Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Time to Rethink Tactics Against Taleban

By Jean MacKenzie

Afghanistan has gone from “Good War” to “Losing Battle” almost overnight. With everyone from former European Union envoy Francesc Vendrell to the US’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Admiral Mike Mullen voicing doubts about the outcome of the campaign against the Taleban insurgency, the world has finally woken up to the fact that Afghanistan is spinning out of control.

This was apparent to those of us who lived and worked in the country as far back as 2005, when suicide attacks in Kabul and Kandahar made everyday life a hazardous undertaking. NATO told us then that the bombings were a sign of the Taleban’s weakening, a last gasp before they finally folded.



Three years later, the Taleban are stronger than ever, and the international community can no longer pretend that the war is going well. The most profound defeat has been in the battle for hearts and minds, with NATO and Coalition air strikes dealing the final blows.



Any goodwill that might accrue from progress on the development front, such as the building of a school here or a well there, is wiped out when military operations kill civilians, such as July’s bombing of a wedding party in Jalalabad, in which 47 were killed, including the bride; or the more widely publicised and controversial attack on a civilian compound in Shindand, in August, which, according to government and independent investigations, claimed more than 90 innocent lives.



The Afghan government is calling for a renegotiation of the terms under which foreign forces operate in the country; civilians are grumbling about the American and European “occupiers”.



Things have reached a point where Kabul’s chattering classes have begun to murmur among themselves that the Taleban should not be regarded as an insurgency, but rather a legitimate resistance force. And this is from the progressive, Soviet-educated academics and engineers who make up the backbone of the intellectual elite. Picture the debate in the teahouses of Kandahar, where the bearded, turbaned patrons may have just lost a family member to a foreign air strike.



Something must change, and quickly, if Afghanistan is not to topple back into the chasm of violence and war.



But the remedies that are being suggested are not going to do the trick. In the United States, both presidential candidates and the incumbent are proposing a mini-surge of troops, hoping, no doubt, for a repeat of the purported success of last year’s Iraq operation.



But an additional influx of forces – the highest number so far discussed hovers around 8,000 – is not going to stem the tide. Instead, unless there is a radical rethink of how foreign forces are to be used, they may actually make things worse.



Over the past two years, we have witnessed a disturbing phenomenon in the south, particularly the Taleban stronghold of Helmand. NATO will launch an operation and move into an area, with tanks, troops, and air cover. The Taleban melt away, unwilling or unable to stand against far superior fire power.



Besides, they know that time is on their side: Lacking the soldiers to hold the territory, NATO moves on in a few weeks or months, leaving behind an angry and demoralised population, who may have lost loved ones, or whose homes and lands may have been destroyed.



With the departure of the foreign troops, the local residents are once again face to face with the Taleban. Many of them make the pragmatic decision to support the insurgents, since they cannot rely on protection from NATO. In six months or a year, the Taleban will have regrouped, and the whole process will begin again. In Kabul, this cycle is called, dismissively, “mowing the lawn”.



The proposed increase in troops will not enable NATO or the US-led coalition to hold territory; it will, however, give them the capability of launching more and more operations.



This is not to say that troops should be withdrawn altogether. At present, it is only the radical fringe and the insurgents, who support this idea. Those of us who live in the real world understand all too well what would happen were the international presence to disappear. It would not be long before Afghanistan would be once again engulfed in civil war, with long-simmering ethnic tensions, historical grievances and political rivalries unleashed.



The international community missed a golden opportunity in 2002, when Afghans were happy to see the back of the Taleban, hopeful that the future would be brighter, more prosperous and more stable than the deeply troubled decades that came before.



But a series of bad moves and miscalculations, first and foremost the failure of the internationals to agree among themselves on strategies and priorities, has led to the lamentable situation we are in right now.



Before the new boots hit the ground, all parties – the Afghan government, the US-led coalition forces, the NATO-dominated International Security Assistance force, ISAF, as well as the diplomatic community – have to come together to define their goals and devise a roadmap to get them there.



There are some glimmers of hope; the recent successful British operation to deliver turbines to Kajaki Dam may help to rehabilitate the foreign troops in the minds of many Afghans. But it may be two years or more before the turbines begin providing electricity to people’s homes – and two years can be a very long time in Afghanistan.



There are no easy answers. While Afghans and, now the US, thunder that the real problem is Pakistan, there are few concrete plans for bringing stability to the volatile tribal areas that line the Afghan-Pakistan border. Recent US air strikes have served only to raise the ire of those living in the region, many of whom are now threatening to send even more fighters across the border to battle the US and its allies in Afghanistan.



Some advocate opening talks with the Taleban. This is a tempting solution, but would first require that those at the table define who the Taleban actually are. If we adhere to the position that the insurgency is comprised of anyone who possesses a weapon and dislikes foreign troops on their soil, we will soon have to lump the entire population into that category.



Too many Afghans think that the slide is irreversible. But there is still time, provided that the international community, which is sacrificing so much in terms of lives and treasure here in Afghanistan, takes a long, hard look at its track record so far. More of the same is not going to help. We must at long last develop a cohesive, unified approach to tackling Afghanistan’s problems.



The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

More IWPR's Global Voices