Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Dr. Stephen Walt Is Dillusional About The Taliban

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on October 19, 2009
Top academics seem to underestimate the Taliban-Al'Qaeda alliance

Top academics seem to underestimate the Taliban-Al'Qaeda alliance

Note: The Following is a response to Dr. Stephen Walt’s discussion on Afghanistan.  This piece was originally published on his blog at walt.foreignpolicy.com.  Dr. Walt’s full post can be read in the “comments” section below.

Dr. Walt, the argument you are making against a U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan is well noted. However, to think that the return of the Taliban would not raise questions about Al’Qaeda’s capabilities is somewhat misleading in my view. A variety of experts on the subject have written articles and spoken at IR conferences explaining the persistent connection between Taliban militants and Al’Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan (and of course Pakistan). Some even claim that the interests of the Taliban and Al’Qaeda are more aligned than ever before…a frightening prospect indeed. Both have a common enemy; both are relatively influential in the Af-Pak region; both use similar tactics against coalition soldiers; and both support a militaristic version of Islam.

While the Taliban may only be concerned with regaining power in Afghanistan, the idea that Al’Qaeda would not expand their base of operations in such a friendly environment is questionable. Let’s not forget that the Taliban Government, when in power, was not necessarily the best at keeping track of militant activity within its own borders.

If Mullah Omar re-emerges as the Supreme Leader in Afghanistan, I sincerely doubt that Taliban forces would be able to secure the long Afghan border with Iran, not to mention the contentious and mountainous terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Governments in Afghanistan tend to disregard border patrol for other priorities, providing an ample opportunity for terrorist groups to infiltrate into new territory.

So, while the Taliban may not want Al’Qaeda in Afghanistan once they return to power in Kabul, they simply have no way of enforcing this preference. After all, it’s not like they have a western-style army capable of protecting the state from outside influences.

-Daniel R. DePetris


6 Responses

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  1. smci60652 said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I think what the Professor is saying is that we should avoid nation bulding (or re-building, to use Holbrooke’s term) and instead resort to ‘off-shore’ balancing. Which invariably amounts to fly-by-night raids by SOFs, drone attacks, and bribing locals to rat-out operatives.

    You just know the question on everyone’s mind after considering that strategy is “Could we have prevented 9/11 using that tactic?”

  2. Dan said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    How would off-shore balancing improve America’s mission in Afghanistan, especially when Islamic jihadists have a tendency to use American air-strikes to their advantage?

    American drone-strikes on Pakistani soil- while successful in killing some of Al’Qaeda’s top leaders- have done nothing but further inflame anti-American hostility among mainstream Pakistani’s. The PBS Frontline documentary that Dr. Walt is referring to spells this out rather abruptly…thanks to the killing of civilians by U.S. jets, the Pakistani Taliban has been able to amplify their support throughout Western Pakistan (or at least mitigate the damage to their image in the short-term). This does not bode well for the mission right next door.

    Didn’t the United States pursue the “offshore balancing” strategy during the Clinton years? Sudan, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa were frequently chosen for deliberate, yet orchestrated, operations against terrorist camps. Clinton’s decision to bomb Al’Qaeda bases as punishment for the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania is a perfect illustration. And what has this gotten us, besides the loss of 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001?

    Off-shore balancing is basically another word for counterterrorism, and the only way counterterrorism can be successful is if the strategy is combined with other elements in the U.S. arsenal. Endorsing a one-dimensional approach for a multi-dimensional problem is simply not practical.

  3. Bob Spencer said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Afghan politics are very complex and ever changing. Probably Pres. Karzai is not able to keep track of many of the important alliance changes and deals. Michael Semple made a significant point in his book, RECONCILIATION IN AFGHANISTAN that in the midst of all of these complex political dynamics, any political management and any reconciliation process would best be conducted incrementally with one faction and then another.

    Increased military involvement is irrelevant to this type of long term process. Actually, the Taliban gains much of it strength by building alliances with factions and government officials. Much of those deals involve the vast amounts of money from the drug trade.

    The military will never make an impact upon these dynamics unless we kill all of the politicians everywhere in Afghanistan.

    We have never learned to operate in this kind of political culture anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the Chinese and the Russian organized crime have demonstrated success at penetrating and managing their interests in these cultures.

    If we have any legitimate interests in Central Asia, we have forfeited defending those interests because we never bothered to acquire the appropriate skills. What’s that saying?—“Adjust the sails when the wind changes”, or something like that.

    Bob Spencer

    • Dan said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:27 pm

      How can we have a functional state in Afghanistan if the security situation continues to deteriorate? The nation-building argument that I think you are advocating is only possible if a domestic insurgency is tamed to tolerable levels. This, of course, requires a combination of U.S. soft power (i.e. negotiating with moderate Taliban, developing Afghan infrastructure, creating jobs, etc) and a long-term military presence to actually succeed in these efforts. Unfortunately, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been making the same mistakes; cramming a national government down the throats of the Afghan population.

      The attempt to establish a legitimate and semi-strong national government in Kabul goes against the very fabric of Afghan society. Throughout its existence, Afghanistan has never experienced such a government. Anyone who understands Afghan politics- as most on this blog do- recognize that the only way to actually get something done is to go through tribal councils…formulating policy based on the unique characteristics of a particular region.

      The problems in Helmand Province are often much different from the problems in Faryab Province. Yet, even with that in mind, it appears that the U.S. Military has been ignoring these cultural and regional sensitivities. How can we formulate a grand strategy for the Af-Pak theater if the United States is ignorant on the main issues? Afghanistan is too diverse and fragmented, both culturally and ethnically, to hope for an adequate Washington-style administration.

      Perhaps General Stanley McChrystal and President Obama should REALLY re-evaluate the Afghan strategy. Instead of continuing on the same broken path, the United States must take into consideration the many interests prevalent within Afghanistan as a whole. The traditional norm of the national interest is absent in this environment.

      • Bob Spencer said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:28 pm

        Good security is an outcome of good political organizing. For example, a couple years ago, I read reports about villagers protecting their schools every night because they built them and had hopes for their children. But, on the other hand, Afghan foot soldiers decline to risk their lives when they know that their commanders have personal business and political deals with a variety of Taliban and Taliban allies.

        We could pick and choose local leaders that we want to support and be at their beck and call for security and help them build their power base. In these cases, they could build their social and economic asset base and have more bargaining power to continually expand their patronage and alliances.

        In these cases, the counterinsurgency effort is the same thing as a reconciliation process. It is actually a process of building a string of alliances. That’s what the Taliban and drug dealers have already done on a massive scale. We need to out-compete them.

        The military part of fighting insurgents is finding them; fixing them, and then fighting them. We cannot do that without a strong base of patronage networks.

        Having said all of that, we still need to assess if it is really worth it to spend the effort to go do all of that.
        We might have a serious problem of all of the SUV owners wanting that oil in Central Asia. The Russian mafia wants the drugs. China and the Russian governments want to control the area and its resources and make it a major part of putting a squeeze on the US wealth and security as well as protecting their immediate borders from our incursions.

        But, if we continue with a military dominated mind-set, we will lose any chance to assess or to choose options about interests or strategies.

        Thanks, Bob Spencer

  4. Dr. Stephen M. Walt said, on October 19, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan (“Obama’s War”) Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn’t fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ways that reinforce a particular conclusion.

    Nonetheless, the presentation didn’t offer much grounds for hope, and even the on-screen advocates of a continued U.S. effort (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, CNAS President John Nagl, etc.) didn’t sound very encouraging. I think McChrystal and maybe even Holbrooke know they’ve got a loser on their hands, and were operating in damage-limitation mode. As others have noted, the on-screen interviews with Pakistani officials made it clear that they are playing a double-game here; they’ve been in bed with the Afghan Taliban for years and are even less reliable partners than the Karzai government, no matter how much aid we dump on them. To believe we can eke out something resembling “victory” in these circumstances is like believing one could drain the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. And watching the footage of U.S. Marines attempting to do the impossible made me admire their dedication and raw courage and resent like hell the strategic myopia that sent them on this fool’s errand.

    Remember that the main justification for our counterinsurgency campaign is the “safe haven” argument: We must defeat the Taliban to prevent Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary there. A recent presentation by Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations’ Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, suggests that this may not be much of a problem (h/t: John Mueller).

    Money quotes (from pp. 17 and 23 of the PDF file):

    p. 17: “If I could just talk a little bit about Afghanistan and al-Qaida, the link between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a historic one but not a very strong one, in my view. The Afghan Taliban have their own objectives. And their objectives are to take power in Afghanistan. Essentially, it’s a local issue for them. Al-Qaida can join the party; fine, they can help them, but to a certain extent, al-Qaida doesn’t help them because if – and I think Mullah Omar’s made this very clear – if they take over in Afghanistan, they want to consolidate their power. They don’t want to be kicked out again like they were in 2001. And to consolidate their power, they don’t want al-Qaida hanging around. They want to be able to say we are a responsible government; we’re not going to support anybody who meddles in the business of our neighbors or in other international countries or partners.

    Well, you might say well, they’d say that anyway; why wouldn’t they – why shouldn’t they say that? But I don’t think they lose a lot if they don’t say that. They don’t gain a lot by saying it and they don’t lose a lot by not saying it. So I think that we could possibly think that we might take them at the face value – that they would not automatically allow Afghanistan to become a base for al-Qaida…”

    p. 23: “I’m not sure that if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan that they would necessarily welcome al-Qaida back in great forces, particularly if al-Qaida was going back there to set up camps to train people to mount attacks against other countries. I think the Taliban must calculate that had it not been for 9/11 they’d still be empowering Kabul now today, that no one would have come to kick them out. It was only 9/11 that caused them to lose power. So you know, they lost all that time, and if they get back they perhaps don’t want to make that same mistake again.”

    If the Frontline report was mostly accurate and Barrett is mostly correct, there are no good strategic reasons to wage a costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It’s no more the “good war” than Iraq was, and Obama is deluding himself if he thinks he can achieve a meaningful victory there.

    Postscript: If Obama wants a more promising strategy — and Lord knows he should — he should take a look at Robert Pape’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. Readers here know that I’m in favor of the “offshore balancing” strategy that Pape outlines, and not just in Afghanistan. I believe we will eventually head in that directon, but as Winston Churchill once noted about America, only after “trying all the alternatives.”

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