The Afghanistan Surge: How Will the Taliban Respond?

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AFP / Getty

Fighters with the Taliban stand on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, Afghanistan

President Obama has ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and NATO is chipping in with an additional 7,000. That's good news for General Stanley McChrystal, who has warned the President that the war is being lost. But the decision to send reinforcements is unlikely to spell defeat for the Taliban and their al-Qaeda cohort.

New U.S. combat brigades may be able to secure the scorching southern deserts around Kandahar and Helmand province, and maybe even a swath of territory along the eastern border with Pakistan, but that won't stop the Taliban from popping up elsewhere. The insurgents have already made inroads into the Northern mountains and in the far West. The border with Pakistan is 1,600 miles long, traversing craggy ranges and deserts so hot that only scorpions and the Taliban can thrive there. You could post 30,000 troops, even twice that number, in the middle of these badlands, and the Taliban would still get across.

At best, the U.S. and its NATO allies can hope that by hitting the Taliban with renewed ferocity, they can create a space in which the feeble Afghan army and police forces can be trained to stand up to the insurgents. Once that happens, say optimists, aid development can finally begin to enrich the lives of the ordinary Afghans and not just the foreign contractors and warlords. Even that is a huge gamble: the administration of President Hamid Karzai has proved itself corrupt and petulant, and without security, there is nothing to stop the Taliban from burning down more girls' schools or destroying the bridges that aid donors are trying to erect. And Obama's vow to start withdrawing troops in 18 months will reinforce what the Taliban already knew — that the U.S. won't stay forever — which puts time on the side of the insurgency and allows it to simply disperse when faced with overwhelming firepower and re-emerge later.

But the thinking in London and Washington is that a punishing assault against the Taliban might persuade some of the movement's commanders — those not tied to al-Qaeda — to negotiate with Kabul. Also, the Taliban are an unruly bunch, led by regional commanders who do not always take orders from their Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Omar. Kabul officials say that with the proper approach, some senior Taliban could be coaxed into a truce.

But that means starting from scratch. For the past eight years of war, says one Western diplomat, efforts by both the NATO forces and Karzai's government to bring Taliban fighters into the fold have been "laughable." The U.S. and Karzai were often at loggerheads on the issue: the Afghan President wanted amnesty extended to all Taliban members, from Omar down to the lowliest turbaned jihadi, while the Americans want to win over only the lower and mid-ranking Taliban.

A Western official closely connected to efforts to reach out to the Taliban blamed the failure squarely on President Karzai. In Kandahar and Helmand, which are now major Taliban strongholds, the official says, Karzai personally appointed many "violent and predatory" district officials and police chiefs from his own extended tribe. "When the police started robbing and pillaging," the official continues, "the villagers had no choice but to turn to the local [Taliban] commanders for protection."

Any deal with the Taliban would have to involve a radical change of Pakistani attitudes. Today, some Pakistani officials make no secret that they consider the Taliban a strategic asset in Afghanistan, even though the U.S. has since 9/11 pumped more than $7 billion in military aid into Pakistan for use against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Former President Pervez Musharraf recently admitted publicly that a large chunk of that military aid was used to bolster defenses against neighboring India, which the Pakistani military views as a far greater threat than the rise of Islamic militancy in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistanis distrust Karzai, thinking him too pro-India, and they believe that when the West loses interest and exits from Afghanistan, restoring a second Taliban government in Kabul will best suit Pakistan's interests.

Pressuring Pakistan to stop aiding the Taliban would get easier if Islamabad were to stop distinguishing between those Taliban who fight the Pakistani state and those who confine their hostilities to Afghanistan. The current battle between Pakistan's army and local Taliban militants in the border area of South Waziristan has certainly slowed the number of Pakistani volunteers infiltrating Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. The Pakistani military continues to pursue a twin-track policy of trying to crush the Pashtun tribes allied with the Pakistani Taliban while making nonaggression pacts with those fighting NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. But that relationship is fraying, because members of the Afghan Taliban are now accusing the Pakistani military of complicity in the missile attacks by U.S. aircraft on their hideouts inside Pakistani tribal territory. More likely, the Pakistani military is powerless to stop the drone attacks that, according to CIA leaks to the press, are bound to intensify and could break the effective truce between the Pakistani military and Afghan Taliban groups.

So far, Omar has stayed on the sidelines of Islamabad's battle against the homegrown Pakistani Taliban. He doesn't want to lose covert support from the Pakistani military and the spymasters of the Inter-Services Intelligence, nor jeopardize the unmolested presence of his leadership core in the city of Quetta.

For Obama's troop surge to succeed, Pakistan would have to sever ties with the Afghan Taliban or else press key Taliban commanders into peace talks with Kabul. As much as Pakistan would like to see a different government with more Taliban influence in Kabul, its generals will recognize that simply restoring the movement to power would unleash another round of civil war in Afghanistan — Pashtuns vs. everyone else — that would do little to stabilize Pakistan's domestic turmoil. So the best-case outcome of Obama's surge may be that it would force the Taliban, and their Pakistani backers, to accept some form of compromise.