The war in Afghanistan isn't doomed. We just need to rethink the insurgency.
On the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, lies the Kabre Ghora graveyard. It is believed to contain the graves of 158 British soldiers, diplomats and their families who died in the city during the Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-1842 and 1879-1880. The name comes from the term Afghans use to describe British soldiers: "Ghora."
The original British gravestones have disappeared except for the remnants of 10, which have been preserved and relocated to a spot against the cemetery's southern wall. I have been to Kabre Ghora several times, but on my most recent visit, I noticed something new -- a memorial honoring soldiers from the United States, Canada and Europe who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
Afghanistan has a reputation as a graveyard of empires, based as much on lore as on reality. This reputation has contributed to a growing pessimism that U.S. and NATO forces will fare no better there than did the Soviet and British armies, or even their predecessors reaching back to Alexander the Great. The gloom was only stoked by last week's brazen suicide attacks in Kabul on the eve of a visit by Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But it would be irresponsible to concede defeat. Yes, the situation is serious, but it's far from doomed. We can still turn things around if we strive for a better understanding of the Afghan insurgency and work to exploit its many weaknesses.
Media reports have inflated the insurgency's strength. A recent Newsweek cover article branded Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam," arguing that the country has been infiltrated by a dangerous enemy that has repeatedly vanquished foreign invaders. In December 2008, the London-based International Council on Security and Development reported that "the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago." But on repeated trips to rural Afghanistan, including one late last year, I found that the Taliban control little actual territory.
Reporting on Afghanistan could use a dose of reality. I got mine last November, when I visited Zabol province in the south, along the border with Pakistan. Though the Taliban have pushed into several districts in the province, locals were blunt in private. "We hate them," one villager near the city of Qalat told me. "And we don't subscribe to their version of Islam. We just need help defending our towns and villages."
These sentiments are apparent in a range of public opinion polls. Just last week, an ABC/BBC poll indicated that only 4 percent of Afghans support a Taliban government. When asked who posed the biggest danger in the country, 58 percent of respondents said the Taliban. In addition, nearly 70 percent said that it was "good" or "mostly good" that U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001.
It's not difficult to see why. The Taliban subscribe to a radical interpretation of Sunni Islam grounded in Deobandism, a school of thought emanating from the Dar ul-Ulum madrassa established in Deoband, India, in 1867. The objective of senior Taliban leaders is to establish an extreme version of sharia, or Islamic law, across the country, which they refer to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the Taliban closed cinemas and banned music, along with almost every other conceivable kind of entertainment. In Kabul, they carried out brutal punishments in front of large crowds in the former soccer stadium.
The Taliban were -- and still are -- deeply unpopular. Most Afghans don't subscribe to their religious zealotry, which the founders of Deobandism wouldn't even recognize. And the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, barely two months after the war started, served as a striking testament to the group's weak foundation.
Yet the insurgency, which has engulfed parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, does not consist solely of the Taliban. It is fractured among more than a dozen groups, including the Haqqani network, led by Pashtun militant Jalaluddin Haqqani; mujaheddin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami; Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi; al-Qaeda and many others. A bevy of Pashtun tribes, criminal organizations, militia forces and government officials from Pakistan, Iran and even Afghanistan sometimes cooperate with the insurgents. The largest and most powerful group is the Taliban, though they have only limited influence over other groups.
The leaders of many insurgent groups are united by a common hatred of U.S. and allied forces, as well as opposition to President Hamid Karzai's government, which they view as having sold out to Western infidels. But they have very different ideologies and support bases. Some, like al-Qaeda, have a broad global agenda that includes fighting the United States and its allies (the far enemy) and overthrowing Western-friendly regimes in the Middle East (the near enemy) to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. Others, like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, are focused on Afghanistan and on re-establishing their extremist ideology there.
Foot soldiers join the insurgency for a variety of reasons. Some are motivated by money. "Some insurgent groups pay better than we do," one U.S. soldier in the southern province of Kandahar told me recently. "It's basic economics." In some areas, he said, the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army pay recruits roughly $100 per month, while the Taliban have paid $150 or more. Others are motivated by tribal rivalry or are coerced by insurgents, who sometimes threaten villagers or their families unless they cooperate.
What's more, several insurgent groups have a history of fighting one another. In the mid-1990s, the Taliban and forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar engaged in intense battles in southern and eastern Afghanistan. They also competed for funding and logistical support from Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. After suffering repeated battlefield losses to the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan and being marginalized by the ISI, Hekmatyar fled to Iran in 1997.
Nevertheless, insurgent groups have waged an increasingly deadly war against international and Afghan forces. From 2007 to 2008, the level of violence increased 33 percent, the number of improvised explosive devices increased 27 percent and civilian deaths increased 46 percent, according to U.S. Defense Department estimates. Perhaps more telling, a recent Asia Foundation poll indicated that nearly two-thirds of Afghans say that they have "some fear" or "a lot of fear" when traveling from one part of Afghanistan to another.
U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan have often failed to take advantage of fissures across organizations, as well as between insurgent leaders and their fragile support bases. Also, the security challenges there don't stem from a strong insurgency but rather from a weak and ever more unpopular government. "It's a race to the bottom between the government and insurgents," one villager in the eastern city of Asadabad told me. Opinion polls show a growing belief that government officials have become more and more corrupt and are unable to deliver services or protect the public.
As Dennis C. Blair, the new director of national intelligence, acknowledged last week, "Kabul's inability to build effective, honest and loyal provincial and district-level institutions . . . erodes its popular legitimacy and increases the influence of local warlords and the Taliban." In short, the government's unpopularity has created a vacuum that is being filled by insurgent groups, all of which enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan.
Although U.S. government officials have become increasingly vocal about the need to undermine the insurgent safe haven in Pakistan, the bulk of recent U.S. unmanned Predator drone strikes and Pakistani operations have been in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of that country. They have targeted senior leaders from al-Qaeda as well as other organizations, such as the Haqqani network, who share a safe haven in the tribal areas.
But there have been virtually no U.S. or Pakistani operations in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, currently home to the Taliban's core leadership. U.S. and NATO estimates indicate that the inner shura is located in the vicinity of the dusty town of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, where senior Taliban officials gathered after fleeing Afghanistan in 2001. Here, the Taliban have subdivided into a range of political, military, religious and other committees to help provide strategic guidance to a fractured insurgency.
Yet the Taliban have been left alone in Quetta. There have been no Pakistani operations such as the ones in the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions, where Pakistani army and paramilitary forces have razed houses and destroyed tunnels in an effort to uproot local militants. Nor have U.S. cross-border strikes targeted the key insurgent headquarters. Successful operations will require better protection of the Afghan population and more effective disruption of safe havens such as Quetta.
The Afghanistan war is not intractable and has not yet reached a tipping point. There are no easy solutions to the conflict. But a better understanding of the insurgency, the differences among its various factions and their fragile support bases -- and a strategy that can exploit these vulnerabilities -- might keep the United States from following so many earlier occupiers into the Afghan graveyard.
Seth G. Jones, author of the forthcoming book In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, is a political scientist with the RAND Corp.
This commentary appeared in The Washington Post on February 15, 2009