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Home > India > News > Columnists > Dr Shanthie Mariet D'Souza

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Taking stock of the Afghan war, seven years on

October 10, 2008

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On October 7, 2001, before the heavy aerial bombardment targeted Taliban-Al Qaeda targets within Afghanistan, US President George W Bush [Images] while addressing the American people said, 'Initially, the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.'

Seven years after that day, Operation Enduring Freedom continues to remain a manhunt for a handful of individuals -- Osama bin Laden and his affiliates -- and victory appears as elusive as ever.

The claims of quick victory by the international forces in the early phases of OEF notwithstanding, the Taliban [Images] and its affiliates are back, causing large-scale violence and instability in Afghanistan. While South and East Afghanistan have been traditional stronghold of the Taliban, their shadow now hangs heavy in relatively stable areas of the North, Northwest and Central parts of the country. Provinces bordering Kabul, like Logar and Wardak, are also witnessing increased insurgent activity. Encircling Kabul in 2008 is the avowed objective of the Taliban, and it looks imminent after a 50 percent increase in the number of insurgent-initiated attacks in the provinces bordering Kabul.

The Taliban-led insurgency has adopted lethal asymmetric tactics � increased use of IEDs, suicide attacks particularly on high value symbolic targets for greater visibility such as the Serena Hotel (January 2008), President Hamid Karzai [Images] (April 2008) and the Indian embassy (July 2008) in Kabul. In 2008, the number of insurgent attacks, bombings and other violent incidents has increased by approximately 50 per cent over the same period last year.

A September report by the United Nations Secretary General indicated that the number of security incidents rose to 983 in August, the highest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. More than 120 attacks have targeted humanitarian and development programmes in 2008, as a result of which 30 humanitarian aid workers have died and 92 have been abducted, depicting a shrinking humanitarian and development space for any meaningful reconstruction activity.

The present-day Taliban insurgency is not a pre-2001 monolithic and centralised entity but, rather, is a composition of loosely affiliated groups or multiple networks functioning under the Taliban umbrella with the aim of destabilising the Afghan government. The  Taliban-led insurgency includes a loose alliance of Taliban guerrillas, followers of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's radical group Hizb-i-Islami, the Haqqani network, al Qaeda and its affiliates, narcotic traffickers, smugglers, tribal fighters, unemployed youth, and other self-interested spoilers in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. These areas have historically been 'ungoverned spaces', and are inhabited predominantly by the Pashtun tribe, with strong ethno-tribal affiliations to the Taliban.

Nature of international intervention and rebuilding of Afghanistan

Several challenges mark the ongoing international counter-insurgency (COIN) and stabilisation effort in Afghanistan. Lack of a coordinated security and development strategy leading to dissipated efforts, rising civilian casualties, lack of progress in reconstruction and consequent disillusionment among Afghans contribute to the ineffectiveness of the international military  effort and retard progress in reconstruction of the conflict-ridden country.

The international military and development effort in Afghanistan, moreover, is under-resourced. Importantly, the limited resources are squandered due to lack of a common vision of an end goal in that country. In the early years of OEF, the US policy under the Bush administration revolved around maintaining a light security footprint with a limited vision of nation-building. The inadequate number of troops on the ground during the initial stages of the insurgency in 2002 resulted in the inability of the international forces in securing the rural areas in South and East Afghanistan. Even the limited numbers of international forces focused on the offensive 'clear and sweep' operations, and have rarely sought to hold land, occupy villages and towns, or cultivate relations with locals. Neither has much attention and resources been devoted in creating capable local indigenous security forces, particularly the police, for effective counter-insurgency action in that country.

Among the NATO allies contributing to the ISAF effort, problems of burden-sharing, dwindling public support, risk avoidance, conflicting national agendas and national caveats (as many as 102), have limited its role in stabilising Afghanistan. Presently, NATO in Afghanistan runs the danger of emerging as a 'two-tier' alliance consisting of countries fighting the Taliban (counter-insurgency) and those engaged in the reconstruction (stabilization). Such conflicting perceptual differences are evident in the international community's counter-narcotic strategy, ranging from 'use of force' (United States) to 'winning hearts and minds' (Britain) and the consequent failure to curb narco-trafficking, which continues to be a major source of income for insurgency. Almost 80 per cent of opium poppies are grown in provinces along the border with Pakistan, largely in Helmand, where insurgents have found a support base among the poppy cultivators.

Afghanistan continues to be dependent on external aid and with its associated problems of rentier state lacking accountability and transparency. The international community has pledged US$ 25 billion, out of which only US$15 billion has been delivered. Moreover, the international aid is delivered through alternate mechanisms and parallel structures like the NGOs, INGOs, PRTs and others which though useful in immediate humatarian and relief effort, has not helped much in building the Afghan government's credibility or extending its reach to the countryside. Neither has the Afghan state been able to provide employment or build its local industry by exploiting mineral and agricultural resources, raise its own revenues and thereby, minimise its aid dependence.

Waning optimism among Afghans

While the battle to nab the Al Qaeda [Images] leadership continues in the 'bad lands' of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, the initial optimism among Afghans about the long-term stability and development of their country seems to be waning. This waning optimism and scepticism was evident during interactions with locals in various provinces in Afghanistan in 2007. In a May 2008 survey, security was highlighted by 84 percent of the respondents as the first priority for the government, followed by education and justice.

Counter-insurgency is the battle for the control of the populace, and the rising civilian casualties have only led to alienation among the Afghans. In the first half of 2008, more than 2,500 people have reportedly lost their lives in the conflict, and this could include up to 1,000 civilians. Around two-thirds of the reported civilian casualties can be attributed to insurgent activities, especially due to the increasing use of suicide bombings and other indiscriminate attacks in high-density civilian areas. Moreover, the increased number of air strikes by international military forces, which are up by approximately 40 per cent on last year, has also contributed to the rising civilian death toll. Such collateral damage has a disastrous effect on popular perceptions of winning a war in Afghanistan.

Is there a way forward?

While not all is lost, Afghanistan's long-term stabilisation process calls for an immediate well-coordinated strategy by the international community to work towards strengthening the Afghan government's capacity and building its legitimacy. The primary need is to build the capacity of the local indigenous forces such as the Afghan National Army and the police for long-term security and development. A troop surge, the centre of US presidential debate, could end up merely as a continuation of a flawed strategy unless it provides the space to build indigenous security forces.

At the same time, there also remains an acute need to address issues of institution-building, improving governance, and greater Afghan ownership, without which the international community's role would be of limited use in long-term stabilisation. Aid programmes need to address the Afghan national and local development needs, rather than catering to donor countries' national agendas and funding priorities. This could be achieved by making the Afghan National Development Strategy, which calls for an enhanced Afghan leadership and increased accountability towards the Afghan people, the centrepiece of the international effort.

The Taliban insurgency has created instability in the region, with large swathes of Pakistan's tribal areas under the influence of the Pakistani Taliban, with the grave danger of greater radicalisation and even balkanisation of that country. In addition to engaging Pakistan in long-term instituion-building, and tying international aid to tangible results to Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts, there is a need for well-coordinated regional effort that mainly involves Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Central Asian republics to address a growing regional problem.

Dr Shanthie Mariet D'Souza is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi [Images]

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