Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

So… Apparently the U.S. is Fighting Three Enemies in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on November 13, 2009


Americans across the country have come to expect a certain degree of pessimism with respect to the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan.  For the past two years, American and NATO casualties have risen exponentially from previous levels, just as Taliban insurgents to the south have revamped their efforts in the goal of destabilizing and delegitimizing President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

Counterterrorism officials within the U.S. Government have routinely complained of a lack of resources, manpower, and logistical support from European allies…all the while arguing for more troops on the ground in an attempt to contain the Taliban’s foothold in Afghan politics.  Calls related to these matters have become so significant over the past year that General Stanley A. McChrystal- the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan- publicly argued for an additional 40,000 American soldiers for enhanced counterinsurgency operations.

Of course, anyone who owns a television, a radio, or a computer fully understands what is going on within the U.S. Military establishment.  Americans have come to realize the long-term costs associated with war, whether in the deserts of Iraq or in the mountains of Afghanistan.  After all, this headline is not necessarily breaking news…General McChrystal’s assessment of the U.S. war effort has come to dominate the stories and discourse of the mainstream media.

What is relatively shocking is the type of discoveries the general makes in his 600+ page assessment.  Among other recommendations that McChrystal has made in the last few days, one has stood out as potentially devastating to counterinsurgent operations within Afghanistan.  Surprisingly, this is the same recommendation that has gotten little play in the national media.

According to U.S. military sources, branches of the Pakistani and Iranian intelligence services have been aiding the Taliban insurgency against coalition forces; placing yet another obstacle in the path of Afghan reconstruction.

In particular, the general points the finger at Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency as well as Iran’s Quds Force…an elite wing in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is comparable to America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

To some analysts, this discovery is not necessarily new.  Pakistan has had a long history of supporting the Afghan Taliban even before the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Eight years later, the ISI has continued to bankroll the organization (although at a much lower rate) while destroying the Taliban’s Pakistani branch at the same exact time.

The ISI-Taliban connection is especially worrisome to President Barack Obama, given that America’s war on Al’Qaeda has relied extensively on Pakistani cooperation.  Consider Washington’s use of predator drones against Al’Qaeda bases in Pakistan’s western frontier as an example.  Despite repeated civilian casualties, Islamabad has tolerated American strikes on its territory…even going a step further by using its own security services against militants in the Swat Valley and currently in South Waziristan.

Given that Pakistan is now implicated for endorsing Taliban activity within Afghanistan, will the United States respond with equal ferocity…possibly cutting off assistance to the Pakistani military?  Well, considering the fact that President Obama just signed an additional $7.5 billion in aid for the Pakistani Government for the next five years, I would have to say no.  While Pakistan’s Taliban support certainly undermines U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Washington simply has no alternative other than showing its disapproval to the ISI.  Taking the next step and doing something belligerent towards the Pakistani Government would only hurt America’s campaign against Al’Qaeda in Southwest Asia; a region where a majority of Al’Qaeda leaders continue to reside and rally Sunni terrorist networks around the world.

Without a Pakistani military alliance, Al’Qaeda and the Taliban would certainly be more emboldened than they already are, not only threatening Afghanistan and Pakistan but possibly creating a new theatre for terrorism inside India (the Mumbai terror attacks last Fall serves as a graphic demonstration).

The White House must also recognize the hidden motivations behind the ISI’s support for Taliban insurgents.  Pakistani intelligence is not aiding the Taliban purely for the Taliban’s sake.  Rather, evidence indicates that the Taliban movement is Islamabad’s insurance card against Indian meddling within Afghanistan once American troops decide to withdraw from the country.  Whether logical or not, Pakistan continues to view India as its number one threat.  With this being the case, any action that would hinder Indian influence along its western border is  a priority for Islamabad.  As Pakistani officials have made clear in the past, a Taliban Government in Kabul would be viewed as a valuable deterrent against India’s ambitions.

While distressing, the United States should cool its jets for another reason: the ISI, while Pakistan’s primary intelligence service, is not controlled by the civilian government in Islamabad.  Pakistani politics is traditionally divided between civilian politicians and military commanders, making it extraordinarily difficult for the U.S. to accurately blame its main ally for Afghan instability.

Iran, however, is a whole different story.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made it clear in the past that they will do anything and everything in their power to bleed American forces on Muslim soil.  Just take Iraq as an example.

General David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill that Iranian agents were training Iraqi Shia’s in the construction and use of roadside bombs…the IED’s that were the primary instigators of American coalition casualties during 2006.  There is a common assumption within the U.S. intelligence community that Iran is intent on flexing its muscles through Shia militias sympathetic to Iranian values.  With this policy highly successful in Iraq, it would only be natural for Tehran to adopt similar practices in Afghanistan, targeting U.S. troops in the hopes that Washington will remain distracted from a possible strike on its nuclear facilities.

What puzzles me is why Iran has chosen to align itself with the Taliban movement.  Historically, the Iranians and members of the Taliban were especially hostile towards one another.  During the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s, it was not uncommon for Iranian and Taliban soldiers to engage in violent border disputes.

Religiously and ideologically, the Islamic Republic and the Taliban Movement could not be more different.  Iran considers itself a Shia-indoctrinated nation, while Taliban militants are primarily advocates of a strict Sunni interpretation.  What is prompting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard into providing military assistance to Taliban fighters, the same Sunni extremists that were making the lives of Iranians miserable only eight years ago?

The only possible explanation I can gather is in the old adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Both the Iranians and the Taliban are fighting a common adversary- the United States- and both parties view themselves as the last bastion against western imperialism on Muslim land.  Add self-interest to the mix, and this conclusion gains considerable fruition.

Either that, or Tehran is so desperate for friends that they are willing to settle old scores.  This, too, is a viable rationalization.  Over the past few months, the Islamic Republic has been challenged externally- by the United Nation’s Security Council- and internally through Iranian dissident organizations.  With only one true ally (Bashar al-Assad’s Syria), Tehran has every incentive to gather friends in any way they can, even if this means reaching out to former enemies.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan just got more problematic.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this blog



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