Paul Pillar

Meanwhile, Back at the Hindu Kush

Highly salient happenings such as the turmoil in Egypt have a way of distracting attention from even very important and costly endeavors elsewhere. The distraction occurs in public discourse and also—because the time and attention of our leaders always is in short supply—in policymaking circles in government. While we continue to receive play-by-play accounts of the action in Tahrir Square, there is still, for example, fighting and dying going on in Afghanistan, notwithstanding winter being the traditional off-season for combat in that country.

The mainstream press does remind us today of some aspects of that contest. We are told that a Taliban shadow government in effect rules over parts of Ghazni Province despite the counterinsurgency efforts of coalition forces there. Farther north in Baghlan Province, U.S. efforts to turn ragtag gunmen who are willing to kill Taliban into some kind of local constabulary not only are part of what Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly denounces as the sort of coalition measures that undermine his government but also antagonize many of the locals ostensibly being protected. The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow reports that in this program “the U.S. Special Forces have essentially chosen sides in a complex web of long-standing feuds and rivalries.” The program “risks provoking as much hostility as it alleviates.”

It is not just these frustrations and contradictions of the couterinsurgency that continue as we are preoccupied with happenings along the Nile. Continuing as well are the basic questions of what we supposedly are accomplishing in Afghanistan, and the basic disconnect between a counterinsurgency against the Taliban and the declared purpose of protecting Americans from terrorism. Also published today (by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University) is a worth-reading report by two Kandahar-based researchers, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. The report is less significant for breaking any new ground than for being a clear and concise explication of why it is a mistake to mash the Taliban and al Qaeda together as if they were a single foe, which is what the rationale for the counterinsurgency does. The authors review some of the history that explains how that U.S. policy mistake encouraged an insurgency that didn't have to happen, even after the intervention in late 2001 that pushed aside both al Qaeda and the then Taliban government. That history cannot be undone, but the continued targeting of Taliban leadership, the authors argue, is pushing the initiative to a younger generation and resulting in “a still growing and even more radical but largely leaderless insurgency.”

The most telling quotation from the report is from an anonymous Taliban leader the authors interviewed:

The policy of the United States so far is totally ambiguous, and it is unclear both for the people of Afghanistan and the people of the whole region. This is the main problem and contradiction in their policies. They divide people into black and white, radical and moderate, but there is no clear policy. Why are they fighting here in Afghanistan? What do they want for the people of Afghanistan? What do they want for themselves? The people of Afghanistan do not seek to deny their legitimate interests in the region, but still our national interest is dear to us, so why do they not coordinate their policies with our high interests? 

Good questions.