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A Return to 2001: The Consequences of Premature Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Varun Vira, 2/1/2011


The siphoning of Western blood and treasure on a deteriorating Afghan mission has revived a groundswell of support for withdrawal of coalition forces with the common misperception that coalition withdrawal will remove many of the catalysts for conflict. Unfortunately, a premature withdrawal, along the surge-and-exit paradigm that does not require a radically altered security environment, runs the real danger of failing to sate any of the coalition’s rationales for intervention. Even with significant post-withdrawal commitments, a precipitous withdrawal is likely to witness significant institutional degradation and ethno-factional fragmentation alongside an insurgent resurgence and a reinvigorated transnational terrorist sanctuary.

The post-Soviet experience, a good comparative example merits close examination but is unfortunately relegated to the banal, and false, impression of a disorganized Soviet rout. On the contrary, despite being bled out of Afghanistan, the Soviet withdrawal was conducted in a “coordinated, deliberate and professional manner.”[1] Soviet premier Gorbachev echoed much of the rhetoric emerging from the 2010 Kabul Conference, promising to “Afghanize” the mission, by rapidly attempting to improve the Afghan military and agreeing on an economic and advisory effort to sustain the viability of the post-Soviet government.

In a practical déjà vu of today, mass desertions, low tactical expertise and morale were ignored in favor of rapidly increasing the size of Afghan security forces. In the two years preceding their withdrawal, the Soviets added 55,000 new security agents to formations and pushed Afghan soldiers to take the lead in large-scale engagements.[2] Post-withdrawal Soviet assistance was also extensive averaging $3-4bn of annual aid between 1986-1990. This included 250,000 tons of wheat annually and enough armaments to make Afghanistan the 5th largest arms-importer in the world.[3] Diplomatic compromises were vigorously pursued including a quickly reneged upon commitment from Pakistan that the flow of insurgents across its borders would cease.

With this assistance, Soviet-supported Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah to his own surprise, survived another two years in power. The security environment around him however disintegrated into anarchy. Power rapidly fragmented as multiple armed groups disintegrated into a naked struggle for power and money. Lucrative opportunities including arbitrary tolls, taxes and looting, broke traditional power dynamics encouraging alliances that transcended ideological lines such as that between mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and pro-USSR Khalqi leaders. Meanwhile Najibullah’s lack of legitimacy and leadership negated his ability to integrate powerful mujahideen commanders into any cohesive national structure despite many of their foot soldiers having retired their jihadi obligations. Simultaneously external powers such as Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia sought to extend their influences by intensifying divisions and expanding their influence through their favored proxies. Against such disunity, the Taliban in 1994, relatively united of purpose and ideologically driven, were all but assured a rapid two-year sweep across the country.

Today any coalition withdrawal will be hampered by the continuity of many of the same elements. Better armed and financed than ever before, the unchecked proliferation of armed groups along ethno-criminal delineations has institutionalized regional autonomous powerbrokers with only superficial loyalty to the central government while a culture of corruption and misgovernment continues to alienate the population. Various government structures, including local branches of security forces, intelligence agencies and the judiciary, remain beholden to local patrons rather than the central government. And regional and domestic actors fixated on the July 2011 deadline, have already concluded on the inevitability of a premature American withdrawal and are maneuvering to retain their influence on the post-American Afghan chessboard.

The starkest difference is the most worrying. Unlike the factional mujahideen forces of the 1980s, there already exists a cohesive insurgency with a clear mandate to both eject foreign forces as well as reclaim their throne in Kabul. Far more radical and uncompromising than their predecessors, their doubtful negotiating intent and ability makes securing even the most basic of American preconditions unlikely. Having evolved well beyond its incubation stage, the tactically proficient insurgency could make the seven and a half years between Soviet withdrawal and Taliban ascension a wistful memory.


Afghan powerbrokers are powerful politicians, warlords and criminal overlords all at once. Sitting atop mini-fiefdoms consolidated by independent militias and ethnic patronage, kowtowing to the central government is often only required to acquire a state-sanctioned legitimacy of autonomy they already enjoy. Presently, Karzai sits atop this factional pyramid, controlling the federal dispensation of patronage, the single most valuable piece of political real estate in Afghanistan. Such official patronage at present comes with substantial commercial and political opportunities, including siphoning off tax revenues and provincial expenditures, criminal enterprises including opium production, extortion and smuggling, as well as state-subsidized personal militias to assist in securing lucrative security contracts. A coalition-provided security shield maintains this status quo but should it dissipate, Karzai’s position becomes considerably more tenuous as local powerbrokers move to expand their influence.

With Karzai’s loss of faith in his coalition partners during the 2009 elections, various autonomous regional powerbrokers have been re-empowered, laying the ground for a dangerous re-balkanization of Afghanistan along various ethno-factional divisions. Humiliating dressing downs by incoming Obama officials[4] and the unilateral proclamation of a narrow withdrawal timeline has heightened Karzai’s sense of vulnerability and eroded his legitimacy, further institutionalizing his perception as an American puppet. Civilian officials in Kabul have not helped either. Ambassador Eikenberry in particular appeared to seek regime change by frequenting Karzai’s political opponents. A close confidante of Karzai accurately encapsulated Karzai’s grievances stating that he “believes they stole his legitimacy during the elections last year. And then they publicly said they were going to leave.”[5]

Pre-electoral indignities were only the tip of an iceberg of resentment. Coalition collateral damage alienated Karzai from his constituents, while coalition pressure forced the resignations of key political allies, including Governor of Helmand Sher Mohammed Akhundzada and Governor of Uruzgan, Jan Mohammed, a close childhood friend and fellow Popalzai.[6] Furthermore the 2006 riots in Kabul ignited conspiratorial fears of the involvement of his Panjshiri Tajik ‘allies’, hemming Karzai between a powerful insurgency in the south and Northern powerbrokers seeking larger shares of the political pie. As a Pashtun essentially window-dressing for a Tajik-Uzbek coalition,[7] and commanding only superficial loyalty in Tajik-dominated security forces, Karzai found the riots to be a stark realization that he “had no dependable instrument of power,” not the “money, the police [or] the intelligence.”[8]

Simultaneously, endemic and entrenched corruption severely eroded the legitimacy of the Karzai government, unveiled in disturbing statistics released by Integrity Watch Afghanistan.[9] 72% of people found the public sector to be the most corrupt and in a staggering illustration of the population’s alienation from the government, 67% of those polled admitted they had not sought a single government service in the past year. 50% also admitted to seeking out non-state justice providers, helping legitimize insurgents. The problem also appears to be expanding with the cost of bribes doubling since 2006 with the largest burden being borne by the poor. The extent of corruption may be demonstrated in the capital flight out of Kabul Airport, estimated at $3.65bn annually, more than a quarter of Afghan GDP and potentially more than the government officially collects in tax and customs revenues.[10]


Resultantly at election time, Karzai ignored Western protestations, and allied with regional powerbrokers who commanded large voting blocs with an eye towards strengthening his position.[11] He reversed earlier attempts to rein in ‘warlordism,’ legitimizing various personalities who maintained extensive personal fiefdoms and displayed scant regard for official institutions. Such policy ordained the prevailing perception of state institutions as elements to be “captured and manipulated by … factions that can summon up the guns and money to do so.”[12] The blatant rewarding of political fealty with promises of ministries and government positions, crucial mediums through which to dispense patronage, also reinforced the alarming message that financial contributions and the ability to deliver ethnic bases are the sole hallmarks of political relevance in modern Afghanistan.

Karzai’s choice of Marshall Qasim Fahim as his Vice President was the most conspicuous endeavor to retain the loyalty of one of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords. Fahim offered Karzai an enticing opportunity to split the Tajik vote while keeping on-board a man widely acknowledged as the godfather of the Afghan National Army (ANA) despite accusations of his extensive involvement in the drug trade and various atrocities. As Defense Minister, Fahim is believed to have used cargo planes to transport heroin throughout Russia, a fact Bush Administration intelligence officials were allegedly aware of.[13] Human Rights Watch has described Fahim as one of Afghanistan’s “most notorious warlords” and alleged his direct involvement in the 1992 massacre of 800 Hazaras in Kabul.[14]

Fahim has also done much during his stint as Defense Minister to ensure Tajik hegemony and the dominance of his Massoud-era Shura-i-Nazar faction with the ANA. Tajiks today remain substantially over-represented in the ANA. 2009 figures show a Tajik representation of 41% among the officer corps, vastly exceeding the Eikenberry guidelines of 25%, while over 70% of ANA battalions are commanded by Tajiks, even when deployed to Pashtun regions.[15] At senior echelons, the effect is even more pronounced. Despite the replacement of Fahim with the Pashtun Karzai loyalist, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Chief of Staff Bismullah Khan, a trusted Fahim loyalist, has considerably greater influence. Reputed scholar Antonio Giustozzi notes that in 2008 Wardak could only count on the loyalty of a single brigade commander, while Khan, and by extension Fahim, could count on an estimated six of eleven brigade commanders and twelve of forty six battalion commanders.[16] Loyalty to the center is also degraded by the stated intent to raise the ANA to 240,000 by 2014.[17] As of 2008, Karzai’s government was only able to come up with $320mn for security forces, inconsiderable against the estimated $5.7bn that will be required to grow and maintain a force at that level.[18]

In an effort to erode some of Fahim’s unrivalled influence over the Afghan security forces, Karzai recently forced out Amrullah Saleh, a veteran Shura-e-Nazar commander, who headed Afghanistan’s primary intelligence agency. The policy is also seen as pandering to Pakistani hostility towards Saleh leading Bruce Riedel a former Obama advisor to comment that the sacking “worried me more than any other development, because it means that Karzai is already planning for a post-American Afghanistan.”[19] Saleh’s replacement with Engineer Rahmatullah Nabeel, a Karzai partisan is crucial to regain some control of key military elements required for Karzai’s reconciliation ambitions, a policy inherently opposed of by many Northern factions. However even this control is far from absolute as Nabeel’s deputy will remain General Hassamuddin Hassam, a Panjshiri with close connections to Fahim.[20]

Another warlord with past indiscretions forgiven was Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum who commands intense loyalty in Afghanistan’s Turkic majority provinces where he is seen as a firm defender of Uzbek rights.[21] Previously exiled for allegations of war-crimes and the public beating of a political rival, Dostum’s captive electoral bloc and shrewd political maneuvering, allying with prominent Hazara leader, Haji Muhaqiq, saw his re-branding as a political asset. Not only was his exile rescinded, he earned himself the position of Chief of Staff of the Army, and secured promises for his Uzbek allies to gain cabinet positions. Parliamentary deadlock saw the rejection of several of these appointees[22], leaving Karzai in an unenviable position of debt towards the voraciously ambitious Dostum.

Ismail Khan, a key powerbroker in the Tajik-dominated Herat province was also induced to support Karzai’s re-election bid. Khan has seen a reversal of fortunes, from the public face of Karzai’s 2006 drive to rein in warlords, to potentially being promised greater control over the provinces of Herat, Ghor and Baghdis. Back then, Khan was sold as emblematic of Afghanistan’s factional problems. His provincial autonomy and control of the lucrative border crossings with Iran earned him anywhere between $250,000 to $1.4mn a day,[23] little of which was transferred to the central government. Khan however dispensed these funds with rare efficiency, making an extremely popular provincial leader. His powerful militias warred with ANA troops loyal to General Nabizadah, commander of the Herat garrison over accusations of his culpability in the killing of Khan’s son Mirwais.[24] Humiliating routs by reinforced ANA troops and other provincial rivals pushed Khan to accept the face-saving gesture of the head of the Ministry of Energy but since then Khan has reputedly been extremely concerned about his waning influence in Herat, particularly after a failed assassination attempt during a visit to the province.[25]

Karzai’s own family has seen an exponential leap in their fortunes. Presiding over vast business and political conglomerates and enjoying near complete autonomy in the critical province of Kandahar, they have done much to reduce Karzai’s public figure. His brother, Mahmoud is one of Afghanistan’s biggest business moguls, having muscled his way into significant business projects including a 50% share of Toyota’s Afghanistan distributions, four coal mines and major interests in the country’s dominant bank and only cement factory.[26] Qayum, considered the family’s eminence grise is often entrusted with key diplomatic initiatives while even minor relatives such as Hashmat own private-security firms such as the Asia Group, enjoying lucrative ISAF security contracts.[27]

It is however Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali who commands the lion’s share of attention. Having exploited the post-Taliban vacuum to become the undisputed overlord of Kandahar city, his commercial and political empire demands allegiance from all significant institutions in the city and has grown to become the “most visible, intractable symbol of the corruption and corporate self-interest of the Karzai government.”[28] Recognizing early that guns and money are the sole guarantors of influence, Ahmad Wali supplanted Gul Agha Sherzai, another powerful Kandahari actor and current governor of Nagarhar province, to secure a duopoly on the distribution of lucrative ISAF security contracts. Such control helped access substantial revenue streams and legitimized personal militias, but also rendered all militias within the city beholden to these two primary actors.[29] Over time Karzai has secured the definite upper hand controlling various affiliated private-security firms including the Asia Security Group, the Kandahar Strike Force, the Watan Group, each of which has hundreds if not thousands of gunmen at their disposal.

Influence in Kabul helps solidify local influence by exerting control over provincial and district-level appointments, often linking the relevance and tenure of such officials with political fealty. Enjoying a distinct advantage, Ahmad Wali has not shied from leveraging his influence, sidelined coalition-supported Governor Raufi in 2008 when he attempted to exert his independence.[30] Afghan Security Forces (ANSF), notably the Afghan National Police (ANP) are prime examples. In Kandahar, as across the country, the ANP is largely staffed with militiamen loyal to local powerbrokers, quickly press-ganged into police uniforms to circumvent coalition pressure. In volatile areas, this process may even be encouraged as with Kandahari commander, Mohammed Daoud who acceded to coalition requests to fold his entire militia into the ANP, albeit under the command of his factional overlord, in this case Sherzai.[31]

Consequently the police function less as “enforcers of law and order, but as promoters of the interests of a specific tribe, or commander,”[32] and are active participants in various illicit activities. Transgressors such as Zabit Akrem, Kandahar’s first police chief found this to his misfortune when he sought to tackle issues of endemic police corruption. An attempt to remove Sherzai loyalist, Nazar Jan, whose police units were allegedly responsible for over half the crime in the city, resulted in his transfer. Ahmad Wali has done the same, removing respected police officials such as Ahmad Wardak and Esmutullah Alizai who infringed on his business interests, and monopolizing intelligence mechanisms by staffing the Kandahar branch of the National Directorate of Security with his allies.[33] The authority of official security apparatuses is also completely disregarded. Police chief Matiullah Qateh who dared imprison a brother of a member of the Kandahar Strike Force was killed in a shootout when dozens of their members stormed the police headquarters.[34]

Such control can be misleading. The Dand district of Kandahar a rare island of calm is often touted as a model of counterinsurgency success but owes much to the Sherzai family’s overwhelming control, which includes payments and the provision of weaponry.[35] In Spin Boldak, a crucial border town, another rare haven of security, Colonel Abdul Razik and his border police, close allies of Ahmed Wali, are believed to be heavily involved in drug trafficking and smuggling. Despite allegedly pulling in as much as $5mn to $6mn in monthly revenues, their ability to provide security makes them essential to coalition forces. Further, they are great political assets, taking Spin Boldak’s ballot boxes for ‘safekeeping’ during the 2009 elections, perhaps contributing to the remarkable disparity between Karzai and his primary rival Abdullah’s polling counts, at 8,341 to 4.[36]

The envelopment of militias into superficially official capacities is not always required. With the coalition’s nightmarish logistical tail overwhelmingly outsourced to Afghan-dominated private-security companies (PSCs), the $14bn of contracts awarded in 2009 are a key revenue source. A report prepared by the subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs details the lack of basic oversight mechanisms singling out the militia of Commander Ruhullah, “the single largest security provider for the U.S. supply chain” who earns as much as $1500 per truck along the Kabul-Kandahar route.[37] Ruhullah is a key ally of Ahmad Karzai and his militia subcontracts for the Watan Group. Rumors tout him as the new leader of the Kandahar Strike Force, which will amalgamate various smaller Karzai-allied PSCs.[38]

Some security providers, such as Matiullah Khan the de-facto suzerain of Uruzgan province, have managed to eclipse provincial authorities and become autonomous powerbrokers in their own rights. With no official credentials bar head of the ‘Highway Patrol,’ an organization officially disbanded in 2006 for drug-trafficking, Matiullah is the perfect example of guns and money trumping official capacity. His 2,000 militamen control the crucial supply-artery between Kandahar and Tarin Kowt, which opens only on ‘Security Day,’ held weekly on a day of Matiullah’s choosing.[39]

The monopoly on the lifeblood of the province[40] is a lucrative business, earning Matiullah $2.5mn a month and forcing government and coalition officials to reluctantly subsidize his militia, paying for the upkeep of roughly 600 men.[41] Coalition forces alone paid him between $4-6mn last year[42] and continue to work closely with Matiullah despite blatant extortion attempts directed at their convoys.[43] These sums and unofficial backing allow Matiullah substantial leeway to dispense patronage and largesse to build an independent power-base. He also retains Afghan political backing, through his father-in-law, the former Governor Jan Mohammed who was ousted by the Dutch, and Ahmad Wali Karzai who hails from his Popalzai tribe.

In a bottom-up approach, tribal militias have been pursued by counterinsurgents to provide some measure of security to the population outside the coalition security shield. While drawing upon the Pashtun custom of Arkabai, a tribal community policing system, it suffers from several limitations. Firstly it is yet another in a long list of semiofficial armed groups with dubious allegiances to the central government. Secondly it fails to acknowledge the crisis facing the Afghan tribal system. Faced with an onslaught of powerful armed-groups over the last couple decades, tribal leaders are no longer able to provide peace, income or a sense of purpose to youth, weakening tribal fealty.[44] The Taliban too has worked to systematically undermine the tribes to the extent where today, “Islam, not tribal identity is the key reference for the Afghan population.”[45] As a result tribes are no longer independent actors, but rather an “arena in which political competition takes place,”[46] facilitating the rise of ‘tribal entrepreneurs’ such as the Popolzai Karzais’, the Barakzai Sherzais,’ and even the Taliban.[47]

The attempted co-option of the 400,000 strong Shinwari tribe[48] has already originated unintended consequences. Firstly, it is uncertain whether the Shinwaris are disenchanted with Taliban ideology or merely annoyed at interference in their illicit cross-border commerce routes by the rival Afridis, many of who moonlight for the Taliban.[49] The danger of upsetting delicate sub-tribal balances of power by failing to equitably distribute resources can also not be underestimated. Already intra-tribal fratricide has broken out amongst the Shinwaris, between the Shobli clan, the main clan cooperating with the Americans, and the Ali Sher Khel clan over issues pertaining to encroachment of tribal land and resulting in 13 deaths, mostly Shobli.[50]

While having found an enthusiastic supporter in General Petraeus,[51] the Arkabai concept is also worrying in that instead of gearing towards defecting insurgents as in Iraq, it elevates a whole new set of combatants, with obvious effects on degrading the legitimacy of official government institutions.[52] It also has alarming historical precedents, having been tried extensively by the Soviets and only exacerbated warring militias, and elevated charismatic tribal leaders into powerful autonomous warlords during both the Najibullah and Nadir Shah eras.[53]

Altogether, fragmented governance is a severe limitation for the long-term viability of democratic institutions in Afghanistan. The current utility in patronage from the center, is similar to the “selective bribery” that upheld the Najibullah regime after the Soviets departed.[54] Post-withdrawal economic support may afford Karzai some leeway, but the disappearance of key revenue sources such as coalition security contracts is worrying. Competition over scarce resources is likely to push currently coexisting actors such as the Sherzais and Karzais, tribal formations or PSC militia coalitions to buck existing hierarchies and move towards conflict. A drying up of revenue is likely to push smaller militia coalitions towards independent posturing including overtures to insurgents or attempts to diversify their revenue sources, further immiserating an already alienated population.

As in the post-Soviet period, the departure of foreign forces is likely to also weaken ties between factional commanders, dismantling the façade of capable governmental institutions. At the best of times the nominally united Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara warlords barely tolerate each other, and today they continue to be held together solely by political and financial coercion. With coalition departure, old feuds are likely to reignite. Ismail Khan for example, during the 1990s, lost his fiefdom and was imprisoned by the Taliban, largely due to a betrayal by Dostum. Karzai too is likely to feel vulnerable in his overarching dependence on security forces loyal to Fahim, reaching out to new allies, perhaps even the Taliban. Such a move can only intensify factional disintegration, given that his ‘allies’ such as Dostum and Fahim have everything, including their heads, to lose from a Taliban return.


Contrasted with the dysfunctionality of official Afghan governance, the Taliban insurgency appears both united of purpose and increasingly technically efficient. Consequently a negotiated settlement with the Taliban to facilitate a viable exit-strategy under President Obama’s narrow timetable is likely a chimera, with the long-term end-result unlikely to approximate any of the rationales that led to participation in the war in the first place.

The Afghan security environment has deteriorated dramatically since 2006. The insurgency is well beyond its incubation stage, dramatically escalating its organization and presence inside Afghanistan. Today at least 20,000 insurgents are suspected to be active in Afghanistan, up from a few thousand in 2003. They are believed to directly control 4% of Afghanistan with influence and presence in another 30%, a dramatic figure when compared to the Karzai government’s direct control in only 30% despite intensive coalition support.[55] The ANA, the primary line of Afghan defense remains a “fragmented force, serving disparate interests” and is growing at an unsustainable rate with an emphasis on quantity over quality. [56] As late as December 2009, only 34 units out of 105 were rated CM1[57], i.e. able to independently conduct their primary mission. Even these units faced significant developmental needs given various flaws in the CM system.[58]

Insurgent lethality has also increased significantly. As of end July, 2010, coalition KIA reached 411, on track to eclipse 2009’s record high of 521, in itself a 77% increase over 2008.[59] IED incidents too, since the summer of 2009, have registered an astounding jump to an average of 800-1100 incidents a month. Simultaneously the percentage of IEDs reported to coalition forces, a significant metric of Afghan willingness to collaborate has witnessed a steady decline, now holding at below 5% of all IED incidents.[60]

Already seen as the “authentic voice of rural Pashtun conservatism,”[61] the Taliban have built on their successes in the Southern and Eastern Pashtun belt to move beyond their traditional competencies and open a new front in the predominantly non-Pashtun north. Coalition forces so far have been taken aback by the rapidity of escalation in the risk-averse German Regional Command North. Attacks in 2009 have nearly quintupled to 472 hostile incidents and 94 bomb attacks.[62] This concerted Northern escalation is significant both strategically and tactically. Tactically it raises pressure on reluctant coalition partners while helping divert resources from counterinsurgents’ southern focal points. Strategically it reiterates wider Taliban intentions to present themselves as a nationalist movement, representing the entire Sunni conservative community rather merely a Pashtun insurgency.[63]

Such a policy is not without its inherent problems. Many minority communities in Afghanistan, particularly the Hazaras, but large segments of the Tajiks and Uzbeks are allergic to the idea of Taliban resurrection, having suffered tremendously during their rule. Yet it is a common misconception that the Taliban have no leg to stand on in their non-Pashtun interactions. During their rule, various provinces were controlled by indirect rule due to insufficient manpower. Co-opted local commanders who signed cooperation agreements with the Taliban to retain local control often came from various ethnic identities, including elements of Dostum’s Jumbesh-i-Milli, the Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami and the Hazara Hezb-i-Wahdat and Harakat-i-Islami.[64]

While the wider populace remains immune to Taliban infection, the primary vulnerability in the North stems from marginalized commanders unable to gain official status or adequate revenue streams. Such an example is Hazara commander Sedaqat in Daikundi who briefly flirted with the government before rejoining the Taliban and kidnapping two French nationals.[65] Cooperation with other local non-Pashtun groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), despite its being non-Afghan, helps give the Taliban a local face as does the dispatch of preachers and agents to spread propaganda and assist with direct recruitment.[66] Cooperation with other Pashtun groups present in the North such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami also presents opportunities although Hekmatyar’s prodigious ability to shift sides makes the organization a “particularly troublesome co-opted group.”[67]

Particularly in the provinces of Kunduz and Faryab, Taliban policy has followed a familiar but exceedingly professional pattern since 2007. Dispatched first were political agents and preachers to reach out to former political agents and foment radicalism. Next came small bands of armed militants to co-opt and intimidate local structures, before the final stage of recruitment and military escalation.[68] By late 2009, Kunduz “deteriorated suddenly” according to the governor with attacks commonplace outside Kunduz city with insurgents drawing upon both the Pashtun populace as well as the Uzbek militants of the IMU.[69] Ideological symbiosis, rather than ethnic affiliations have been the cornerstone of Taliban recruitment efforts, as with Tatar community in Samangan province.[70]

Such concerted strategic implementation gives pause to the oft-repeated assessment of the Taliban as primarily composed of mercenary “ten dollar Taliban.”[71] Rather the truth is probably closer to RAND analyst Seth Jones’ assertion of the insurgency being a “complex adaptive system”[72] that amalgamates the efforts of insurgent groups such as the mainstream Kandahari Taliban, the Haqqani network, fringe transnational terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda, Laskar-e-Taiba as well as criminal groups, co-opted tribes, local commanders and security elements complicit in the insurgency. This diffuse nature allows for the incorporation of various motivations and differing levels of ideological intransigence making negotiations with a defined entity difficult.

Given battlefield successes, as yet there are few indications that the Taliban are willing to negotiate in good faith, if at all, as noted by a Taliban spokesman in July; “Why should we talk if we have the upper hand?”[73] Comparative analysis in the Pakistani context also reveals troubling indications of the long-term viability of negotiated settlements. The Pakistani intention was primarily to “prevent the conflict zone from expanding and avoid a head on collision with militants,”[74] a goal remarkably similar to what Karzai is attempting. Yet Pakistani Army deals such as the 2004 Shakai Agreement with Nek Mohammed or the 2005 Sararogha Peace Deal with Beitullah Mehsud were abject failures, providing militants time and space to regroup and reconsolidate before reneging on key provisions and resuming attacks. There is little reason why Afghan Taliban groups might not do the same.

Even if these obstacles are circumvented, implementation will remain difficult. Generational divides between the old guard Taliban, comprising the majority of upper leadership echelons and young, brash fighters who compose over 80% of the battlefield manpower[75] are one source of concern. Another source is the varying targeting scopes of networks. In many ways Mullah Omar, still Amirul-Momineen in the jihadi universe, is merely an arbitrator of sorts between the disparate networks that subscribe to his authority. His diktats while carrying immense weight are not always fully adhered to by the new guard of hyper-radicalized militants.[76] Even if he was to sever ties with Al Qaeda, the most sensitive of American demands, there is likely to be continued symbiosis between Al Qaeda and other networks such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, now operating in Afghanistan,[77] and the Haqqani network. While Haqqani-al-Qaeda links are currently muted as American pressure lowers their warfighting utility to the Haqqanis,[78] they are likely to undergo a dramatic revival in any post-American inter-factional struggle. Al Qaeda offers the Haqqanis, who only have limited loyalty among the Pashtun populace,[79] international relevance and access to Gulf money and networks, all crucial for the post-jihad consolidation phase.[80] In return it requires only sanctuary in unstable peripheries to facilitate its organizational morphing into an ideological inspirational resource.

The idea that elements of the Taliban can be successfully peeled off from the main organization also runs the risk of overstating the fluidity of the organization’s command and control apparatus. The departure from a hierarchical mode of organization, a means to retain battlefield flexibility, has not meant the destruction of a sophisticated centralized apparatus. On the contrary, key elements such as leadership echelons in Quetta, impressive intelligence and propaganda networks, a defined code of conduct[81] and significant civil resources to facilitate ‘shadow administration’ are often deployed with great sophistication to precede and augment local autonomous military commands. As a result, local splits have not damaged organizational effectiveness but rather the organization has “shown more continuity than discontinuity between the pre-and-post-2001 phases in the major aspects that characterize such armed insurgent movements.”[82]

A good example of the unlikelihood of large-scale defections at present can be seen in the intriguing rumors of Pakistani Army Chief General Kayani offering to facilitate negotiations between Karzai and the Haqqani network in late June.[83] The failure of these talks to even materialize is not surprising given the Haqqani’s operation as an “independent but allied movement”[84] in the Taliban network, co-operating but simultaneously competing for influence and power in several Afghan provinces.[85] As a result defection is not only extremely difficult but also tactically disadvantageous. Unilateral negotiations would cost the Haqqanis their command in these areas while radical Pakistani syndicates would put serious pressure on their bases in North Waziristan. Furthermore from the Haqqani perspective, any gains Karzai can offer are likely to be ephemeral once his coalition partners withdraw, while the prospect of being a junior partner in a Tajik-Uzbek dominated alliance is a powerful disincentive.

Importantly, lost in the hype around negotiations, is that as yet even the most basic requirements of a negotiating framework have not been adequately explored. It is uncertain whether the Taliban should be made to disarm, whether they should accept the constitution or what sort of provisions should be made for the protection of minorities.[86] In addition to the obvious demand for a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces, the Taliban are likely to seek additional demands including a complete revision of the constitution, the Islamization of key institutions such as the judiciary, integration or autonomy for their armed forces and some sort of power-sharing agreement that does not allow for Presidential dismissal,[87] all significant steps backwards for Afghan democracy.

Most worrying for the long-term viability of the current Afghan structure is the Pakistani role which continues to see Taliban primacy as the most potent means to ward off fears (perhaps irrational) of Indian influence, retain ‘strategic depth’ and prevent force dispersion from the Indian border. Its covert support has been extensive including advising Mullah Omar “to find a safe haven” post 9/11[88] but more alarmingly according to analyst Matt Waldman, its duplicity extends to representation through retired ISI ‘contractors’ on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s highest leadership body. The ISI allegedly also remains actively involved at the operational level with extensive support in financing, munitions and training provision as well as assistance with cross-border movement.[89] Leaked documents by ‘Wikileaks’ concur. Facilitators from the ISI’s S-Wing are believed to continue to work with the Taliban, including retired ISI head Hameed Gul who has met with foreign and domestic insurgent leaders. He allegedly helped provide motorcycles and suicide bombers and instructed insurgent leaders in 2006 to “make the snow warm in Kabul… set Kabul aflame.”[90] Direct attacks, notably on Indian interests, have been linked directly back to the ISI, as with the second attack on the Indian embassy, which was labeled a joint operation between the Haqqanis and the ISI.[91]

Therefore any negotiating effort that does not include Pakistan as kingmaker is near destined to failure. The capture of Mullah Baradar in April 2010 following revelations of his exclusive negotiations with the United Nations made this abundantly clear.[92] With the Karzai government seen as suspiciously pro-Indian and coalition participation in its final phase, continued covert support has significant utility in retaining influence over the Taliban, and thereby the Afghan political process. Pakistan also ambitiously hopes to reconvert the insurgency into ‘normal entities’ interested in only local grievances, rather than wider internationalist goals that include Pakistan.[93]


Withdrawal is necessary as an open-ended coalition presence is in no-one’s interests but the rhetoric of an ‘unwinnable war’ may be less true than one characterized by a half-decade regression through bureaucratic ineptitude and governmental neglect. Coalition resources have been significantly misallocated, grossly under-investing in the civilian components of counterinsurgency and helping institutionalize corrupt and venal factional powerbrokers with little succor for the wider Afghan populace. As Greg Mortensen, the noted humanitarian, pointed out for the cost of 246 deployed American soldiers, better alternatives may have included a higher education plan for all of Afghanistan.[94]

Yet despite our staggering shortcomings, a premature withdrawal along the Soviet lines behind the cynical façade of a self-sufficient Afghan government is an abrogation of both morality and strategic interest. Indeed the conspicuous lack of any tally of the consequences of withdrawal may be necessitated by the inconvenient truth that given the current security environment, withdrawal can only lead to factional disintegration and insurgent advance, including a renewal of shelter for transnational terrorist outfits such as al Qaeda. Even the continuation of limited U.S. support, i.e. drones and Special Forces is likely to mean permanent participation in a civil war, which might delay but not alter the outcome.

Any negotiated settlement appears unconvincing and unlikely to assuage any of the rationale for Afghan engagement, given the tragic irony that today’s insurgents are more organized, extreme, and politically uncompromising than at any stage in the Af-Pak jihadi evolution. As Robert Templer incisively points out, real negotiations can only take place “in an environment where a stronger state can absorb insurgents, not be taken over by them.”[95] One hopes that such a state can be achieved by 2011 or 2014, but unfortunately withdrawal at the current reality is abandonment. It may be that the extent of American blood and treasure outweighs even the drastic costs outlined above but failing to acknowledge them does the debate a great disservice, one that makes it incumbent on us to look in the mirror as the Afghan clock ticks back to 2001.

About the Author

Varun Vira specializes in politics, current affairs and world conflicts and has written for Foreign Policy Journal and Global Dialogue. He is currently pursuing a M.A. in International Affairs at the George Washington University.


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