Taliban gaining new grounds, experts warn

Updated 22 Jan 2014


“Today, I am afraid conditions on the ground are worsening everyday” a senior diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News. — File Photo
“Today, I am afraid conditions on the ground are worsening everyday” a senior diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News. — File Photo

WASHINGTON: A sudden increase in terrorist attacks in the Pak-Afghan region has raised fears that the United States may be leaving Afghanistan too vulnerable, says a report on a US television channel.

In a commentary on the Monday morning terrorist attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army, CBS noted that more than 50 people have been killed in three high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan this week, 13 in Rawalpindi, 22 in Bannu and 21 in Kabul.

The attacks demonstrate that the region “remains under the threat of the Taliban making considerable new advances,” CBS observed.

“Today, I am afraid conditions on the ground are worsening everyday” a senior diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News.

“His assessment echoed concerns from other western officials who (believe) that the Taliban may be positioning to take control of parts of Afghanistan as the US prepares to leave,” the news channel reported.

After the attack on the army headquarters, Pakistan’s ability to negotiate with the Taliban was also “shrinking rapidly as the level of bloodshed increases,” the report added.

The channel observed that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly sought to begin fresh peace talks with the Taliban in order to end the conflict, but the militants had shown little interest in joining such talks.

“If the number of attacks and the number of casualties keep on growing, then I think there is little point for the government to continue seeking peace talks,” a senior Pakistani security official told CBS.

Jon P Dorschner, who teaches South Asian studies at the University of Arizona, wrote in the “American Diplomacy” journal that the Indians too feared that Afghanistan could slide into civil war after the US withdrawal in 2014 and were ready to resume support to its former partner, the Northern Alliance, in a conflict with a resurgent Taliban.

India, he said, had also started negotiations with Tajikistan to reopen the same Farkhor Airbase that it used to support Northern Alliance forces prior to 2001.

“Should Pakistan decide to place its surrogates in power in Afghanistan after the departure of Western military forces, it will represent a serious miscalculation,” Prof Dorschner warned.

The Indian media quoted Barnett Rubin, who has served as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Af-Pak, that the Chinese too had told Pakistan they did not want a Taliban government in Kabul.

"That will not accomplish all that is wanted but will certainly check Pakistan's behaviour," he said. "It is not like 1989 (when the Soviet troops withdrew)," he stressed.

The most quoted article on this subject, however, is that of Bruce Riedel who, in 2009, made the Obama administration’s first policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr Riedel warned that the Taliban and al Qaeda can stage a comeback in both Afghanistan and Pakistan after the US withdrawal by the end of this year.

He claimed that “Pakistan will continue to be the principal supporter and patron of the Afghan Taliban.”

Mr Riedel also warned once American forces were gone from Afghanistan the drone war will be more difficult to prosecute, even if the US signed a security deal with Kabul.

Drones launched from a distant ship, he warned, could fail like the Iranian hostage rescue mission failed in 1980.

“Once American pressure on al Qaeda in Pakistan subsides, we should expect its regeneration will be fast given the huge jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan and the ISI’s incompetence and/or collusion with the jihadists,” he wrote. “Al Qaeda’s Pakistani allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan Taliban and others will gladly help al-Qaeda recover, especially when the danger of a drone strike is much reduced.”

The present Pakistani government, he said, would be even less vigorous in fighting al Qaeda than the previous government, allowing the terrorist outfit to “recover in months, not years” after the US pullout.

Mr Riedel also warned that “if the Afghan army cannot handle the Taliban now with important but limited American help, it never will be able to do so.”

He argued that over the longer term, “a more realistic and tough policy” toward Pakistan would be to “engage the government and the army seriously but with much reduced expectations.”

The United States, he said, should help those Pakistanis who are ready to fight extremism but should not expect miracles.

“We will need to protect our own interests there with or without their help. Only that will prevent another al-Qaeda renaissance in the most dangerous country in the world, Pakistan,” he concluded.