Sanctum FATA

Sanctum FATA

Mini Teaser: The United States has allowed the Afghan War to slip from apparent victory to possible defeat. Kabul is no longer the center of battle. The fulcrum has shifted to Pakistan.

by Author(s): Anthony Cordesman

From the May/June 2009 issue of The National Interest.


THE UNITED States has allowed what has become the Afghan-Pakistan war to slip from an apparent victory into a serious crisis and possible defeat. NATO is still winning tactical victories in Afghanistan, but they have been offset by a steady increase in the levels of violence, casualties, and Taliban influence and control in what now amounts to nearly half of Afghanistan. Our initial military victories have faded into a war of political attrition that has spread to Pakistan.

It is easy to focus on the very real failures of the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the shortcomings of our NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allies, but we need to recognize that it is American mistakes that have brought the war to a point of stalemate and defeat. The Taliban, other Afghan jihadist movements, al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban remain relatively weak and unpopular. They are currently winning because for seven years the United States has failed. It has failed to deploy the forces that were needed in time to take a decisive initiative, failed to give proper priority and resources to building up Afghan forces, and failed to develop effective aid capabilities in the field. And they are winning because Pakistan still does not see the struggle as its war. Caught up in a series of inept and corrupt governments, Pakistan has made only episodic efforts to challenge growing al-Qaeda and Taliban forces on its soil.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban now have de facto sanctuaries in the border areas of Pakistan that spread from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the east to the Baluchi areas in the south. This not only has made the Afghan War an Afghan-Pakistan conflict that must be won or lost in two countries, but it has also shifted the center of gravity in the conflict to Pakistan. If the reason for being at war is the threat of international terrorism-and not nation building in Afghanistan-al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, where there is only a small covert U.S. force and where there is no NATO/ISAF presence. Losing Afghanistan would mean creating a power vacuum that jihadists could exploit to create a new base for international terrorism. But losing Pakistan would give jihadists potential access to weapons that would pose a vast strategic threat to the region, the United States and the world.


ANY ASSESSMENT of the current situation in Pakistan must be balanced by an understanding that but for the U.S. failures in Afghanistan, the United States would not be facing a vital and difficult war in Pakistan. A military victory was not followed by effective stability operations or credible plans for nation building. The conditions this failure created have fostered the Pakistan problem.

In spite of the fact that Afghanistan is bigger than, has a larger population than and soon had more core enemy fighters with a sanctuary on foreign soil than Iraq, the United States didn't give the country its budgetary just due. Work by Amy Belasco of the Congressional Research Service shows that the budget authority for the Afghan War totaled $171.1 billion for expenditures over eight fiscal years versus $653.1 billion for six fiscal years of the Iraq War. If one looks at State Department, Department of Defense and other estimates, the United States spent between four and five times more on the Iraq War than the Afghan conflict, provided five times more troops and contractors, and obtained far more outside foreign aid.

The United States wasted two critical years-2001 and 2002-by providing only token funds for foreign aid and diplomatic operations ($800 million each year). Given the fact that a start-up aid program takes at least a year to begin to be effective, often takes fourteen to eighteen months to go from authorization to action on the ground and then takes months to years to complete, this was a major failure. That meant the United States failed to use aid when it could have been most effective and helped create the conditions that allowed the Taliban to recover.

Counternarcotics efforts focused on eradication without creating adequate systems to avoid corruption and favoritism. Worse, this happened at a time when Afghan agriculture could not function; the collapse of irrigation systems, drought, a lack of roads and transport to markets, population pressure on the land and insecurity in rural areas made licit farming near impossible. Afghanistan also lacked both the aid workers and Afghan staffs to credibly test and administrate programs to create alternative crops. These problems were compounded by the growth of independent criminal networks, a mix of sharecropping and loan programs that tied farmers to narco-traffickers, and corruption in a country where police and officials are paid token salaries and so are easily bribed.

The counternarcotics effort also pushed poppy cultivation into southern Afghanistan and the areas influenced and controlled by the Taliban. The lack of central-government services, development and an effective rule of law allowed for the de facto return of local warlords. The limited legitimacy of elected officials was often lost at the provincial and district level by the failure of these officials to provide effective governance.

The United States then failed to resource its efforts against an increasingly serious insurgency as it developed from 2002 through 2006. The United States never committed anything even approaching the aid resources necessary to support a "win, hold, build" strategy. This was in spite of the fact that Afghanistan-unlike Iraq-did not have substantial funds left over from the previous regime or a major ongoing stream of income from oil exports.

Only limited efforts were made to create an effective Afghan army and national police. U.S. and NATO/ISAF forces were kept at low "peacekeeping" levels that were incapable of securing the countryside. So, beyond poor reconstruction efforts, the United States failed to establish basic long-term security. Security efforts in Afghanistan were divided into national zones, each headed by a given NATO/ISAF country and each administered in very different ways with varying degrees of effort and levels of security. The only area where significant forces were deployed within the U.S. zone was in the eastern border cities and provinces, especially in Nuristan, Panjshir, Asadabad, Mehtar Lam, Jalalabad, Ghazni and Khost. And here, our successes and failures in Afghanistan were intrinsically tied to our successes and failures in Pakistan. U.S. forces in the east were only strong enough to perform their mission if Pakistan made significant efforts to secure its border. The United States pressured Pakistan, but did not demand decisive Pakistani action, all in the name of supporting the Musharraf regime.

In addition, the United States failed to ensure that the more than $12 billion worth of aid it provided to Pakistan was tied either to Pakistani military action, or to building up the country's weak counterinsurgency capabilities and forces in its border area, or to creating effective efforts to provide security, governance and development to win the support of the people. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported, the United States spent an average of close to $2 billion a year, with an average of $1.3 billion going to Pakistan's military forces, some $30-40 million to the police and $300-700 million to economic development.

The GAO noted in February 2009 that:

Despite 6 years of U.S. and Pakistani government efforts, al Qaeda has regenerated its ability to attack the United States and continues to maintain a safe haven in Pakistan's FATA. . . .
We found that there was no comprehensive plan that integrated the combined capabilities of Defense, State, USAID, the intelligence community, and others, and included key components we called for in our report to meet U.S. national security goals in Pakistan. As of January 2009, neither the National Security Council, the National Counterterrorism Center, nor Defense, State, or USAID, has produced . . . a comprehensive plan. . . .

It also found major problems in U.S. efforts to track what had happened to the money, and in critical program efforts like improving the Frontier Corps, a Pakistani paramilitary force operating along the border with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their jihadist allies were thus given four years in which to build up new centers of operation in the Pakistani border area, and to create a serious Pakistani form of the Taliban, arrange for foreign fighters to arrive in growing numbers and establish ties to Pakistani jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (literally "Army of the Good").


U.S. FAILURES helped create a power vacuum that allowed the Taliban to regroup inside the border areas of Pakistan and gave al-Qaeda a virtual sanctuary in the FATA. Here is the exacerbated situation the United States will face: the traditional Taliban reasserted itself in the southern Afghan-Pakistani border area under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar, and two major groupings of Taliban forces also emerged in the eastern Afghan-Pakistani border area and the FATA. These Taliban fighters remain loyal to Mullah Omar but have come under growing influence from al-Qaeda.

Taliban forces were given the time to carry out better military training and obtain better equipment-with a mix of support from elements in Pakistan and Islamists outside the country-and other jihadist elements joined them. These included Pakistan-based forces under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar leads a group of Islamist extremist insurgents called the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) based in the FATA in Pakistan and active in eastern Afghanistan. The other faction is headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, and sometimes is credited with introducing suicide bombing to Afghanistan. Haqqani has also established bases in the FATA, and is reported to have helped create a local group in Pakistan called the Islamic emirate of Waziristan that has several thousand Pakistani fighters.

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