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The Future of Afghanistan

Trying to gauge the state of the conflict in Afghanistan from thousands of miles away is extraordinarily difficult and I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions from recent press reports. But even discounting for the “bad news” bias in most articles, their general tenor is cause for concern.

This article notes that hundreds of Taliban fighters are massing near Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan, for the first time since 2001.

This article notes that the warlords who once made up the Northern Alliance are hording their weapons and not complying with promises to disarm militias.

This article notes that the drug trade in Afghanistan is booming, with “a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production.”

• And this article notes that more foreign jihadists are infiltrating Afghanistan, and they are even more bloodthirsty and savage than the native Taliban. “Foreign fighters,” writes David Rohde of the New York Times, “are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries, and perhaps also Turkey and western China.”

Admittedly, there is a positive aspect to this story—the foreigners are needed to fill Taliban ranks because of the losses they have suffered in fighting with coalition forces. But the fact that replacements are able to infiltrate so easily is a major problem, insofar as one of the major factors determining the success or failure of an insurgency is whether or not the counterinsurgents are able to seal the border to prevent the rebels from gaining reinforcements and supplies.

So far attempts to seal the borders between Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan have not borne much fruit. This is to be expected because of the difficult terrain involved, and because the same tribesmen are to be found on both sides of the frontier, which has always been more of a theoretical construct than an on-the-ground reality. It doesn’t help that both Iran and Pakistan appear to be involved actively in aiding the Taliban.

The case of Pakistan is particularly vexing because, unlike Iran, it is nominally an American ally, yet its armed forces have been either unwilling or unable to take strong action against the Taliban and their supporters, who have come to dominate the border areas.

This article raises questions about whether the Pakistani military is making good use of some $11 billion in assistance received from the United States since 2001. Much of the assistance has gone for high-ticket items like F-16′s that aren’t very useful for fighting shadowy insurgents; Pakistan wants them primarily for reasons of prestige and for saber-rattling with India. But the primary problem is summed up by a scholar:

“U.S. equipment is not being used ‘in a sustained way,’” said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. researcher who recently visited the region. “The army is not very effective, and there have been elements of the government that have worked with the Taliban in the tribal areas in the past,” making them ambivalent about the current fight against those forces, he said.

This really comes down to an issue of Pakistani politics. Pervez Musharraf, the military chief and dictator, repeatedly has promised to crack down on the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups, but he has not delivered enough results. Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who has returned recently from exile, is talking a tougher game. As this New York Times article notes:

Using the news media unabashedly, Ms. Bhutto has been outspoken in particular against terrorism, saying things that few local politicians dare to against the religious and jihadi groups. She is the only politician in Pakistan saying loudly and clearly that suicide bombing is against the teaching of Islam. She has also attacked conservatives in the government, including officials close to the President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, accusing them of aiding and abetting extremists, and supporting the bombers who attacked her.

This kind of talk is brave and encouraging. The question is whether Bhutto (assuming she gets that far) would be able effectively to carry out an anti-terrorist agenda in office, given that she would be reliant on the very same armed forces that have so often collaborated with the Taliban in the past and that have repeatedly undermined civilian leaders, including Bhutto herself. American leverage is limited here; we’ll have to let the Pakistanis sort out their own problems.

But we should continue to make clear our commitment to a restoration of democracy and our willingness, à la Barack Obama, to act unilaterally, if necessary, to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan. If we can’t do a better job of stopping the terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s future will not be terribly promising.



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