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Belmont Club

Dealing with the Devils

April 18th, 2011 - 12:26 pm

The Washington Post reports that the Taliban have taken a pasting in Southern Afghanistan, suffering casualties they had never contemplated before.  Bill Ardolino, quoting Bing West, says that aggressive USMC tactics have been devastating. One platoon alone has killed nearly 200 enemy.  The Washington Post says that for the moment, the Taliban is flat on its back. Elders are starting to appear at US funerals to offer apparently tearful condolences. Perhaps it isn’t sorrow for the deceased, but fear of the Devil Dogs that prompts the solicitude in the back of beyond.

In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.

In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them. …

“We start this year in a very different place from last year,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.

The WaPo asks what General Petraeus is going to do with his current battlefield dominance. The conventional wisdom holds that he can only regard it like a wilting flower. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and when America leaves too –  for stateside — then the Taliban will be back. In the classic parlance of Mao, when America retreats, the Taliban advances. “The question of the moment for Petraeus and his subordinates is whether the gains will hold as Taliban commanders, laden with cash and munitions, stream across the desert from Pakistan, where there has been considerably less progress in denying them sanctuary.” Moreover, the Taliban are shifting their attacks to Eastern Afghanistan, which is only thinly held by European forces. So the defeated Taliban will simply go where the USMC ain’t.

For now, however, President Obama, who has pledged to begin pulling out troops in July, faces a complex and risky challenge. Within the next three months, he must decide whether the tenuous but promising changes in southern Afghanistan merit a significant reduction of forces or a more token drawdown.

That calculus also will be complicated by a deterioration of security in eastern Afghanistan. Because senior officers had long assumed the east was more secure than the south, the bulk of the surge forces were sent southward to Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Now some of those officers are hoping to shift more troops east if the improvements in the south hold.

But maybe Petraeus is up to something else. He famously made a deal with the sheiks in Anbar and turned them against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Might he be up to the same thing in Afghanistan. But who will play the role of the Anbar sheiks?  Who but the Taliban.

Efforts have been underway to reach some kind of accomodation with the the Taliban. In late 2010, John Kerry said there is “no military solution” for Afghanistan and that “there are very active efforts now to seek an appropriate kind of political settlement.” The problems of dealing with the Taliban would be as follows.  First, it would be a threat or rival to the current government in Kabul. Second, any consequential and lasting deal with the Taliban would threaten to wrest it from the control of Pakistan.

The key to understanding the effect of a deal with the Taliban on Afghan politics is to back in history. In 1996, the Taliban, backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, seized the country from the former government, which continued as the Northern Alliance. Today’s players are very much descended from then. The Northern Alliance formed much of the basis of the first anti-Taliban government. And many Pashtuns, who are numerous in Afghanistan, now regard the Taliban as their “government in exile”.

In September 1996, government officials of the Islamic State of Afghanistan under Burhanuddin Rabbani were displaced by forces of the Taliban. The United Nations refused to recognize the Taliban government, instead it recognized the Islamic State as the official government government in exile. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference left the Afghan seat vacant until the question of legitimacy could be resolved through negotiations among the warring factions. The Taliban occupied 95% of the territory by 2001 and only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized them as a government. The remaining 5% belonged to the rebel forces called the Northern Alliance.

Much of the political effort in Afghanistan since has been to rebalance the government away from the base of Hamid Karzai. It may succeed by slow evolution eventually, but not on the timetable mandated by withdrawal. To get quick results  requires diplomatic and military action.

But any deal with the Taliban which leaves it in the hands of Pakistan and the Sauds essentially restarts the 1996 War. That would be self-defeating. For any deal with the Taliban to make sense, it must essentially shift them away from the patronage of the Saudis and the Pakistanis to that of the United States. In other words, any real deal with Taliban would essentially be a takeover of that terrorist organization. Of course they have residual loyalty to their religious and military mentors. But by beating them on the battlefield, the Taliban leadership may be persuaded to cry Uncle and throw in with the “strong horse”.

Pakistan has actually accused India of trying to grab the Taliban from it. The Times of India reported “Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik has accused India of backing Taliban for fomenting trouble in Pakistan. Foreign ministry officials responded by describing the allegations as baseless and preposterous.” India itself has been moving into Afghanistan with its superior commercial and business capabilities and has urged a “political settlement” with the Taliban. The WSJ reported in 2009 that “India, one of the biggest investors in Afghanistan, believes there is no military solution to the conflict in that country and that NATO combat operations should give way to a political settlement with the Taliban, according to Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna.”

India is heavily invested in Afghanistan, particularly infrastructure projects such as roads, hospitals, schools and the new parliament building in Kabul. In all, Indian reconstruction aid totals $1.2 billion. Mr. Krishna said the investment was worth the risk despite the continued conflict. …

Mr. Krishna dismissed suggestions that India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan is intended to encircle Pakistan, a fear prevalent in some circles in Pakistan. “I think that is a baseless allegation,” he said.

The Pakistani fears may be baseless, but they would naturally occur to minds habituated to conspiracy. Having created terror organizations to use against India, how does Pakistan, a country so destitute that only a fraction of its national budget comes from taxes, outbid the far richer Indians? Could the Taliban, whose men are dying like ants before USMC rifles and supporting fires, succumb to the money of India and the bullets of the West? Is the American drone campaign and the increased presence of US intelligence in Pakistan, not a precursor to a US takeover of the Taliban? If the Americans could kill whichever Taliban they wanted and bribe whoever they liked, the infidels could install whoever they liked in the Taliban hierarchy. And once that happened, would the Northwest Frontier, until so recently a launching pad for attacking Afghanistan, not suddenly be twisted like a dagger in mid-thrust and turned against the Pakistanis?

Not if Pakistan can persuade the Saudis to oppose it. After all, the Saudis can make Washington sweat with a turn of the oil valve.  So to help things along Pakistan has fallen all over itself to provide mercenaries for Saudi military efforts in Bahrain and within the Kingdom itself. In this they’ve been helped by the current crisis in the Middle East and the Obama’s decision to be on “both sides of history”. That has soured King Abdullah on the President and made the Sauds more dependent on Pakistan.  But the danger, once manifested, will not go away. Islamabad will sweat.

Afghanistan, as this blog has often argued, had no value in itself. Its center of gravity is in the Middle East, something which Pakistan has always appreciated. Without Saudi money and influence, the Taliban would die, or be up for grabs. Hence the Pakistani obsequiousness toward King Abdullah. No Abdullah, no Taliban. Or worse, a Taliban with an Indian accent.

Barack Obama, having decided to withdraw from Iraq, is now accidentally presented with the opportunity of “owning” the proxy forces of Islam around the world as the Arab Spring loosens the grip of their client states on them. It arguably already “owns” the Libyan rebels. It may be negotiating to take over the Taliban, in condominium perhaps, with India. As Damascus and Iran shakes, the question of where Hezbollah will go becomes problematic. But these are opportunities that are not without danger.

The loosening of command and control could unleash hell and the question is whether the administration would be ready to deal with the devils that come pouring out of those portals. A real settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan must result in a destabilization of Pakistan. The collapse of Khadaffy will only raise the curtain on a struggle for Libya. That much is already apparent. The collapse of Damascus and Iran could turn Hezbollah and Hamas into masterless terrorists. Most of all, an implosion in the House of Saud would momentarily unbalance not only the world’s economy, but its terrorist ecosystem. From London to Jakarata to Detroit, the mosques would feel the pinch.

Many of these factors are beyond the control of Washington. The fate of the Saudis, the battlefield victories of the Marines and the course of the Arab Spring. These are all imponderable.  Some crises are precipitated by design and others by accident. But each crisis represents both a danger and an opportunity.  The three o’clock in the morning phone call has come and the phone won’t stop ringing.  But beyond the insistent ringing comes a nagging whisper from history. What do you do with the Taliban, with the Hezbollah, with the Libyan rebels? What do you do once you’ve completed your outreach to radical Islam? Gibbon recalls when Rome finally outsourced its defense.

A Grecian philosopher, who visited Constantinople soon after the death of Theodosius, published his liberal opinions concerning the duties of kings and the state of the Roman republic. Synesius observes and deplores the fatal abuse which the imprudent bounty of the late emperor had introduced into the military service. The citizens and subjects had purchased an exemption from the indispensable duty of defending their country, which was supported by the arms of barbarian mercenaries. The fugitives of Scythia were permitted to disgrace the illustrious dignities of the empire; their ferocious youth, who disdained the salutary restraint of laws, were more anxious to acquire the riches than to imitate the arts of a people the object of their contempt and hatred; and the power of the Goths was the stone of Tantalus, perpetually suspended over the peace and safety of the devoted state. The measures which Synesius recommends are the dictates of a bold and generous patriot. He exhorts the emperor to revive the courage of his subjects by the example of manly virtue; to banish luxury from the court and from the camp; to substitute, in the place of the barbarian mercenaries, an army of men interested in the defence of their laws and of their property; to force, in such a moment of public danger, the mechanic from his shop and the philosopher from his school; to rouse the indolent citizen from his dream of pleasure; and to arm, for the protection of agriculture, the hands of the laborious husbandman.

Ironically the barbarian auxiliaries of Rome came cringing to its hand from fear of the legions. When the barbarians replaced the legions the bonds of gold proved to fragile to bind. Then their loyalty went to the highest bidder. The devils may fear the Devil Dogs, but that is for now. Always only for now.


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