As policymakers continue to debate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, we asked Rick Nelson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to weigh in on the possibility of reconciling Taliban fighters, efforts to track down Al Qaeda and the potential risks that an escalation of the war in Afghanistan might pose to neighboring Pakistan. Nelson is a former Navy helicopter pilot with operational and intelligence experience in counterterrorism including assignments at the National Counterterrorism Center and National Security Council. Earlier this year, he returned from Afghanistan where he directed a Joint Task Force. Below is an email Q and A we did.
1. The recently signed 2010 defense bill contains a provision that permits commanders in Afghanistan (using CERP funds) to pay insurgent fighters to switch sides. The hope is that the “Sons of Iraq” program can be replicated in Afghanistan by offering low-level insurgents amnesty for past acts and a job. Will this effort to peel away militants work and would it have a noticeable impact on the Taliban?
We need to be careful about assuming that what worked in Iraq will solve Afghanistan. That said, the successful “Sons of Iraq” program could inform efforts to split the Taliban and reduce militancy in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban is not monolithic—its three main branches are the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin—and these divisions suggest an opportunity to split or co-opt the insurgency. This type of program would be based on the premise that U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces can never fully eliminate Taliban influence in Afghanistan; accordingly, some sort of political reconciliation ultimately is needed.
Recent evidence of a fissure between the “nationalist” Afghan Taliban and “universal jihadist” al Qaeda also casts doubt on predictions of a Taliban-al Qaeda caliphate emerging in Afghanistan. These key differences recommend a political solution which institutionalizes at least some of the Afghan Taliban in exchange for an end to the insurgency and eventual American troop reductions.
2. The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents groups receive money from wealthy Arabs, particularly from the Gulf states. Since there appears to be a market incentive to some insurgent activity, how can the U.S. stop the flow of money into Taliban coffers and how important is stopping the financing to insurgent operations?
Unfortunately, the U.S. remains quite limited in its ability to stop these illicit flows. This fact suggests that we are never likely to completely defeat the Taliban.
The real question we should be asking, though, is this: how important is it to eliminate the Taliban? The very fact that the insurgency receives most of its funding from abroad suggests that at least some regional actors may be bankrolling the Taliban as a convenient way to bleed American power rather than to prop up an Islamist government. Under this scenario, a large-scale U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan merely serves to fuel the insurgency.
In this case, the Obama administration might consider how to reach a political settlement with certain, reconcilable elements of the Taliban. Such an agreement would require insurgents to lay down their arms in exchange for U.S. and NATO troop reductions. The U.S. would also make clear that it will not tolerate Taliban collusion with al Qaeda. Given these assurances, U.S. forces could refocus their efforts on combating al Qaeda—the original purpose of our invasion eight years ago.
3. The Afghan debate pits the “light footprint,” counterterrorism approach, versus the “heavy footprint,” population-centric counterinsurgency approach. Reportedly, the Obama administration will choose a hybrid strategy, providing security in major population centers while pulling troops from remote areas. Doesn’t such an approach risk giving the Taliban free rein in much of the country, allowing them to expand their “shadow government” in the many villages where coalition troops are not present?
Not necessarily. Proponents of troop-intensive counterinsurgency (COIN) unfairly equate the counterterrorism (CT) option with troop withdrawals and a complete abandonment of Afghanistan. In fact, a consolidation of troops in major urban areas would create opportunities for local empowerment of Afghans. Many of Afghanistan’s rural tribes and ethnic groups are hostile to outsiders in general, including U.S. and NATO forces. The best way to ensure their security is to empower them in self-defense against the Taliban; one recent analysis on DoD Buzz, for instance, suggested arming Afghan tribes.
Critics of “urban consolidation” also miss the point of this approach when they claim that it would give the Taliban free reign in rural areas. America’s primary reason for being in Afghanistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.” But al Qaeda’s senior leaders are based in northwestern Pakistan. A reallocation of U.S. and NATO troops in major urban areas—nearly all of which are close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—would better position these forces to address the al Qaeda threat than would widely-dispersed, rural population protection.
4. Is Al Qaeda part of the Pakistani military’s target set, or are their offensive operations focused exclusively on the Pakistani Taliban groups and does the Pakistani military have adequate intelligence to target Al Qaeda?
Nominally, Pakistan’s campaign in South Waziristan has targeted Tehrik-i-Taliban (the Pakistan Taliban). Still, al Qaeda’s South Asia apparatus is based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), so any Pakistani offensive in this area might potentially subsume al Qaeda. In late October, for instance, Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani suggested that the military might target the roughly 1,000- to 2,000-member Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a key al Qaeda affiliate operating in northwestern Pakistan. More important, a successful Pakistani campaign could serve as the first step in a larger effort to reduce or eliminate militancy in the northwest.
Even key members in the U.S. government have limited knowledge of how much intelligence Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) possesses on al Qaeda. This has been the subject of recent debate, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Pakistani authorities could be doing more to track al Qaeda operatives.
5. Pakistan is concerned that an American escalation in Afghanistan will push Taliban fighters across the border into Pakistan. If the Obama administration sends additional troops to Afghanistan, what effect will U.S. offensive operations have on Pakistani stability?
Pakistan has a right to be concerned. After September 11, U.S. forces and our allies routed Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan, but pushed their remnants into Pakistan. And over the last eight years, extremist activity in Pakistan has risen in response to U.S. and NATO military escalation in Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan’s offensive in South Waziristan holds the potential for weakening al Qaeda. But troop increases likely would push insurgents into northwestern Pakistan, which would heighten extremism there and make Islamabad’s campaign even more difficult.
Calls for additional forces also risk alienating the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), both of which have signaled deep reservations about a possible American escalation in Afghanistan. These two institutions are critical partners in U.S. efforts to combat al Qaeda and ultimately will determine the intensity of any offensive against militants. But they also fear growing American and Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Obama administration must be careful, then, to ensure that escalation does not encourage the military and ISI to view extremist militancy more as a defensive buffer against such influence than as an internal nemesis
In the end, U.S. interests lie firmly in combating al Qaeda. As such, any regional strategy which stabilizes Afghanistan while destabilizing Pakistan would be a failure.