THE major point of contention between the Afghan Taliban and International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) is the Taliban’s insistence that all foreign forces leave Afghanistan when the drawdown ends in 2014.
Behind this demand in fact lies their fear of airpower. The force they want out more than anything else is the 2,000 airmen. In Afghanistan whoever controls the air enjoys the upper hand.
The Soviets experienced this during the mid-1980s when they brought in helicopter gunships and began to decimate the mujahideen. Within a couple of years the CIA gave the mujahideen Stinger missiles which brought down the Soviet helicopter gunships and cleared the skies. The rest is history. As the Berlin wall came down, Afghanistan had already become some distant corner of the world. Forgotten and isolated, Najibullah’s regime with an army of 35,000 still managed to hang on to power for three years. By that record it would appear that the present Afghan government may stand a better chance of staying longer.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) today is over 200,000 strong; in fact never in its history has the country had a standing army of the size as it does today. And though not as cohesive and professional perhaps as the one in the days of the Soviet bloc, this army is better equipped.
As Australian Brigadier Roger Noble, director of operations and plans for Isaf told the Australian Associated Press in Kabul recently: “The Afghan army fights. Their soldiers are brave. They are better than the enemy in most cases.”
In addition the Afghan National Police, also trained by Isaf and the National Directorate of Security, which is the intelligence agency patterned on the US Department of Homeland Security, together provide a security infrastructure the like of which has previously not been seen in Afghanistan. So with this as the starting point, how will the civil war unfold?
In the very unlikely event that the two sides arrive at a truce it will not hold out for long. In fact there are not two sides but when you include the likes of regional warlords Dostum, Ismail Khan, Yunus Qanuni, Fahim et al there are several sides each having contributed thousands of soldiers to the ANA. The remaining 40 per cent of the ANA is made up of Pakhtuns.
Kabul may not face a direct onslaught as it did in Najibullah’s time. Formidable airpower will remain in the Bagram airbase and other places like Kandahar, Shindand and Mazar-i-Sharif.
Attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft will keep the estimated 25,000 Afghan Taliban from descending on Kabul. The aircraft and surveillance drones will also keep vigil on Pakistani jihadi groups that breach the Durand Line from approaching Kabul from the south or the east.
Kabul residents however remain sceptical of the Afghan security forces’ ability to stave off the threat. This is an asymmetric war after all and numbers don’t matter because the Taliban don’t stand and fight. They attack, and then melt away. At other times they hit with vehicle bombs or roadside improvised explosive devices.
The overarching question really is how quickly the ANA will begin to dissolve. Isaf knows this and to slow down the ANA’s inevitable dissolution is also leaving behind 10,000 or so trainers and soldiers that will constitute what are termed ‘embedded units’ inside ANA detachments. Their job is to boost the ANA units’ confidence and capacity to operate independently and to build their morale.
Usually within 12 minutes of Isaf ground patrols coming into contact with the enemy, airpower scrambles to the scene to assist. It is likely that Isaf will continue with this standard when the ANA takes over its functions. The ANA would need to be enabled to coordinate and request an air strike. That role is to be played by the embedded personnel.
Not surprisingly, the Taliban also want them to leave. The Taliban strategy will be to try to crumble morale and accelerate the rate of defections in the ANA. The Taliban will also endeavour to infiltrate the force with a view to increasing “green on blue attacks” on the embedded personnel, which have a devastating effect.
And as long as Nato airpower dominates the Afghan skies the Afghan Taliban and other renegades will seek sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. And as long as there continue to be sanctuaries in Pakistan, the drones will come after them. Likewise, as long as the civil war goes on in Afghanistan, Pakistani jihadis will find sanctuary in the lawless Pakhtun badlands on the other side of the Durand Line.
Given the mutual interest in each others’ territories there is a greater chance that likeminded groups on either side will coalesce.
To pick a line from Mao’s Little Red Book, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”; then in these badlands, money comes as an adjunct to political power. As a natural consequence activities including smuggling, drug trade, kidnapping for ransom and criminal syndicates extending to plunder the relatively more prosperous and settled side of the Indus River will intensify.
The other power centre in the region, the Pakistani military, will at best be able to loosely regulate these warlords and every now and then chase away militant groups to the other side of the river and at other times across the Durand Line.
In an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion and the likely lack of collaboration among the three parties, a beleaguered Pakistani state, the nominal government in Kabul and the US forces holed up inside Bagram, the eventual collapse of the Afghan National Army and remaining security infrastructure is inevitable.
Vast swathes of a fragmenting countryside would fall to powerful warlords as the entire region reverts to its default historical setting: the western periphery of the Indian subcontinent, between the Oxus and the Indus that Babar would have encountered when he first arrived in this region at the beginning of the 16th century.
The writer is an international business strategist and entrepreneur