War Stories

The Taliban Are Back. What Now?

The long road to fixing Afghanistan winds through Pakistan.

U.S. soldiers in Kabul . Click image to expand.
U.S. soldiers stand guard at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul

What is going on in Afghanistan?

In the past week, Taliban fighters staged a prison raid and freed at least 1,000 of their brethren. Soon after, they mounted offensives on seven villages and are moving in on the southern stronghold of Kandahar. One of the fiercest Taliban leaders, Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a major U.S. ally during the days of resistance to Soviet occupiers, is bringing in foreign jihadists from all over the region to help his cause.

Meanwhile, Taliban attacks are up considerably from last year despite increases in NATO and Afghan troop levels. Gen. Dan McNeill, who recently finished a 16-month tour as NATO commander in Afghanistan, said last week that we need 400,000 troops to control the country. There are now just 110,000 (including 58,000 from the still-green Afghan National Army) and few prospects for recruiting many more—none for remotely approaching McNeill’s desired head count.

Finally, troop numbers mean little as long as Pakistan continues to give the Taliban fighters sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, just across Afghanistan’s eastern border. And the Bush administration has failed to convince the Pakistani authorities to crack down.

How did this disaster happen, and what is to be done about it now?

The disaster happened for a simple reason: The U.S. government—and this goes well beyond the Bush administration—has never given a whit about Afghanistan per se.

President Ronald Reagan and his CIA chief, William Casey, gave massive military assistance to the mujahedeen who were fighting off the Soviet occupiers. But once Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew his troops in 1989, Americans lost interest. The rest is dreadful history: The Taliban moved in, and so did Osama Bin Laden; the attacks of Sept. 11 followed.

In a sense, Reagan’s indifference was understandable. The battle of the 1980s, as he (and, let’s face it, nearly all of us) saw it, was a Cold War campaign. Afghanistan by itself was regarded as a backwater. The ultimate aims of our Islamist collaborators, and what they might do to the country afterward, were shrugged off.

One would think that subsequent presidents might have learned a lesson from the experience, but George W. Bush did not. CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mounted a brilliant campaign, along with Northern Alliance rebels, to oust the Taliban from Kabul and other Afghan cities. The regime fell in mid-November 2001, and Hamid Karzai’s new government, backed by an international coalition, took office a month later. Remarkably, we once again moved on. Some U.S. troops stayed behind, but most of them—and nearly all intelligence assets—were transferred north to prepare for the invasion of Iraq.

The move was the product of an apolitical view of warfare—just as, 17 months later, President Bush would declare “mission accomplished” in Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had been ousted *, ignoring the strategic goal of stabilizing a new, more democratic regime.

What is widely forgotten—and what was barely noticed by top U.S. officials at the time—is that the fiercest battle in that war, Operation Anaconda, occurred four months after the Taliban regime fell. And it was a very tough fight, in large part because Rumsfeld—believing the war was over—prohibited any units, even individual soldiers or Marines, from being sent to Afghanistan without his explicit permission.

Even after Anaconda, the Taliban didn’t vanish; many of them merely retreated into the mountainous terrain along, or across, the Pakistani border. In the spring of 2006, NATO took over command, thinking it would be a “peacekeeping” operation—and, when the troops moved south, the Taliban came out and renewed the fight. (Several member-nations of NATO have declined to fight back because, when they signed on for the mission, they didn’t think fighting was part of the deal.)

Pakistani border troops initially agreed to help out, battling the Taliban in the tribal areas. But the troops, who had never been trained for counterinsurgency combat, were outgunned and refused to fight on. The Pakistani military commanders, who saw Kashmir and India as bigger threats anyway, struck a separate deal by which they would go after al-Qaida jihadists in their midst but leave the Taliban alone.

This deal may not be even in their parochial interests, as Taliban have been making gradual incursions ever deeper into Pakistan. However, Bush has squandered much of his leverage by siding with President Pervez Musharraf—and more intensely than ever, even as his standing in Pakistani politics has diminished. As Pakistan’s ruling party, democratic movement, and even defense ministry have called on Musharraf to step down, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has persisted in meeting with him and repeatedly expressing America’s full support for him. Here was a rare occasion when U.S. moral values and material interests truly did coincide—and Bush, who has championed those values in his rhetoric, acted against both.

What to do now—or, more realistically, after January 20, 2009?

Above all, the new president will have to realize—as any military commander or regional specialist will tell him—that this is not a problem that can be solved within Afghanistan. We can keep fighting the Taliban—and probably keep them from retaking strategic positions—but it will remain at best a stalemate; we simply cannot amass enough troops to defeat them or stabilize the country.

A solution has to involve Pakistan. The Pakistani leaders, whoever they are, will not tackle the Taliban on the border unless they think that the mission is feasible and in their security interests. This is Political Science 101. So, we (or NATO or some group or groups of nations) have to help train and supply the Pakistani military to go after Taliban insurgents. We have to help relax tensions between Pakistan and India so that building up troops to the Afghan border won’t seem to be a diversion. (Helping settle the two countries’ dispute over Kashmir might be a start.) And we—in this case, the new American leaders—have to move away from Musharraf, whose future seems dim, and back the parliamentary leaders.

Finally, the security of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a subject that involves not just global terrorism, but nuclear weapons—is a regional issue. It was always a bit of a delusion, a post-Cold War dream, to think that NATO could handle this. The nations of the region have to be brought in—including Iran. The very phrase induces nightmares, but a “grand bargain” of some sort has to be struck. The nations involved in this bargain have so many disputes, so many conflicting interests, it is hard to imagine what the outlines of such a deal would look like. But it’s very easy to imagine what kind of nightmare the alternative might look like. So there’s no choice here; we have to try.

Correction, June 18, 2008This aritcle mistakenly referred to Saddam’s capture as the basis for Bush’s declaring “mission accomplished” in May 2003. The basis for claiming an end to major combat was simply Saddam’s removal as president. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)