President Obama’s AfPak strategy overwhelmingly concentrates on unrealistic short-term targets and goals, based on irrational settlements with the most dangerous elements in the region – the Pakistan Army, the ‘moderate Taliban’, and a powerless and unreliable political leadership in Pakistan. At the same time, the setting of hard deadlines for US withdrawal… encourages an extremist calculus within a protracted war framework that simply seeks to exhaust the political will of the Western leadership to remain engaged in the war. – AfPak Cul de Sac, June 2009
“It’s the worst day in our history by a mile,” an unnamed Naval Special Warfare source told the US Navy Today, commenting on the shooting down of a Chinook Transport Helicopter by the Taliban in the Wardak Province of eastern Afghanistan on August 6, 2011. 30 US troops, including 22 Navy SEAL’s from the elite Team 6 – the unit that neutralised Osama bin Laden in the Abbottabad raid – six Afghan National Army (ANA) commandos, and one civilian interpreter, were killed in the incident. As the US confronts the reality of its worst single disaster in nearly a decade of intervention in Afghanistan, the utter incoherence of its AfPak policy is being brought into sharp and inevitable focus.
On June 22, 2011, President Barack Obama announced what has been described as the “long retreat” from Afghanistan, declaring that as many as 33,000 US troops would be withdrawn, at the latest, by September 2012, with 5,000 returning home in July 2011, and another 5,000 by the end of the current year. By 2014, no US combat Forces are to remain in Afghanistan, though a ‘substantial’ military presence in support roles is slated to continue indefinitely. As on June 6, 2011, there was a total of just 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan, within a total strength of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of just 132,381. Several other ‘troop contributing nations’ are already in the process of diluting their presence in the country. At no stage of the intervention in Afghanistan have ISAF Forces ever attained the levels that military planners considered necessary to secure effective counter-insurgency (CI) dominance.
Since President Obama’s June 22 announcement, a succession of high profile assassinations and attacks have created a sense of panic, chaos and paralysis across Afghanistan. The most significant of these incidents include:
July 12: Ahmad Wali Karzai head of the Provincial Council of the Kandahar Province and younger brother of President Hamid Karzai was assassinated by one of his guards at his residence. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident.
July 13: A suicide bomber blew himself up inside Sara Mosque in Kandahar city, where people had gathered to pay homage and pray for Ahmad Wali Karzai, killing Mawlawi Hekmatullah Hekmat, the head of religious council of Kandahar, and four others.
July 17: Jan Mohammad Khan, a senior advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Hashim Watanwal, a Member of the Afghan Parliament, were killed when two assailants stormed Khan’s house in the capital city of Kabul.
July 27: A suicide bomber blew himself up killing the Mayor of Kandahar city Ghulam Haider Hamidi.
Indeed, 2011 has been a bloody year for the fragile establishment in Afghanistan. On May 28, a bomb attack in the northern Takhar Province killed General Mohammad Daud Daud, the top Police commander in Northern Afghanistan, and General Shah Jahan Nuri, the provincial Police chief. On April 24, Haji Zahir Arian, a tribal chief, formerly the District chief of Marja in the southern Helmand Province, was assassinated in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. On April 15, the Police chief of Kandahar Province, Khan Mohammad Mujahid, was killed by suicide bomber at his office. On March 10, the Police chief of the northern Kunduz province, Abdul Rahman Syedkhili, was killed along with seven policemen, by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle, in Kunduz city. On February 10, a suicide bomber in Chardara killed District Governor Abdul Wahid Omarkhil and four others. On February 7, Syed Mohammad Khan, administrative chief of the Bak District in the eastern Khost Province, was killed when armed men opened fire on his vehicle. And on January 29, the Deputy to the Provincial Governor of the southern Kandahar Province, Abdul Latif Ashna, was killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar.
379 ISAF personnel, including 282 from the US, have already been killed this year, adding to as many as 711 ISAF fatalities in 2010. A total of 2660 ISAF personnel (including 1728 US soldiers) have been killed since 2001. Though no authoritative estimates are available for Afghan fatalities, one unconfirmed source indicates 1,734 ANA personnel and at least 10,292 civilians were killed since 2007.
It is within this context of a rising loss of control that the US leadership is trying to package and project a process of ordered flight as a ‘victory’ and a ‘fulfillment of goals’, with President Obama declaring, “We have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat.” US and NATO commanders have, however, repeatedly warned that precipitate diminution of ISAF Forces in Afghanistan will jeopardize the limited gains of the past years, including the significant attrition of leadership cadres in the al Qaeda and Taliban. Indeed, the US strategy in Afghanistan has seen a decade of near continuous failure, and the Obama years are looking even worse than the George W. Bush presidencies. To focus only on ISAF fatalities, the seven years under George Bush saw just 630 killed; two and a half years under Obama have seen 2,025 ISAF fatalities, though strategic incoherence has robbed Coalition Forces of any enduring gains.
As the Western will disintegrates – and will continue to do so at an accelerated pace, certainly till the US Presidential Elections of November 2012 – the forces of disorder in Afghanistan and Pakistan have scented blood and are escalating their disruptive violence. Terrorist groupings on both sides of the AfPak border, backed by their state supporters in Pakistan, have long benefited from Western ambivalence and strategic incoherence, with the US and its coalition partners gambling on the compromised Pakistani Army and its Inter Services Intelligence, even as a range of lawless militia with uncertain loyalties were armed and encouraged on Afghan soil, and as ISAF strategists sought to engage with an oxymoronic ‘moderate Taliban’. The inherent contradictions of this approach have led to a progressive spread of violence and loss of control from the Southern Districts into the West and the North.
It is, however, along the Pakistan border in South and East Afghanistan, that the principal thrust of Pakistani strategists and their Taliban proxies, continues to focus. Just three Provinces in Afghanistan – Daykundi in the central region, Sar-e-Pol towards the North, and Badakshan in the Northeast – have been free of ISAF fatalities since 2001, with the remaining 31 registering at least one fatality. It is, however, Helmand (758), Kandahar (382), Konar (163), Kabul (136), and Zabol (99), among the worst affected provinces along or proximate to the Pakistan border, which have seen the largest number of ISAF personnel killed. It is here that what Pakistan and the Islamist extremists see as the Afghan ‘endgame’ is playing out, with some strange, though unsurprising, bedfellows.
Three principal groupings of the Afghan Taliban dominate the insurgency in the country: the Taliban, headed by Mullah Omar and the ‘Quetta Shura’; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami; and the Jalaluddin Haqqani Network. Though there is no unified leadership, there is evidence of some coordination among these groups at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels — including through several shuras located in and patronised by Pakistan. Each of these groups dominates its own area of influence. It is, however, the Quetta Shura-dominated Provinces – Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabol, and Paktika – which have witnessed the worst violence.
Significantly, Pakistan’s own bête noire, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is also making common cause with these Forces, both to create room for manoeuvre when it comes under pressure in Pakistan, and to launch attacks against the ‘infidels’ and ‘invaders’ in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials claim that some six to seven hundred TTP militants have set up bases in Afghanistan, facing the Mohmand Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan; another four to five hundred were based across the border from the Bajaur Agency; and an estimated 300 were located across the border from the Upper and Lower Dir Districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The total strength of the TTP in Afghanistan is estimated at around 1,500, principally based in Kunar and Nuristan, where US-led coalition forces abandoned remote outposts after suffering heavy casualties in 2009, and where the Afghan Government has little physical presence. Reports indicate that the ‘deputy chief’ of the TTP, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, was currently operating from the Kunar Province, while Maulana Fazlullah, head of the Swat chapter of TTP, was believed to be based in the Nuristan Province. Significantly, on December 10, 2010, the head of the TTP in Upper and Lower Dir, Hafizullah, and two of his aides, Dr. Wazir and Muftahudin alias Shabbar, were killed in US drone strikes in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. US air strikes also killed at least 35 TTP militants in the Paktia Province, when a group of about 100 TTP militants fired missiles and rockets at a convoy of foreign troops on July 23, 2011.
Pakistani authorities claim that TTP cadres were crossing in from Afghanistan to execute attacks in Pakistan, and cite the following, among recent incidents:
July 6, 2011: Between 550-600 militants launched an attack on Nusrat Dara and Kharo villages in Pakistan’s Upper Dir District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Two senior Afghan Taliban ‘commanders’, identified as Abu Musa and Omar Tariq, were killed during clashes.
June 16: More than 300 militants crossed the border from Kunar Province of Afghanistan into the Khar area of Bajaur Agency in FATA, resulting in death of 15 persons. The dead included nine militants, three lashkar (tribal militia) volunteers, a soldier and two women.
June 5, 2011: SF killed 26 militants in the Upper Dir District. The militants had crossed over into the area from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province.
June 2, 2011: At least 27 Pakistani SF personnel were killed as 250 to 300 militants, who had crossed into the Upper Dir District from the Kunar Province, and attacked the Shaltalo Security Post. 45 militants and three civilians were also killed in the clash. The militants, wearing uniforms of the Afghan National Army, NATO troops and Pakistan Army, stormed the post and opened fire with heavy weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The TTP later claimed responsibility for the attack.
June 1, 2011: Militants from Afghanistan stormed the Upper Dir District and captured 16 Pakistani Policemen. On July 19, the Taliban released a video showing the execution of all the 16 Policemen.
June 1, 2011: Seven SF personnel were killed when militants from Afghanistan’s Kunar province attacked and overran Shaltalo Security Checkpost in Berawal area of Upper Dir District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the Pak-Afghan border.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, a total of 341 persons including 170 militants, 115 Security Force (SF) personnel and 56 civilians had been killed in 2011, in skirmishes between the Pakistan SFs along the border, till August 5. By July 5, 2011, at least 28,000 people had been displaced in Pakistan by the fighting along the Afghan border, according to international reports.
Pakistan has immediately sought to cash in on these disturbances, launching an unrelenting succession of artillery and rocket barrages into Afghanistan. On June 26, 2011, for instance, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused Pakistan of firing over 470 rockets into the Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces, bordering Pakistan. Officials put the death toll at 36 civilians, including 12 children. Subsequently, on July 5, the Afghan Interior Ministry claimed that nearly 800 rockets had been fired from Pakistan into Afghan territory since early June, killing 42 civilians and injuring 55. Separately, Fazlulluh Wahidi, the Governor of the Kunar Province, stated that 645 rockets had been fired into the Province, killing 22 people and wounding 40. On June 27, 2011, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas claimed that there had been five “major attacks” by the TTP, launched from Afghanistan, which had killed 55 Pakistani Security Force (SF) personnel in a month. Justifying the missile and artillery barrages into Afghanistan, he argued, “The fleeing militants were engaged by the SFs and a few accidental rounds going across cannot be ruled out.”
Ironically, no report in the open source indicates that even a single TTP militant has been killed in the Pakistani shelling on Afghan territory, and President Karzai has repeatedly raised this question with Pakistani authorities, even as he has come under rising pressure in Parliament on demands that Afghanistan break all ties with Pakistan till because the “non-stop shelling” has killed many civilians.
Indeed, while the presence of the TTP in border areas of Afghanistan is a reality, Pakistan has seized upon this as an opportunity to push its dominance further into Afghanistan, as ISAF presence and will erode. The objective appears to be to force more and more civilians out of these areas, in order to create wider and safer sanctuaries for the al-Qaeda-Taliban combine – even if the TTP benefits temporarily. Thus, Afghanistan’s Eastern Border Police Commander Aminullah Amerkhail remarked, “Pakistan is looking to clear out these areas in order to deploy fighters who will pursue Pakistan’s interest once the international community leaves Afghanistan.” He observed, further, that the attacks were related to Pakistan’s unease about the prospects of Afghanistan signing a strategic agreement with the US: “Our neighbours want a weak government in Afghanistan – that’s why they do it. They want to undermine us as we get ready to sign a strategic agreement with the US. They don’t want that.” Marc Grossman, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, was in Kabul to discuss the agreement with Afghan officials on June 24-27, 2011. Rejecting the Pakistani claim of “a few accidental rounds going across”, Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General Zahir Azimi noted, “The shelling is far too regular to be a mistake. The shelling does not appear to be targeting fleeing fighters, but villages.”
The US strategy in Afghanistan has seen a decade of unrelenting failure. The US has sought to repackage the killing of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda-Taliban leaders as a grand strategic success and a prelude to an ordered withdrawal from Afghanistan. The truth is, despite this handful of symbolic successes, the disruptive dominance of Pakistan-backed radical Islamist Forces has consolidated across progressively widening regions of Afghanistan. Kabul has little capacity to control these Forces, and will simply collapse in the face of sustained dilution of the Coalition presence. Unless current Coalition policies are dramatically reversed Afghanistan will inevitably pass into the control of an even more radicalized, violent and internationalised Islamist extremist order, than the one that prevailed before 9/11, even as a dramatically destabilized Pakistan feeds into the rising threat of transnational Islamist terrorism.