Yaroslav Trofimov's October 18 report for the Wall Street Journal on the Taliban gains in Afghanistan's north explains much about the war plan that President Barack Obama approved in November 2009 for ISAF operations in Afghanistan. After providing an outline of the control that the Taliban have established in formerly non-Taliban regions, Trofimov cuts to the bottom line:
The Taliban have consolidated their war gains by tapping into broad disillusionment with the incompetence and venality of Afghan government officials.In other words, even if every Taliban group could be destroyed tomorrow, by next month groups that provided the same kind of rough justice would spring up in Afghanistan's rural areas because there is no other criminal justice system there beyond the system of bribes, which few rural peoples can afford.
"People don't love the Taliban -- but if they compare them to the government, they see the Taliban as the lesser evil," said Baghlan Gov. Munshi Abdul Majid, an appointee of President Hamid Karzai.
As a result, the Taliban are winning support beyond the Pashtun community, their traditional base. In Baghlan, where Pashtuns account for less than one-quarter of the province's 804,000 residents, the insurgency is now drawing ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and other minorities previously seen as unsympathetic to the rebel cause. [...]
As they have solidified their grip, the Taliban have imposed governance that reflects the north's more liberal social environment. In the south, Taliban forbid girls' education and routinely blow up schools; insurgents here let schools stay open, officials and teachers say, and limit girls' education to the sixth grade.
The Taliban, who collect the Islamic ushr and zakat taxes across the north's countryside, also brought their mobile courts, much to the relief of the locals who usually have to bribe Afghan officials to lodge a complaint and often wait for years for a verdict from the formal justice system.
Mobile-phone numbers posted in mosques and available from the elders allow anyone to quickly contact Taliban court officials.
An American official familiar with Baghlan noted that the Taliban courts make a special effort not to show any preferential treatment to Pashtuns -- a contrast to government officials, who often favor their own clan or ethnic group.
"It's clear that the insurgents concentrate their efforts on those areas where they can hope to reach a significant impact," explained Maj. Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, the German commander of 11,000 coalition troops across Afghanistan's nine northern provinces. "The northern part could become the game-changer for all of Afghanistan."
Baghlan is of strategic importance, Gen. Fritz added, because most supplies from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan pass through, including most of the coalition's fuel. The power line from Uzbekistan, the main source of Kabul's electricity, also runs through here.
This explains the war plan that Petraeus and his advisors prepared and that Obama accepted over at least three other submissions. The plan -- one part 'population-centric' counterinsurgency, two parts nation-building, one part bullshit -- takes into account the reality that no matter how much 'security' may be provided by coalition forces, the central and provincial governments aren't capable of mustering even the most rudimentary modern justice system.
Robert Dreyfuss's October 20 report for the U.S.-based journal, The Nation (Can Karzai Cut Pakistan Out of a Deal With the Taliban? No) first addresses rumors, speculation, and eyebrow-raising statements by unnamed officials relating to Karzai's negotiations with the Taliban, and whether Pakistan will have a role in negotiations.
(The Los Angeles Times reporter Alex Rodriguez reported today from Islamabad that a high-level Pakistani official said that up to this point Pakistan had been cut out of the negotiations between Kabul and the Pakistan-based Taliban.)
Then Dreyfuss pulls back the curtain to reveal what's really been going on:
Marvin Weinbaum, a former US intelligence official who is now at the Middle East Institute, is a skeptic. He says that regardless of the current round of contacts, it's very unlikely that the Taliban wants a deal.Just a few weeks ago Trofimov mentioned in a WSJ report that a problem for the Northern Alliance in putting up resistance to negotiations with the Taliban is that they had disarmed at Karzai's insistence. If Dreyfuss's sources are correct then the NA has been busy solving the problem. That would explain why the Obama administration has not contested Iran's participation in the negotiations, a situation that Dreyfuss briefly addresses in his report:
"There really isn't the basis for a Grand Bargain," he told me. The Taliban leadership are zealots, he said, who won't succumb to offers of a share of power.
"When you talk to the Taliban, all you are doing is testing their faith," he says.
Even military pressure, of the kind that the United States and its special forces units are putting on the Taliban, won't cause its leaders to compromise, he says. "The military pressure isn't going to work with them."
Weinbaum says that inside Afghanistan the anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun forces in the north and west of the country, including the remnants of the old Northern Alliance (NA) that fought the Taliban in the 1990s, won't easily agree to a deal with the Taliban, either, which is a huge problem for Karzai.
Fearing that the Taliban might make a comeback, the Northern Alliance and its allies are re-arming, securing weapons from Central Asia and other allies, Weinbaum says, in preparation for a potential civil war.
And the ANA, the Afghan army that is being built brick by brick by the United States and NATO, would fragment and fall apart if there's a deal with the Taliban, with many of the ANA troops joining the NA. "If there's a chance that [the Taliban] would return, the army would break up," he says.
Caroline Wadhams, who leads the Afghanistan-Pakistan work at the Center for American Progress, agrees that the non-Pashtun forces in the north are preparing for civil war, if it comes to that. "I've heard about re-arming in the north," she told me.
"Part of it stems from the fear that if everything collapses, regardless of the peace talks, there'd be a return to civil war."
Karzai, she says, is taking a great risk that people in Afghanistan's north and west would oppose the reconciliation with the Taliban that Karzai is trying to bring about.
Both Wadhams and Weinbaum said that Karzai was at pains to name people to the High Peace Council (HPC), including former President Rabbani, who could help persuade northerners that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan isn't in the cards. Rabbani's job, says Weinbaum, is "to say to the north 'there's not going to be a deal that you can't subscribe to.' "
"By putting Rabbani at the HPC, Karzai's trying to get these people within the process," she says. But many, such as Abdullah Abdullah -- who challenged Karzai in the fraud-marred election last summer -- are refusing to participate, she says.
Some, such as Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghan intelligence, are actively campaigning against Karzai and his talks with the Taliban.
For the first time, Iran took part in talks this week involving more than forty countries involved in Afghanistan. Iran has a lot of influence with Hazara Afghans in the west. Iran's participation in the latest round of discussions over Afghanistan was orchestrated by Michael Steiner, the German ambassador for Afghanistan and Pakistan.Tehran is strongly anti-Taliban.
So what to do? Dreyruss urges that it's "critical" for the United States and NATO to involve India in Kabul's negotiations with the Taliban, and as soon as possible:
India isn't opposed to talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban, but they'd go ballistic if Pakistan gets the inside track. So if Obama is serious about jump-starting diplomacy to end the war in advance of the July 2011, deadline he's set for the start of a US drawdown, he'd better concentrate on getting both India and Pakistan on board.And thus, Obama's upcoming three-day visit to India and his heaping more aid on Pakistan's military.
As for NATO, Dreyfuss notes:
More and more, it appears that the Europeans just want out. The upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, will focus almost exclusively on what NATO calls "transition," that is, the transfer of security responsibility from NATO to the Afghans themselves (which is German for "we're gettin' outta here").As to whether India's defense establishment is willing to play the fool for Washington, Obama is going to India prepared to offer as many trade concessions as he can. But Dreyfuss's report makes no mention of the Saudis in the struggle for control of Afghanistan, and neither does Trofimov's.
Or, as Steiner put it more diplomatically, "What we expect from Lisbon is a kickstart for next year starting this transition process."
The rough timetable for NATO is not too different from Obama's: start withdrawing foreign forces in 2011 and finish by 2014, leaving behind a far smaller number of trainers and advisers.
Somewhere among the reports about the war I've got stacked up there's one that claims the Saudis are working to destabilize India. According to the report they're funding the establishment of Wahhabist madrassas in India so they can crank out the same zombies that Saudi-funded madrassas produced in Pakistan.
If the report is accurate, both Indian and U.S. intelligence agencies know about the Saudi activities in India. And India's defense establishment knows that the United States of America is joined at the hip to Saudi Arabia. They also know that the U.S. military and civilian administrations continue in the attempt to placate Rawalpindi.
1) The report contains additional valuable data so I'd recommend reading it in its entirety.