Afghans are war weary, they are also very suspicious of foreigners. A couple of years after the Taliban had fallen, whilst an aid worker in the country, I found Afghans would come up to me discreetly to talk on their own about the future of the country, but would not do so in cafes where others could hear. They were not sure which way the wind would blow in the future – more specifically how long western forces would stay. That nervousness is inevitably there now, and is the reason that we will almost certainly see increasing numbers of desertions from the Afghan National Army and police, but also "green on blue" attacks as Afghan soldiers and police perceive that attacking western colleagues is a way of ensuring their own safety from the Taliban, who they believe may regain power after western withdrawal. There will also be increasing numbers of direct Taliban attacks as anti-western forces seek to exert increasing dominance of the situation. There is a pattern that has happened in other similar situations such as the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967. Western governments can either exacerbate that problem by speeding up withdrawal in the face of increasing numbers of such attacks, or they can limit its spread by holding their political nerve. At the moment the former appears to look more likely.
So what will Afghanistan be like in the period after withdrawal of western combat forces? Facets of the country’s political history and culture provide some indicators:
The waiting strategy – Pushtun culture
The Taliban are a predominantly Pushtun grouping. The Pushtun tribal code known as Pushtunwali has two central poles – hospitality (Melmastia) and blood vengeance (badal). These place incredibly strong duties on every Pushtun man both to provide sanctuary (nanawati) to anyone who asks for it and to take blood vengeance on the extended family of anyone who has killed a member of his own extended family. That is a key reason why it was so difficult for them to accede to western demands to timescale for taking blood vengeance – one simply waits until the most opportune time, which may be twenty years after someone has been killed. What this means for western strategy in Afghanistan is that we need to understand that it is deeply embedded in Pushtun culture, and hence in Taliban thinking, to wait, if necessary several years, for the most opportune time to kill your enemy. So, when the US announced what was widely seen to be a "withdrawal" date from Afghanistan, the default Taliban thinking is almost certain to have been along the lines of "keep up a few attacks, but wait until the most opportune time – i.e. when it is just the Afghan National Army (ANA) and then attack big time both to take blood vengeance and to seize back power".
How long will ANA last?
That of course is the question that no one can accurately say, although in some measure it may depend on the extent to which western governments hold their nerve, rather than cutting and running as attacks on them, including "green on blue" ones from renegade ANA soldiers and police increase. The answer will also depend on the location. The ANA is 97% non-Pushtun and so is likely to be strongest and most loyal in Farsi speaking areas, particularly Kabul and, to a lesser degree, the northern areas such as Panjshir and Badakhshan. Conversely, it is most likely to collapse in the Pushtun areas of the south such as Helmand and Kandahar, and east such as Nangrahar province around Jalalabad.
The rural-urban divide
Whilst the Afghan National Army is likely to control Kabul and probably major cities, it is much less likely to retain control more than temporarily of outlying rural areas. Prior to the 2001 western intervention, every successive Afghan government had had, at best, minimal control of most of these areas, particularly those at some distance from Kabul. The real question is whether these areas will return to tribal control or be taken over by the Taliban. The question of why British soldiers fought and died to hold onto outlying rural areas such as Musa Qala in Helmand province is likely to be an extremely difficult question for the British government to answer if the Taliban take control shortly after the withdrawal of coalition forces at the end of 2014.
The Pushtun/non-Pushtun divide
There is likely to be an increasing divide between government and non-government controlled areas based on ethnicity. The Taliban are predominantly a Pushtun movement, the largest tribal grouping which is dominant in the south and east. These areas are likely to be the first to be contested by the Taliban with particular focus on seizing the area around Kandahar in the south which has historically been the centre of the Pushtun tribal culture. If Kandahar falls to the Taliban, Afghanistan will effectively have reverted to two countries – the situation that existed prior to the 2001 western intervention when there were (at least!) two different governments in different parts of the country. That of course would mean a civil war of the sort that we saw in the period prior to 2001.
The waiting war lords
Prior to 2001, Afghanistan had been ruled by various groups of mujahaddin (holy warriors engaged in jihad) who held sway over different regions. These groups had come to prominence in the fight against the Soviet invasion. However, most owed their origins to the Islamist movment that began in the 1970s and later splintered into different political parties. In the opinion of many ordinary Afghans, the good people got out of the mujhaddin after the Russians left, when the remaining mujahaddin warlords fought each other and then later the Taliban for control of the country, It is important to emphasise that these mujahaddin commanders are not part of traditional Afghan culture. They were (originally) young men with guns who gained power at the expense of the old men – the grey beards who are the traditional elders in Afghan society. They are also radical Islamists in contrast to the traditionalist Islam of wider Afghan society, which, whilst fundamentalist by western standards, is not overtly political.
These warlords still have considerable power and sway because the government led by Hamid Karzai that was set up under western auspices following the 2001 military intervention was a coalition government. There is a very real danger that the withdrawal of western combat forces will lead to large areas of Afghanistan again falling under the sway of these local warlords, particularly in the north where the Taliban are less likely to gain control quickly. This is likely to be exacerbated by President Karzai's term of office ending in 2014, just as the main western combat forces leave the country.
The longer term
I have written before of the possibility of cultural strategies which an Afghan government could use to neutralise the Taliban threat. However the precondition to these working would be both a position of relative strength by the Afghan government in relation to the Taliban and non-interference by the west. However, it is questionable how realistic either of these will be immediately after the withdrawal of western combat forces at the end of 2014.
Any return of the Taliban or other radical Islamist groups to control of part or all of Afghanistan would mean the brutal imposition of sharia in a similar manner to the way in which the Taliban enforced it before 2001. However, Afghan history shows that whenever there has been a clash between Pushtunwali, the Pushtun tribal code, and sharia, Pustunwali has always won. In fact, mullahs are very much regarded as outsiders in Pushtun society. The classic example of this was the case of Sayyid Ahmad Shah Bareli who led a Taliban like movement in the early part of the nineteenth century. However, when he preached against Pushtun marriage customs, the Pushtun tribes conspired against him and murdered both him and his immediate followers one night in 1831. Pushtun ballads are still sung in memory of this event. It is this anti-clericalism in Pushtun tribal culture that may ultimately cause a Taliban revival to burn out. However, that still begs the question of how much of Afghanistan they could be confined to and how much damage to people’s lives, Afghan society and international security they might do in the meantime.
Our medium term strategy must therefore be to aim at the restoration of a situation similar to that prior to the Soviet invasion – when major cities were increasingly subject to liberal influences, particularly among the Kabul elite, while much of the countryside was dominated by tribal elders and customary tribal law which, whilst not exactly living up to western standards of human rights, is definitely preferable to Taliban enforced sharia. This situation would allow a long term strategy of seeking to bring in liberal influences from the centre outwards to Afghan society.
In part 2 tomorrow we will examine what these likely changes mean both for international security and British foreign policy.
The future of Afghanistan part 2
In part 1 we examined the likely outcomes for Afghanistan in the lead up to and immediately following the withdrawal of the main western combat forces in 2014, including the likely loss of control by the Kabul government of outlying rural areas, particularly in the predominantly Pushtun south and east. We now examine the implications for British foreign policy.
The international terrorist threat
At this point it is helpful to remind ourselves of why the west intervened in Afghanistan in the first place. Leaving aside what later became a confused set of multiple war aims, the primary reason for western military intervention was that a radical Islamist regime, ie the Taliban which has seized power, had invited an international terrorist organisation, ie al Qaeda, to set up a base there from whence to plan terrorist attacks on the west as part of global jihad to impose Islamic government and sharia on the entire world.
There was a secondary aim of western intervention – namely, that there was a risk of the Taliban obtaining nuclear and other material enabling them to make a crude radioactive "dirty bomb" as nuclear and other materials from the former Soviet Union were being smuggled through Afghanistan. To an extent, these aims have been achieved – al Qaeda has been denied an effective base in Afghanistan to which it had moved after being evicted from Sudan. Al Qaeda’s Afghan base had allowed it to plan and train for large scale terrorist attacks such as 9/11 that took years of planning and preparation.
However, al Qaeda now appears to have spread and spawned offspring in a number of other locations including Yemen, the Horn of Africa, North Africa and northern Nigeria. There is the potential for any of these areas to become a terrorist planning and training base for attacks on the west. There is also the potential, if the Taliban were able to seize control of Kabul again, for Afghanistan to revert to being such a terrorist host country. That would necessitate western military intervention again, if we are not to face a significantly increased number of major terrorist attacks planned against the west. There must however be a very real question as to whether western governments would have the political willpower, courage and foresight to see the implications of not undertaking another military intervention. So the question we must ask is…
Will a radical Islamist group control Afghanistan again?
Whilst most western attention has been focused on the Taliban – with talk even of negotiating with the Taliban to bring them into a future government, the biggest threat that has largely been ignored is, I would suggest, from a lesser known group – the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, who I would argue is more brutal and ruthless than the Taliban, has been quietly biding his time, letting the Taliban take on coalition forces. However, he harbours one massive overriding ambition, which is to rule Afghanistan, and history has shown that he is prepared literally to destroy anything and everything that gets in his way to achieve this.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing of bin Laden, I wrote an article for ConservativeHome posing the question: "Post bin Laden – Which way will Pakistan slide in the fight against Islamist terrorism?" The assassination on Pakistani soil by American troops without the Pakistani government’s prior knowledge or agreement sent shock waves through a country where the maintenance of personal honour (izzat) is a matter of daily importance. Before 9/11, the Pakistani military was covertly helping various radical Islamist groups including the Taliban, as they saw them as strategic allies in the Kashmir dispute and in countering the wider perceived threat from India. After 9/11, this policy changed in relation to the Taliban, though links do not appear to have been cut with other Islamist groups in the same way. The impact of bin Laden’s assassination on Pakistani soil appears to be sending it in the opposite direction, away from the west.
One should not underestimate how difficult it is for any Islamic country to be seen to be siding with a non-Muslim country against a fellow Muslim country. Public opinion plays a crucial, though not necessarily determining, role in this. As in many Muslim majority countries, the number of radical Muslims may not be many more than 15%, but many more of the other 85% or so of traditionalist Muslims can be swayed either towards radicalism or towards the west, by what they see the west doing in the Islamic world. To this extent – in the medium term the end of overt western military action in Afghanistan may provide some breathing space for the Pakistani government. However, the spawning of a Pakistani Taliban, which has now become a potent political force in Pakistan itself, means that any gains made by the Taliban there, particularly in the border areas of the largely lawless tribal zone and nearby North West Frontier Pr ovince, will make it easier for the Taliban to gain power again in Afghanistan. British foreign policy must therefore focus as much on Pakistan as it does on Afghanistan.
British foreign policy
So what should British foreign policy be as the move up to and beyond the projected end of western combat operations in 2014? In the light of what has been outlined above, and in part 1 of this article, I offer ten suggestions for British foreign policy towards Afghanistan:
1. We must hold our nerve and avoid the political temptation to bring forward the withdrawal date as attacks on western forces, including green on blue ones by renegade soldiers and police, increase – as they are likely to do in the run up to a pre-announced withdrawal. Announcing an even earlier withdrawal date is likely to make matters worse and less likely to hold after 2014.
2. The basing of UK and other special forces in Afghanistan supported with western air power by agreement with the Afghan government is likely to be necessary considerably beyond the end of 2014, in order to prevent the re-establishment of Islamist terrorist groups there.
3. Our long term strategy in Afghanistan needs to focus on seeking to educate and encourage liberal reforms with the aim of them spreading out from the elite in Kabul to wider society and the rest of the country. Historically, this is the approach that over the last 50 years has paid biggest dividends, with the most liberal members of society being senior civil servants and university professors who were educated at western universities and are now themselves able to discreetly influence society in a more liberal direction. This is a long term strategy, but it is probably the only effective one.
4. Prior to the 2001 western military intervention, most battles between Afghan warlords were won not so much by major battles as by smaller battles in which a key factor was that an opposition commander had been bribed to defect. Similarly, in a country with almost no stable jobs outside of aid agencies, the different mujahhadin groups recruited part-time soldiers by paying a salary. Similarly, a key factor in the Taliban’s rise to power was that they were bankrolled by bin Laden. Cutting off the money supply to such groups will therefore be crucial to helping Afghanistan's transition to a peaceful future. Conversely, any suggestion that we should "bribe" the Taliban to defect must be resisted, as its effects will only be likely to last until they are bribed to defect back to another side, such is the history of Afghan politics!
5. British policy towards Afghanistan, and the wider region including Pakistan, needs to be part of a wider strategy of seeking to stop the spread of sharia enforcement being imposed around the world. We cannot tackle violent jihadists who want to achieve this ultimate aim, if we do not also tackle those seeking to achieve the same ends by non violent means.That is why we cannot negotiate to allow the Taliban to be part of the government in Afghanistan. Their aim is very clear – to impose their own harsh interpretation of sharia and Islamic government on Afghanistan and work with others who wish to do the same elsewhere in the world. It must be clearly understood by western governments that sharia does not have any concept of a peace treaty – merely that of a "truce". As I have outlined previously, the model of a "treaty" followed by Islamist groups is the "Truce of Hudabiya" a truce signed by Muhammad with the pagans of Mecca that enabled him to regroup and come back at a later date with a stronger and ultimately victorious force to conquer Mecca.
6. However, negotiation with individual members of the Taliban may be possible on an individual basis. As well as hard core ideological Taliban, there are others who have been persuaded to join either by propaganda, money or forced to fight after having been defeated by the Taliban.
7. The British government must not assume that the Taliban are the main threat to peace to Afghanistan. There are others, particularly the Hezb-I-Islami faction of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who
appear to have simply lain low allowing the Taliban to bear the brunt of casualties with coalition forces, who may yet emerge as the most serious challenges to peace and freedom in Afghanistan.
8. There is going to be a need for long term nation building and development, particularly in developing an economic base from which tax revenues can ultimately fund government infrastructure and basic health care.
9. We must endeavour to get Pakistan back on board as fully as possible in the fight against international Islamist terrorism. Without Pakistan on board, Afghanistan will always be unstable and an opportunity for Isamists similar to the Taliban to regain control.
10. The reason we intervened in Afghanistan was to prevent it being used as a base to train and plan for terrorist attacks on the west. So far, that has been successful. HOWEVER, IF that situation reoccurs, a radical Islamist government providing a base for an international terrorist organisation either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the west must be prepared to intervene again. If we do not clearly signal this now, then we send a green light to al Qaeda and similar minded international Islamist terrorists that if they only wait a year or so then they could re-establish their bases and training camps in Afghanistan or elsewhere with relative impunity.