War without end in Afghanistan

By J.P. Morris

It is hard now to ignore the list of successes in Iraq.  Combat deaths last month were 86% lower than in May 2007, and General Petraeus has indicated that it is safe enough to begin withdrawing some troops from Iraq in the near future.  The Iraqi government’s forces are also improving, and now control the vital city of Basra despite hard resistance from Shiite militias.  Although the situation in Iraq is improving, we must not forget that there is still a war in Afghanistan.  Allied forces easily routed Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan by 2002, but did not follow the enemy across the Pakistani frontier.  At the time, it was assumed that Pakistani forces would trap the Taliban and al Qaeda and assist in finishing them off.  They failed to do so.  Today, the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies are firmly entrenched in the wild frontier provinces in Pakistan, and are still sending men into Afghanistan to fight a guerilla war.  Although the U.S. has inflicted heavy losses on the resurgent Taliban, the enemy is still able to carry out effective resistance.  If our current Afghan strategy continues, then we can expect the war to continue indefinitely.

The Taliban insurgency meets many of the criteria for a successful guerilla war.  The Taliban and Al Qaeda enjoy secure sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they recruit, rearm, and rest.  The Taliban began among the Afghan refugee communities in Pakistan, and were in a sense returning home after being driven from Afghanistan.  Most successful guerilla movements are based in sanctuaries where their larger, more powerful opponents cannot, or will not go.  During the Vietnam War, NVA and Viet Cong forces famously used the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia to attack the South, while U.S. forces were usually prohibited from chasing them back across the border. 

The Taliban also clearly has a large popular base to recruit from in Pakistan.  Madrassahs have always been a reliable source of idealistic recruits, and thousands of them are still operating in Pakistani provinces like Waziristan.  In these radical Islamic schools, young men are instilled with the ideology to willingly sacrifice their lives fighting in Afghanistan.  Indeed, the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s message is so powerful that they have no trouble finding thousands of recruits ready to die in hopeless combat with the U.S.  The fact that so many insurgents have been killed without being decisively defeated demonstrates the inherent resilience of radical Islamist ideology.  Much like Communism in the twentieth century, radical Islam has an appeal to the downtrodden, and demands that its followers be prepared to give their lives for the cause.  Radical Islamism will be the most dangerous ideology of the twenty-first century, just as Communism and Nazism ravaged the twentieth.

Mao Zedong, widely regarded as the foremost authority of guerilla warfare, considered political will as the key to victory for insurgents.  So long as the rebels had the will to fight, their revolution would continue.  History is full of guerilla movements that have the strength to last for years–even decades, from the IRA in Northern Ireland and Spanish guerillas in the Peninsular War, to the Shining Path and Khmer Rouge of the Cold War.  Vietnam fought guerilla campaigns almost continuously for more than thirty years in the twentieth century.  The Taliban insurgency follows the same model of these past wars, combining a popular message with secure staging areas.  The Taliban are also able to fund their war with opium, a product that will always be in demand.  So long as the Taliban enjoys secure bases, popular support, and possesses an appealing message, there is no reason to assume that the war will end. 

Although casualties among American and allied troops in Afghanistan have been relatively light compared to Iraq, our European allies have shown increasing reluctance to reinforce their troops in Afghanistan or even to engage in combat.  This demonstrates a serious deficiency in the will to fight.  Since the U.S. is prohibited by the Pakistani government from pursuing the Taliban into their country, Pakistan should bear the responsibility of crushing the Taliban bases, but instead has shown little eagerness to fight.  The Pakistani military, which is of dubious quality, has been unable to make much headway against the militants in its frontier provinces, and has shown itself to be more interested in negotiating ceasefires than in renewed offensives.  Again, the Taliban demonstrates a superior will to fight compared to a supposedly stronger opponent.

Pakistan helped to create the Taliban in the early 1990s, and is now reaping the whirlwind for bankrolling radical Islam.  Terrorist bombings, gun battles, and assassinations are becoming commonplace in Pakistan.  The increasing unrest in the country led to Pervez Musharraf declaring a state of emergency in late 2007.  Benazir Bhutto’s assassination shortly thereafter illustrated just how powerful terrorists in Pakistan have become.  So long as Pakistan allows a foreign terrorist rebellion to exist within its borders, it is exposing itself to further chaos.  Some commentators warn that Pakistan could collapse into an Islamic revolution if nothing is done.  The prospect of terrorists obtaining Pakistan’s nuclear weapons should be a wakeup call to the world.  Al Qaeda, the constant ally of the Taliban, has its own training camps now in the Pakistani frontier region, and Osama bin Laden is assumed to be in hiding there.  It should not be forgotten that the 9/11 attacks were conceived in the same kind of camps in Afghanistan.

Although the Taliban stands no chance against the U.S. military, it does not need to win actual victories to continue.  A guerilla army merely needs to keep enough forces in the field to harass its enemies in order to keep going.  The Taliban demonstrated that it can attack anywhere at any time when they nearly killed Afghan president Hamid Karzai on April 27th at a military parade.  Had he been killed, the future of Afghanistan would be very much in doubt.

The Taliban has shown an extraordinary resilience after years of fighting.  While it cannot defeat us, it could conceivably outlast us.  It has already demonstrated a greater will to fight than our allies.  The United States must redouble its counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, and Pakistan must decisively confront the militants in its own country.  To ignore the threat posed by radical Islam on the frontiers is to jeopardize the whole Pakistani nation.  If the U.S. is serious about winning the War on Terrorism, it must subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan and cooperate with Pakistan in hunting down Al Qaeda.  Although the enemy has a strong ideology, there is no reason why they cannot be defeated.  The next president will have to decide whether he is willing to take the necessary measures to decisively defeat terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan once and for all.

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