Seven Years Of Op Enduring Freedom: No Light Yet

(October 12, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) A bleeding stalemate on the ground in Afghanistan, a bleeding Pakistan tottering towards a possible collapse of the State and a total policy confusion in the corridors of power in Washington DC and other NATO capitals.

That has been the outcome of seven years of Operation Enduring Freedom, which was launched by the US on October 7,2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strikes by Al Qaeda in the US.

In Afghanistan, the US and the other NATO forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA) control Kabul, the Capital, and other major towns and the Neo Taliban, resurrected from the pre-10/7 Taliban , controls the rural areas. Neither is in a position to dislodge the other from the areas controlled by it, but each is able to inflict bloody casualties on the other--- the US and other NATO forces through the use of heavy artillery and air strikes and the Taliban through weapons of Pakistani origin and through the inexhaustible flow of suicide terrorists.

In Pakistan, a Pakistan-version of the Taliban called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has arisen post-2002 and has been operating in tandem with the remnants of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are now reported to be based in the North Waziristan area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is a coalition of jihadis, which has been operating in the FATA and in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)---- Afghan Pashtuns, Pakistani Pashtuns and Punjabis, Uzbeks of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), Chechens of the 1980s vintage who had deserted from the Soviet Army, Uighurs of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in the Xinjiang province of China and Muslims of different ethnicities from the Muslim immigrant diaspora in the West----jihadis of Pakistani origin from the UK, Spain and Denmark, Turks and Uighurs from Germany and some others.

The post-2002 Pakistani version of the Taliban has proved to be even more deadly than its Afghan counterpart. The Pakistani Taliban carried out 56 attacks of suicide terrorism in the tribal and non tribal areas in 2007 and it has already carried out 40 so far this year. The number is just one-third of what the Afghan Taliban has carried out, but strategically more significant and deadly----- attacking carefully chosen military and intelligence targets in heavily-protected cities and cantonments----even in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army are located.

In the "News" of October 10, 2008, Dr Muzaffar Iqbal, a Pakistani analyst, wrote: "With an average of three suicide attacks per week in which at least thirty persons die, there will be 1,560 dead Pakistanis within a year. Add to this approximately 15 "extremists" being killed daily in the northern region, and we have a total of 7,035 dead. Further: for every hamlet, village, and hideout bombed, and with every "extremist" killed, we have an average of ten families displaced. So within a year, northern Pakistan will be a huge graveyard and there will be several thousand internally displaced persons living in makeshift camps in the rest of the country. In addition, there will be thousands of emotionally and mentally unstable persons available to anyone who can convince them that life is not worth living anymore, so come on and die for this or that cause. The net result will be an escalation of violence in all parts of the country and the spiral of violence and death reaching all corners of the country. How did we get here? "

A more difficult question engaging the attention of military commanders and policy-makers of the NATO countries is---- is a mid-course correction necessary and how to carry it out? Senior military officers of the NATO have started telling their policy-makers that the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Better make a deal with the Taliban to bring the war to an honourable end where there will be neither winners nor losers. However, they are not yet saying that the war against the Taliban in Pakistan is unwinnable. They think that if the Pakistan Army steadily maintains its present offensive in the tribal belt with discreet air support from US Drones (pilotless planes), the TTP can still be defeated.

It is a policy nightmare. What one has been seeing in the Pashtun tribal belt on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border is three wars in one---- against the Afghan Neo Taliban, against the Pakistani Taliban and against Al Qaeda. The war against the Afghan Taliban is not vital for the security of the West and for preventing new terrorist strikes in the West. No Afghan Pashtun has ever travelled outside his country to indulge in an act of terrorism in foreign territory. The Afghan Pashtuns, who never indulged in suicide terrorism in the past, look upon their present fight against the US and other NATO forces and their wave of suicide terrorism as part of their resistance struggle against the occupation of their country by foreign forces. They are just not interested in another 9/11 in the US homeland or another Madrid or London or Bali or Mumbai.
The war against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban is vital for the security of the rest of the world, including the US, other NATO countries, India, China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics. The tribals, whom the Pakistani Army used in Jammu & Kashmir in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999, were brought from the FATA. Many of the jihadis, who had indulged in acts of terrorism in different parts of the world after 2001, were trained in the training camps of Al Qaeda and its allies in the FATA. If the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda are not defeated, the world will have to live constantly under the fear of another 9/11 or another Madrid or London or Bali or Mumbai.

Is it possible to reach a separate peace with the Afghan Taliban, while continuing the war against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban? The US is in the forefront of the war against the Afghan Taliban. It can take a decision, whether to continue fighting or whether to reach a peace and, if so, under what terms.The outcome of the war against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban depends more on the sincerity and willingness of the Pakistani security forces to fight the war to the finish, with US assistance. It is the Pakistan Army, which has to be in the forefront of this war. It has been fighting sporadically and with varying spells of intensity, but the determination to win the war is not there.

Just as US officers have come to the conclusion that the war against the Afghan Taliban is unwinnable and hence calls for a mix of the military and political approaches, the Pakistani officers too are coming to the conclusion that the war against the TTP is unwinnable on the ground and hence a different approach is called for in order to protect their population and security forces from the wave of suicide terrorism.
Is it possible to make peace with the Taliban on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border without weakening the war against the FATA-based Al Qaeda? With whome to negotiate? On the Afghan side, there are two vintages of the Taliban---the pre 10/7 vintage, which consists essentially of the political advisers of Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir, before 10/7 and the post-2002 vintage which consists of the remnants of the pre-10/7 commanders such as Jalalludin Haqqani and his son Serjuddin and the new commanders who have come to the fore in the recent fighting. The recent interactions between the representatives of the Government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban under the auspices of the King of Saudi Arabia in Saudi Arabia during September were essentially with the Taliban of the pre-10/7 vintage.

Among those who reportedly attended the dinner were Mullah Muhammad Ghaus, a former Foreign Minister under the Taliban Government, Abdel Hakim Mujahed, former unofficial Taliban representative in the United Nations, Abdul Salaam Hashimi, former director of finance of the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar, Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Deputy Minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, another former Foreign Minister, and Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaif, former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan. The influence of these leaders on Mulla Omar was limited even before 10/7. Before 10/7, the Saudi Intelligence had repeatedly tried through them to persuade Mulla Omar to hand over bin Laden to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid an American military strike. They could not succeed. Some of them were either captured by the Americans or surrendered to them after the war began and were in US custody for some months before they were released. They are, therefore, viewed with suspicion by the Taliban commanders.
Moreover, the US and other NATO forces may want a political face-saving because they are not doing well in the fighting, but why should the Taliban Commanders want one when they think they are winning? The same is the situation on the Pakistan side of the border. The TTP thinks it is doing well against the Pakistani security forces. Why should it agree to a compromise without achieving its objective?

Gen . David Petraeus, who was till recently the Commander of the US forces in Iraq, is shortly taking over as the Commander of the US Central Command. In that capacity, he will be responsible for the strategy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In Iraq, he successfully drove a wedge between the secular Iraqi resistance fighters and the Wahabised Arab terrorists of Al Qaeda. There is a talk that he might try a similar approach in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region by driving a wedge between the Taliban on both sides of the border and the Al Qaeda remnants. He succeeded in Iraq because the former Baathists of Saddam Hussein's Army, who constituted the resistance fighters, were secular and did not like the Wahabised Al Qaeda. But, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Wahabism provides the binding ties which strongly unite the Talibans with Al Qaeda. They all feel that the future of Islam is going to be decided in the fight against the US-led NATO forces. They have two common objectives--- the defeat and withdrawal of the NATO forces and the proclamation of an Islamic sharia-based rule in the entire region. So long as these objectives unite them, the Talibans are unlikely to agree to separate peace with the NATO forces. Media reports of a split between the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda have not been substantiated.

Unless and until the US is able to hunt down and kill at least bin Laden, Zawahiri and Mulla Omar, there is unlikely to be a change in the ground situation. Instead of nursing illusions of engineering a split between Al Qaeda and the Taliban and negotiating a separate peace with the Taliban, the US should focus on eliminating the Al Qaeda leadership. That was the main objective of Op Enduring Freedom and that should continue to be its main objective. (11-10-08)
( The writer B. Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )
- Sri Lanka Guardian