Amrullah Saleh

Believing Pakistan could change


In Afghanistan, politics are a matter of life and death. Right now, the Afghan people are anxiously waiting to see what becomes of their country after 2014, when NATO ends its combat mission here. The strength of the insurgency has prompted them to ask a simple question: Is NATO losing and the Taliban winning?

From rural farmers all the way to the educated urban elite, there is widespread confusion about the role the United States is playing in their country. Afghans complain that Washington is financing both sides of the conflict: Even as it subsidizes the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which are fighting the Taliban insurgency, the United States is providing significant financial and military aid to Pakistan, the key country sponsoring the anti-NATO insurgency.

This lack of clarity has fostered an atmosphere of mistrust. It has given birth to conspiracy theories that the United States doesn't want the war to end -- why else would it fund both sides in a war?

The truth of the matter is that the United States is simply too afraid of Pakistan to sever ties with it. Islamabad is capitalizing on the West's fear and short-term security concerns, and its army and intelligence establishment have a long history of supporting Islamist extremists for their own ends. The West sees these radicals as one of its primary security challenges and has decided it is better off proceeding as if nothing is wrong with its relationship with Pakistan.

After all, confronting Pakistan directly could cost Western lives. Several European countries have significant populations of naturalized citizens of Pakistani origin. These Pakistani Europeans travel to Pakistan's tribal areas -- a primary hub for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist outfits. Members of Western intelligence circles believe that without maintaining good relations with the Pakistani military and the intelligence establishment, there is a risk that the 9/11 attacks could be repeated.

Dealing with Pakistan, therefore, has become a necessary evil. Western strategists are sitting on piles of intelligence implicating Pakistan in major terrorism plots -- such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which claimed 166 lives -- yet the country is not treated as an enemy. Doing so would be too costly: Pakistan is, after all, a nuclear-armed state, the patron for terrorist groups across the region, and home to 180 million people. The West simply lacks the guts and resources to officially treat Pakistan as a threat.

NATO and particularly the United States therefore imagine Pakistan as part of the strategic solution. If only Islamabad would use its deep knowledge of militant groups to quash them, they believe, the world could strike a mortal blow against terrorism. Particularly following the 9/11 attacks, the West hoped that Pakistan would change course -- and in doing so, shift the strategic balance in the region. There was only one problem with that logic: Islamabad had no intention of playing along.

Because of Pakistani meddling, Afghanistan has not been able to create NATO's hoped-for shift in the balance of power by itself. Despite enormous progress, the country lacks the military strength to defend itself against its scheming neighbors and their extremist militant proxies. Kabul's signing of strategic partnership agreements with a number of NATO countries and India has provided Afghanistan with some strategic depth -- but it is not enough.

Despite the resources that NATO has poured into Afghanistan, the ANSF will remain dependent on international assistance for some time. The army and police force is primarily designed for quelling domestic violence. It lacks the required air and ground capabilities to defend Afghanistan from foreign threats.

Over a decade after the NATO invasion of Afghanistan and less than two years before the withdrawal of most international forces, it's fair to say this isn't where anyone hoped my country would be right now. But the question remains: What can be done now to conclusively drive terrorism out of Afghanistan and bring peace and stability to the lives of millions of Afghans?

The Afghan government is pushing for a military defeat of the Taliban, which would halt Pakistan's use of militant extremism as the means to promote its foreign policy. But the U.S. government's policy of maintaining links with Pakistan has strengthened it in the region and beyond. Islamabad's support for militant groups gives it leverage over NATO and its neighbors -- and it won't relinquish this asset easily.

Kabul knows better than to expect a second "surge" from the U.S. military. But if the Taliban remain resilient and determined not to negotiate in good faith with the government, something must be done. There has to be an ANSF surge -- a robust increase in training and equipment from NATO enablers.

An increase in Afghan fighting capacity will be inevitable in the next two years, even if Kabul and the Taliban do launch negotiations. Whatever happens, there will be a few more fighting seasons yet: Cleared areas of Afghanistan need to be held, communication lines must be kept open, and major population centers defended. Maintaining military pressure on the Taliban is key for survival of the pluralistic state in Afghanistan. Otherwise, the democratic space will shrink, and the Taliban's bargaining power in future talks will increase further.

Empowering the ANSF to take the fight to the Taliban isn't just important for Afghanistan -- it's also imperative for the United States. NATO needs an exit strategy that doesn't leave Afghanistan in chaos and that does leave behind a legitimate government, so that the country doesn't once again become a haven for terrorists.

Some analysts have tried to paint this war as a conflict between Afghans. It isn't. In reality, it is a war between a Pakistan-supported militant group and the rest of the world. There are only two possible solutions: A Western-backed Afghan government decisively defeats the Taliban, or the Taliban agree to demilitarize and join the political process. The United States, however, should understand one thing very clearly: It would be making a huge error -- and confirming the Afghan people's worst fears -- if it picked up and left Afghanistan to the Taliban's brutal ways.

Amrullah Saleh was head of Afghanistan's intelligence service from 2004 to 2010.


Source: Foreign Policy Magazine, from "What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?" series.,4

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