There is a reason why we are still struggling in Afghanistan. We are fighting the wrong war, using the wrong strategy, under conditions that make it virtually impossible to win.
After the overthrow of the Taliban, the U.S. and NATO set up a government in Afghanistan, which Pakistan and Iran do not like. So, they exploit a level of internal discontent by supporting armed proxies to overthrow that government in Afghanistan in order to replace it with one more amenable to their national interests.
As the Taliban have demonstrated for over a decade, it is easier and more cost-effective to destabilize than to conduct counterinsurgency, that is, to engage in stability operations and nation building.
Just who are the Taliban?
Strip away the religious veneer and you have a criminal gang, hired thugs who extort villagers at gunpoint, perform “drive-bys” with IEDs, traffic in drugs, engage in turf wars and kill cops. They are the MS-13 of South Asia.
Even if you define the conflict in Afghanistan as an insurgency, we don’t control the operational tempo or the supply of our troops. And Pakistan and Iran will always do just enough to prevent the U.S. and NATO from ever reaching the point of ensuring a stable and secure Afghanistan on our terms.
It should enlighten even the dumbest of Washington DC policymaker to learn that, former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, our “partner” in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan from 2001-2008 recently said that he is the biggest supporter of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani Islamic terrorist group reportedly responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attack in India, which killed 164 people and wounding over 308.
Given the strategic conditions in Afghanistan, we will always be on the defensive and never gain the military initiative, a vital factor in military success and the pathway to a favorable outcome.
What then, should be done? Well, if you can’t beat a proxy war, join it.
First, from a military standpoint, the U.S. was most effective in the first months of the Afghanistan campaign when a few hundred CIA agents and special operations forces hired some Afghans and bombed the Taliban out of power. The shift to counterinsurgency strategy actually placed U.S. forces at roughly the same tactical and technology level as the Taliban, playing to their strengths not ours.
Second, from a political standpoint, if Pakistan and Iran were not fighting us, they would be fighting each other or amongst themselves. Their two most exploitable vulnerabilities are ethnic separatism and the Sunni-Shia religious divide.
Pakistan, the Yugoslavia of South Asia, is an artificial state composed of ethnic groups that never interacted in any significant way. Pakistan’s “Islamization” program, begun by President Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), which involved the proliferation of Islamic schools “madrasas” and the promotion of Islamic law “Sharia,” was specifically designed to create national unity by suppressing ethnic separatism and religious diversity. This is particularly the case for traditionally secular and tolerant Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province, where an independence movement has existed since the formation of Pakistan 1947, when Balochistan was forcibly incorporated by an invasion of the Pakistani Army. The stability of Balochistan is critically important to the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a project vital to Pakistan and China and an obvious potential pain point.
Likewise, Iran is sandwiched between two restive ethnic groups, the Kurds in the northwest and the Baloch in the southeast.
In addition, the 1979 Iranian revolution increased the momentum of Pakistan’s Sunni “Islamization” policy resulting in the proliferation of ever-more extreme and intolerant forms of Sunni supremacism. They include the virulently anti-Shia groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundallah and its splinter faction Jaish al-Adl, the latter two reportedly responsible for cross-border attacks on Iran from Pakistan’s western province of Balochistan. It is interesting to note that Jaish-al-Adl claimed that a Kurdish visitor was abducted together with two of its members and turned over to the Iranians, all of whom are now in Zahedan Prison, waiting to be hanged by Iran.
Our current strategy in Afghanistan is a bridge to nowhere. It is time to regain the initiation by exploiting the weaknesses of the enemy rather than exposing our own.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.