess any confidence in Karzai’s ability to govern or secure their territory; remove enough Tajik leadership and Karzai could become their main target.

Contrary to the U.S. and NATO version of the Taliban’s high-level assassination campaign - a sign of weakness rather than strength - coalition forces are failing to adapt to the insurgency’s shift in tactics. (Mullen would concede this point in his speech.) An increasingly asymmetric battlefield makes sense to the Taliban: the group can shield its ranks from superior forces, eliminate high-level leadership, outlast the U.S. and wait for the government to sink. In one of today’s more insightful posts, The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins observes, “It’s a basic notion of warfare: you sue for peace when you have to—when it hurts too much to carry on. The Taliban appear to be experiencing no weakening of their resolve, no matter the military pressure.”

Mullen would also comment on the Haqqani network (already accused of Rabbani’s killing), saying “the Haqqani piece of this has to be reversed. Period.” Except Washington is again putting itself on a failed collision course with Islamabad.

Even when the Taliban gained a military advantage in late 2008, forcing the Obama administration to deploy over 50,000 troops between February and December 2009, the insurgency was unlikely to sweep into Kabul and across the country. The combination of foreign and Tajik forces reduces this possibility considerably from the mid-1990’s. Similarly, coalition forces are unable to defeat the Taliban at their own high point. Insurgencies dwell in stalemate until one side gains the upper hand, and often continue despite - and because of - asymmetric conditions.

Afghanistan is mired in stalemate, one that displays no sign of breaking post-2014. An inherent problem of counterinsurgency is that a tie usually goes to the guerrillas.


  1. I suppose my question is whose peace initiative was he the face of? Whose peace? The Pax Americana as ever, to answer my own question.

  2. Exactly. I have sympathy for the Tajiks but U.S. favoritism is a problem, not a solution.