America’s greatest serving general, David Petraeus, has his work cut out for him in Afghanistan. Not only must he contend with a resilient Taliban insurgency and a corrupt Afghan government, but he must also reckon with a fractious command structure and frustration amongst his troops. The war, America’s longest, is now in its ninth year. Petraeus is a respected commander, with proven experience with counterinsurgency in Iraq, where he oversaw the troop surge strategy that convinced Iraqis that America could win. But can he do the same in Afghanistan?
The American military, and those of its allies, have learned much from the successes in Iraq. The early, painful setbacks in Iraq forced the allies to learn on their feet. But Afghanistan is different. Its central government is too weak to establish effective control over terrain cleared of Taliban and drug lords by NATO troops. The Allies go in, win battles and leave. A few months later, after the failure of the government to establish a foothold, the Taliban and drug lords are back. Along the way, the NATO strategy became focused on avoiding civilian deaths, even at the expense of effectively waging war.
Petraeus is likely to address these failings. There are reports that the general has heard the pleas of the troops under his command and will seek to change the rules of engagement the NATO troops operate under, making it easier to do what they’re trained to do: locate and destroy the enemy. Even so, as Senator McCain has pointed out, Petraeus is being put in an untenable position: Even if he is able to implement his desired changes in strategy, if the administration clings stubbornly to its withdrawal date of summer of 2011, it won’t matter. The war will need much longer to be won, if indeed it can be won at all.
But perhaps the most worrisome issue facing Petraeus concerns reports that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is deeply connected with the Taliban. This relationship, long rumored, was given yet more credence by a report issued this month by Matt Waldman, of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Governance. The report lays out in stark terms something that has been long reported — that the ISI, or at least large sections of it, are actively supporting the Taliban insurgency in its battle against American-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
This is, in itself, not surprising, as any modern insurgency must rely on a steady influx of funds and advanced weaponry in order to be effective. Some comes from Iran, but given that Pakistan has virtually no control over its northern areas, the border with Afghanistan is lawless and is known to be a corridor across which supplies and terrorists can move freely.
Waldman’s report makes clear that the credibly alleged ties are not passive. Examples include the ISI providing the central coordination necessary for the Taliban to survive and wage war whilst avoiding being compromised and located by Western communications surveillance, the provision of funds and equipment, and sheltering top Taliban leaders (sometimes under the guise of holding them in custody for their crimes). One Taliban member, released from custody, told Waldman that the link between the ISI and the Taliban is as “clear as the sun in the sky.”
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan denies any link between its intelligence service and the Taliban. But in a state as unstable as Pakistan, divided into competing factions, it’s plausible that the government might not even know what its own agencies are doing.
Indeed, the story of Pakistan is one of rival factions pursuing divergent agendas. The military remains nominally pro-Western, but remains fixated on the unlikely prospect of war with India. The government is composed of assorted power blocs, some democratic and progressive, others Islamic and nationalistic, that fears America enough to cooperate with the West in its struggle against terrorism. The ISI, while theoretically subordinate to the government, in fact functions with a great deal of autonomy, pursuing its own agenda. It considers the Taliban a strategic asset – proxies capable of waging unconventional wars against India. The ISI has little reason to fret; America is so desperate to maintain at least a modicum of cooperation with Pakistan that it daren’t speak out too loudly about Pakistan’s rogue spies.
In blunt terms, the ISI has nothing to lose and much to gain by keeping the Taliban intact, but dependent. War by proxy was used effectively by both sides in the Cold War, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistanis learned their lessons well, and if any progress is to made in the region, it will fall to General Petraeus to find some way to undo this shadowy agency and strip the Taliban of their powerful, if elusive, benefactors. Any other changes in the rules-of-engagement and overall strategy pale next to this imperative. Until Pakistan’s rogue elements are dealt with, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won.