At the end of the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal this weekend, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban issued a statement characterizing the alliance’s adoption of a loose timeline for a 2014 end to combat operations as “good news” for Afghans and “a sign of failure for the American government.” At the summit, President Barack Obama said that 2011 will begin “a transition to full Afghan lead” in security operations, while the Taliban declared: “In the past nine years, the invaders could not establish any system of governance in Kabul and they will never be able to do so in future.”
While Obama claimed that the US and its allies are “breaking the Taliban’s momentum,” the reality on the ground tells a different story. Despite increased Special Operations Forces raids and, under Gen. David Petraeus, a return to regular US-led airstrikes, the insurgency in Afghanistan is spreading and growing stronger. “By killing Taliban leaders the war will not come to an end,” said the Taliban’s former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, in an interview at his home in Kabul. “On the contrary, things get worse which will give birth to more leaders.”
Former and current Taliban leaders say that they have seen a swelling in the Taliban ranks since 9-11. In part, they say, this can be attributed to a widely held perception that the Karzai government is corrupt and illegitimate and that Afghans—primarily ethnic Pashtuns—want foreign occupation forces out. “We are only fighting to make foreigners leave Afghanistan,” a new Taliban commander in Kunduz told me during my recent trip to the country. “We don’t want to fight after the withdrawal of foreigners, but as long as there are foreigners, we won’t talk to Karzai.”
“The Americans have very sophisticated technology, but the problem here in Afghanistan is they are confronting ideology. I think ideology is stronger than technology,” says Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior member of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s government. “If I am a Taliban and I’m killed, I’m martyred, then I’m successful. There are no regrets for the Taliban. It’s very difficult to defeat this kind of idea.”
But it is not simply a matter of ideology versus technology. The Taliban is not one unified body. The Afghan insurgency is fueled by fighters with a wide variety of motivations. Some are the dedicated jihadists of which Zaeef speaks, but others are fighting to defend their land or are seeking revenge for the killing of family members by NATO or Afghan forces. While al Qaeda has been almost entirely expelled from Afghanistan, the insurgency still counts a small number of non-Afghans among its ranks. Bolstering the Taliban’s recruitment efforts is the perception in Afghanistan that the Taliban pays better than NATO or the Afghan army or police.
The hard reality US officials don’t want to discuss is this: the cultural and religious values of much of the Pashtun population—which comprises 25-40 percent of the country—more closely align with those of the Taliban than they do with Afghan government or US/NATO forces. The Taliban operate a shadow government in large swaths of the Pashtun areas of the country, complete with governors and a court system. In rural areas, land and property disputes are resolved through the Taliban system rather than the Afghan government, which is widely distrusted. “The objectives and goal of the American troops in Afghanistan are not clear to the people and therefore Afghans call the Americans ‘invaders,'” says Muttawakil. “Democracy is a very new phenomenon in Afghanistan and most people don’t know the meaning of democracy. And now corruption, thieves and fakes have defamed democracy. Democracy can’t be imposed because people will never adopt any value by force.”
The US strategy of attempting to force the Taliban to surrender or engage in negotiations rests almost exclusively on attempts to decapitate the Taliban leadership. While Taliban leaders acknowledge that commanders are regularly killed, they say the targeted killings are producing more radical leaders who are far less likely to negotiate than the older school Taliban leaders who served in the government of Mullah Mohammed Omar. “If today Mullah Omar was captured or killed, the fighting will go on,” says Zaeef, adding: ” It will be worse for everyone if the [current] Taliban leadership disappears.”
In October, there were a flurry of media reports that senior Taliban leaders were negotiating with the Karzai government and that US forces were helping to insure safe passage for the Taliban leaders to come to Kabul. The Taliban passionately refuted those reports, saying they were propaganda aimed at dividing the insurgency. Last week the Taliban appeared vindicated on this point as Karzai spoke in markedly modest terms on the issue. He told The Washington Post that three months ago he had met with one or two “very high” level Taliban leaders. He characterized the meeting as “the exchange of desires for peace,” saying the Taliban “feel the same as we do here – that too many people are suffering for no reason.”
Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from NATO and Washington, the Taliban are not on the ropes and, from their perspective, would gain nothing from negotiating with the US or NATO. As far as they are concerned, time is on their side. “The bottom line for [NATO and the US] is to immediately implement what they would ultimately have to implement… after colossal casualties,” stated the Taliban declaration after the recent NATO summit. “They should not postpone withdrawal of their forces.”
Depending on who you ask, the fact that Gen. Petraeus has brought back the use of heavy US airstrikes and is increasing night raids and other direct actions by Special Operations Forces could be seen as a sign of either fierce determination to wipe out “the enemy” or of desperation to prove the US and its allies are “winning.” Over the past three months, NATO claims that Special Operations Forces’ night raids have resulted in more than 360 “insurgent leaders” being killed or captured along with 960 “lower-level” leaders and the capture of more than 2400 “lower-level” fighters. In July, Special Operations Forces averaged 5 raids a night. Now, according to NATO, they are conducting an average of 17. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the raids “intelligence-driven precision operations against high value insurgents and their networks,” adding, “There is no question that they are having a significant impact on the insurgent leadership.”
The raids undoubtedly have produced scores of successful kill or capture operations, but serious questions abound over the NATO definitions of Taliban commanders, sub-commanders and foot soldiers. Most significantly, the raids consistently result in the killing of innocent civilians, a fact that is problematic for NATO and the Karzai government. “A lot of times, yeah, the right guys would get targeted and the right guys would get killed,” says Matthew Hoh a former senior State Department official in Afghanistan who resigned in 2009 in protest of US war strategy. “Plenty of other times, the wrong people would get killed.
Sometimes it would be innocent families.” Hoh, who was the senior US civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold, describes night raids as “a really risky, really violent operation,” saying that when Special Operations Forces conduct them, “We might get that one guy we’re looking for or we might kill a bunch of innocent people and now make ten more Taliban out of them.”
Hoh describes the current use of US Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan as a “tremendous waste of resources,” saying, “They are the best strike forces the world’s ever known. They’re very well trained, very well equipped, have a tremendous amount of support, and we’ve got them in Afghanistan chasing after mid-level Taliban leaders who are not threatening the United States, who are only fighting us really because we’re in their valley.”
In an interview with The Washington Post in mid-November, President Karzai called for an end to the night raids. “I don’t like it in any manner and the Afghan people don’t like these raids in any manner,” Karzai said. “We don’t like raids in our homes. This is a problem between us and I hope this ends as soon as possible…. Terrorism is not invading Afghan homes and fighting terrorism is not being intrusive in the daily Afghan life.”
Karzai’s comments angered the Obama administration. At the NATO summit, President Obama acknowledged that civilian deaths have sparked “real tensions” with the Karzai government, but reserved the right to continue US raids. “[Karzai’s] got to understand that I’ve got a bunch of young men and women… who are in a foreign country being shot at and having to traverse terrain filled with IEDs, and they need to protect themselves,” Obama said. “So if we’re setting things up where they’re just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that’s not an acceptable answer either.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham blasted Karzai’s statement calling for an end to night raids, saying, “it would be a disaster for the Petraeus strategy.”
Along with Afghan government corruption, including a cabal of war lords, drug dealers and war criminals in key positions, the so-called Petraeus strategy of ratcheting up air strikes and expanding night raids is itself delivering substantial blows to the stated US counterinsurgency strategy and the much-discussed battle for hearts and minds. The raids and airstrikes are premiere recruiting points for the Taliban and, unlike Sen. Graham and the Obama administration, Karzai seems to get that. In the bigger picture, the US appears to be trying to kill its way to a passable definition of a success or even victory. This strategy puts a premium on the number of kills and captures of anyone who can loosely be defined as an insurgent and completely sidelines the blowback these operations cause. “We found ourselves in this Special Operations form of attrition warfare,” says Hoh, “which is kind of like an oxymoron, because Special Operations are not supposed to be in attrition warfare. But we’ve found ourselves in that in Afghanistan.”