When Britain started airlifting fresh troops into Afghanistan just a few weeks ago, the official explanation for the move was simple: The Brits were to help speed up reconstruction in the three provinces that pan the valley of the River Hirmand.
Now, however, it is clear that the mission the newcomers face is one of pacification rather than reconstruction. At least five provinces in western and southeastern Afghanistan are now the scenes of a new insurgency on a significant scale. Thus, the newly arrived British contingent, and other NATO units in Afghanistan face a war fighting rather than a nation-building mission. In the past few weeks, the Brits have fought a series of intense battles with the insurgents, killing scores of them while sustaining unexpected casualties of their own. The Canadian contingent has also sustained unexpected casualties in a series of bitter encounters with the terrorists.
Last months Lt. Gen. David Richards, the officer commanding the British contingent, described the current fighting in Afghanistan as the worst the Brits have seen since World War II.
The question is whether NATO has enough forces, and the right kind of units and equipment, needed to quell the insurgency. The answer must be no.
With fewer than 20,000 men, NATO would have little chance of controlling a rugged territory of more than 100,000 square kilometers. Under current rules of engagement, NATO forces do not have the right to enter Afghan villages even in hot pursuit of insurgents, and must wait until the Afghan Army and police arrive on the scene. This allows the insurgents to practice hit-and-run guerrilla tactics to their hearts' content in the assurance that they can always seek protection in terrorized villages. Once the Afghan Army or police arrive to control one village the insurgents simply move to another. The rationale for the rule is that Afghans resent the presence of "infidel" forces in proximity to their homes.
The problem is further complicated because the insurgents can always use the vast deserts stretching into Pakistan's Balochistan and Iranian Sistan as a hinterland in which to hide, recuperate and rearm.
To make matters worse, the sphere of lawlessness now stretches into virtually the whole of southeast Iran and large chunks of Pakistani Balochistan. On the Iranian side, a growing armed insurgency by Sistani and Balochi tribes is diverting the attention of the authorities from monitoring the border with Afghanistan. On the Pakistani side, the recent killing by government forces of Akbar Bugti, the veteran Baloch nationalist leader, in his mountain hideout, has generated a new upsurge of sympathy for anti-West groups, including the Taleban. To all that must be added the fact that large numbers of Afghan peasants depend on poppy cultivation for their survival. Many Afghans, therefore, see NATO's policy of eradication as a threat to their livelihood.
If the new insurgency spreads and NATO casualties mount, we shall soon hear voices urging a quick conclusion to what some in the West already see as a costly adventure. Unlike the intervention in Iraq, that has always had strong critics in the West, the toppling of the Taleban in Afghanistan was generally accepted as a just response to the 9/11 attacks against the United States. That, however, does not mean that Western public opinion's threshold of pain is limitless. Do not be surprised to see editorials in Europe and North America calling on NATO to throw in the towel and let the Afghans fight it out among themselves.
Cut and run, however, is the worst of all options. Allowing parts of Afghanistan to become rebel territory could destabilize both Pakistan and Iran, provoking ripples that could affect Central Asia and the Gulf region as well. Afghanistan needs three to four more years before its new army and police are strong enough to ensure government control over the national territory. In the meantime, NATO, operating under a mandate from the United Nations, has both the moral and legal duty of helping the new Kabul regime establish its authority.
There is no doubt that NATO needs to deploy more and better-armed troops to handle its Afghan mission. However, force alone will not do the trick.
What we witness in the lawless provinces of Afghanistan is a combination of forces and factors that goes beyond a resurgence of the Taleban.
There is no doubt that the revived Taleban account for a good part of the current insurgency, especially in Hirmand and Kandahar provinces. But other groups are also involved. These include the remnants of the Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar that operate along part of the border with Iran. Some analysts wonder whether radial elements in Iran are not using Hekmatyar as a means of exerting pressure on President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul.
Part of the current lawlessness has little to do with politics and is largely caused by powerful smuggling networks operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Last year over 100 Iranian security men were killed by these bandits in a series of engagements along the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Finally, there are Pashtun clans that, disappointed by Karzai's performance as president, have decided to make life difficult for his government. These clans are biter about the fact that little of the aid that has poured into Afghanistan since 2002 has reached their region.
Corruption in Kabul, favoritism practiced on a grand scale by the new regime, and misconceived projects that produce little positive results for the average citizen are some of the causes for the Pashtun anger.
To defang Hekmatyar and neutralize the armed smuggling gangs, Karzai needs to drastically improve relations with both Pakistan and Iran. This may not be easy. Many within the coalition headed by Karzai still regard Pakistan with suspicion because of its past role in creating the Taleban movement. As for Iran, Karzai might find it hard to seek close ties with a regime now on a collision course with the United States, the very power that underwrites the survival of the regime in Kabul. Nevertheless, the national interests of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan require close cooperation among them in a determined campaign against armed smugglers, especially those involved in narcotics. My guess is that Iran would also be amenable to the idea of jettisoning Hekmatyar in exchange for greater influence in Kabul. Karzai would also need to curb corruption, bring in visible investment to the affected provinces, and allow the Pashtun clans a bigger say in decision-making at a local level.
The current mission in Afghanistan can succeed only if Karzai succeeds to isolate the Taleban and to mobilize genuine and effective Pakistani and Iranian support in depriving Mullah Omar and his fighters of access to a safe hinterland beyond the Afghan borders. Military force is never anything but a means in the service of political goals. These political goals must be set before NATO is asked to contribute more troops.
This article was published in the Arab News, 9 September 2006