Amid the ongoing debate on escalating the war in Afghanistan come warnings of what will happen should the US not wage the war successfully. Among these warnings are: the Taliban will re-conquer the country; al Qaeda will regain the freedom of movement and training camps it had prior to 2001; and terrorism will spread more rapidly throughout the world. None of this is likely, and that must be made clear to policy makers and the American public.
Insurgent Forces in Crisis
Many, if not most, of the fighters operating against US and NATO forces are not motivated by lofty ideals, religious fervor, or geopolitics. They are not seeking to reestablish a caliphate or even to establish an Islamist heartland in Central Asia. They seek, paradoxically enough to westerners, who see themselves as avatars of impartial development, to oust foreign forces from their country whom they believe to be trying to dominate it in alliance with northern, non-Pashtun people.
This is the repeated claim not only of the Taliban, but also of various other insurgent groups such as the ones led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani -- both of whom worked with American intelligence in the war to oust the Soviets, both of whom are nationalist politicians, not internationalist dreamers.
Insurgent forces have been successful in negotiating with local tribes, presenting themselves as defenders of Pashtun and Afghan independence and convincing tribal elders to attach local men to fight alongside them. Insurgent recruitment of locals has been especially successful in the last few years, as western claims of being in Afghanistan only temporarily have, unsurprisingly, become unconvincing.
Should US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the effect would be problematic, if not calamitous, for insurgent leaders, as it was for mujahidin leaders once Soviet troops abandoned certain provinces and eventually withdrew from the country altogether. Motivated to fight to rid their land of foreign troops, many mujahidin fighters saw their job done when Soviet forces withdrew and chose to return to their homes. Large-scale desertions would almost assuredly recur today if western forces withdrew from the country, or at least from the Pashtun South and East where the insurgency is strongest.
Mujahidin leaders faced a further and perhaps more serious problem once the Soviet forces left. United by little. if anything. but opposition to foreign presence, leaders soon had to resolve political conflicts. This of course. led initially to wars for local authority. The war against the Soviet leviathan was replaced by a war of all against all -- and that too would likely recur.
Some factions won; others lost; still others remained neutral. Meanwhile the government in Kabul found itself in a far better bargaining position. Local leaders (political and military), facing interminable local fighting, opted to forge deals with the government in Kabul, exchanging regional autonomy for sizable payments. An array of such deals was promising until Soviet subsidies to Kabul ended with the fall of communism, and the Kabul government soon collapsed. Western coffers are fuller and their governments more stable. Iranian, Russian, and Indian support for Kabul will also be strong.
Insurgent forces today have serious fissures that would worsen without the unifying presence of foreign troops. A few Taliban commanders have reportedly been killed after rival commanders gave western intelligence their whereabouts. Many other commanders resent the Taliban's Kandahar elite, which relegates outsiders to subordinate roles, and recall that when the Taliban took control of most of the country in 1996, the Kandahar elite pushed them to the background.
Haqqani and Hekmatyar are important and ambitious men who are unlikely to fit in personally or ideologically with the more powerful Taliban leadership. Hekmatyar stands atop a political party (Hizb-i Islami) he has organized along Leninist lines with the intention of seizing power someday from an Afghan Kerensky. During the Soviet war, he murdered rivals in refugee camps. After the war, he conspired with Pakistani intelligence and launched an ill-starred coup. Beneath the political leadership, and even beneath the five regional commanders of the Taliban, are scores of local commanders -- some eager to return home, some eager to gain more power after western forces are gone.
Finally, should the Taliban come to control the South and East after a withdrawal of western forces and despite widespread desertions, it would have to make a difficult political transformation. The Taliban would have to cease being an insurgency, which can keep support through assurances and limited services, to a government, which must provide far more. Failing that, it may itself face an insurgency.
A New and Perhaps Limited Conflict
The departure of western forces will not bring peace and unity. Rather it will bring about a new form of conflict, though not necessarily open war, between the Pashtun South and various peoples in the North -- a conflict with no clear adverse potential for American national security. The Pashtun South will be adamantly opposed by Northern Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara peoples led by veteran commanders who have wisely kept forces in being in the event of a resurgent Taliban. Behind the Northern forces stand India, Iran, and Russia who are loath to see the spread of Islamist militancy and who, in order to prevent this, will fight to the last Afghan.
Several things suggest that this new form of conflict will not erupt into full-scale civil war. First, war-weariness is pronounced among many Afghans and any enthusiasm felt by the Taliban will be weakened by desertions and the immediate prospect of more war. Second, the departure of US and NATO forces will facilitate a return of warfare governed by tribal custom, not by passion to free the country from foreign troops.
Westerners have seen tribal customs regarding war in practice, usually to their dismay. Northern Alliance forces parleyed with fighters at Tora Bora in late 2001 and allowed bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to escape into Pakistan; Afghan army units today are known to negotiate separate peaces with insurgent forces. Afghan soldiers approach war with less vision of glory found in many foreign forces. Indeed, mujahidin fighters were put off and even appalled by the intensity of that vision in foreign-born jihadists, who were unsettlingly eager to die in the great cause. Afghan fighters wanted to live, saw the jihadists as obstacles to that goal, and were reluctant to go into battle alongside fighters so reckless and foolhardy.
Making deals with an enemy makes no sense to western observers, especially in a country in which "unconditional surrender" is an abiding national myth and expectation. But dealing with enemies makes eminently good sense in a country divided along scores of tribal and ethnic lines in which consideration of survival must prevail over ideas of one group's total victory. Judicious restraint learned from hard experience triumphs over notions of glory and revenge and empire.