Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: The Next Afghan War

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 2:58pm

In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss the odds of the Afghan conflict mutating again, this time into an old-fashioned war between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Rather than winding down with the planned departure of NATO troops by 2014, the war in Afghanistan may just be undergoing a metamorphosis, as has happened many times since strife began there in the late 1960s. A slowly escalating old-fashioned war between Afghanistan and Pakistan may soon emerge, joining the internal insurgencies both of those governments are attempting to smother and pitting one state against the other. Cross-border sanctuaries and Islamabad's covert support to the Taliban are well-known features of the current violence. But as the Western military presence inside Afghanistan draws down, the trends leading to direct military escalation between Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to continue.

The Afghan government will face an increasingly difficult security situation after 2014 and will need a new strategy if it is to survive. The number one security problem from Kabul's perspective is the continued presence of Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan, and the support the Afghan Taliban continues to receive from Pakistan's intelligence service. For a decade, U.S. and Afghan officials have pleaded with the Pakistani government to halt this support, to no avail. For Islamabad, groups like the Haqqani Network -- which specializes in periodic raids in downtown Kabul -- are proxy forces that Pakistan can use to keep Afghanistan weak and pliant.

After 2014, the Afghan army and police will bear nearly the full burden fending off the Haqqanis and other cross-border Taliban forces. Afghan military leaders are likely to conclude that they cannot reach a stable end-state by only parrying the Taliban's attacks. The only hope of ending the war on favorable terms is through offensive action against the Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan or action that inflicts pain on the leadership in Islamabad. If Kabul hopes to negotiate a settlement with Islamabad and the Taliban, it will have to acquire some leverage first. And that will come only after it has demonstrated a capacity to threaten the Taliban's sanctuaries and other assets inside Pakistan.

Initial trials of such incursions may have begun. Last week, the Pakistani government accused the Afghan National Army of a cross-border raid into the Upper Kurram District. Two Pakistani tribesmen were killed during a 90-minute gun battle. Although this particular incident may be more a case of hot pursuit rather than a deliberate attack, it also shows the Afghan army's willingness to step up its aggressiveness.

The Afghan government may also find it useful to employ the same tactics that Islamabad is using against Afghanistan. Pakistan has its own problem with Taliban insurgents, with these rebels using the Afghan side of the border as a sanctuary from Pakistani security forces. Indeed, in June, a Pakistani Taliban raiding party crossed from its Afghan sanctuary into Pakistan, captured 18 Pakistani soldiers, and videotaped the severed heads of 17 of these prisoners. Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani subsequently complained to U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition commander, and urged him to take action to control the Taliban sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.

It seems doubtful that the Pakistani Taliban finding haven in Afghanistan are agents of Afghanistan's intelligence service. But the Afghan government has likely concluded that it needs to obtain leverage over Pakistan if it is to obtain a satisfactory settlement to the war. If the Pakistani Taliban lurking in Afghanistan are a potential source of that leverage, it might be only a matter of time before Kabul makes contact with the Pakistani rebels.

Kayani probably realizes that there is as little chance of him getting a positive response from Allen and Karzai as there is of Pakistan doing anything meaningful about the Taliban problem that runs from east to west. That would explain why the Pakistani Army is taking matters into its own hands the old-fashioned way. Beginning in March, it fired a series of cross-border rocket barrages targeted at suspected Pakistani Taliban base camps in Afghanistan's Kunar province, resulting in the deaths of four civilians.

The Haqqani attacks in Kabul and against U.S. targets in eastern Afghanistan have compelled U.S. officials to consider cross-border special operations raids against Haqqani camps inside Pakistan. Given the military hardware currently in place, the intelligence on the Haqqanis the United States has developed, and the experience its special operations raiders have accumulated, U.S. forces are unlikely to ever get a better opportunity to hit the Haqqani Network and thereby create some incentives for a settlement. But the White House currently has a higher priority, namely disengaging from the conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's apology to Pakistan for a cross-border "friendly fire" incident last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has reopened the supply lines from Afghanistan to the port at Karachi, which the United States will need to extract its mountain of equipment by the end of 2014. The requirements of an orderly withdrawal trumped the risks of widening the war and further angering Islamabad.

Although the United States can withdraw from Afghanistan, the Afghans, at least the vast majority of them, cannot. They are stuck with the Haqqanis, Pakistan's intelligence service, and Islamabad's long-term interest in a weak Afghanistan. The only path to a reasonable settlement lies through offensive action inside Pakistan. Afghans will have to be willing to go where the U.S. military (drones excepted) have feared to tread.

Until the Afghan military can develop greater offensive punch, it will have to turn to proxy forces such as the Pakistani Taliban as tools to gain leverage over Islamabad. Should such proxies fail, Kabul will have to turn to an outside power to support its development of helicopter mobility and artillery and air support, essential elements of a capability to directly attack the sanctuaries and other objectives inside Pakistan.

When he signed the strategic partnership agreement pledging support to Afghanistan through 2024, it is unlikely that President Barack Obama had such a war in mind. But once Kabul becomes solely responsible for Afghanistan's security, it will undoubtedly turn to the United States first to help it develop the offensive capability it believes it will need. Should Washington demur, Kabul will call New Delhi, which could be eager to help.

After 2014, Pakistan should see the wisdom in wrapping up the remainder of al Qaeda and settling the conflict with Afghanistan. NATO's withdrawal will actually reduce Islamabad's leverage and expose it to more forms of pressure. Continuing the conflict will only encourage outside intervention.

If Islamabad decides to fight on after 2014, we should expect to see a messy, multi-level conflict much like the 18th century French and Indian War. That war featured insurgencies, proxy armies, old-fashioned nation-state war, and great power intervention from the far side of the world. A similarly complicated scenario may be headed for the Durand Line. The Afghan war may be about to mutate again -- policymakers should get ready for the change.



A timely article considering the announcement of $16b in funding for the Afghan government following the Tokyo Conference. How much of that funding will go into making Kabul an even bigger centre of bureaucracy and administration while the population outside the main centres begin to experience the next phase of this protracted conflicted.

But the security risk will not only be from potential AFPAK difficulties. There is now an even stronger web that has been woven between a plethora of local quasi-Taliban, criminals and warlords (many INGO projects sub-contracted to local NGOs pay heavy taxes to these shadow alliances). This is a precarious mix of thieves that will remain to eat away at many of the gains made in the districts.

As the FOBs begin to be dismantled in Provinces this will be the time to test the ANSFs with fewer US and Coalition assets to rely on - Taliban or criminal boss will know exactly where the ANSF are weakest. In the end the population will need to decide which local Saprano it needs to support or hide from in order to survive.

There is also the challenge for our domestic political leaders who may apply strict rules of 'outside-the-wire' activity since it may be seen to be pointless to loose precious lives being so close to an exit.

While so much has been written about Afghanistan from a COIN perspective it would be good to see more on the post-2014 strategy, if there is one.



Sun, 07/08/2012 - 4:29pm

A very interesting and timely article that raises two questions.

The first is how much of a difference the closure of sanctuaries on each side of the border would make to the insurgencies in both countries. The sanctuaries in Pakistan used by the Afghan Taliban are a problem mainly because the latter use them as a way-station by which they replace all of their battlefield losses each year with new recruits drawn from Afghanistan. The sanctuaries are part of a loop that begins and ends in Afghanistan, and I believe that most of the Afghan Taliban today could continue for a time without it, ie. most operate in Afghanistan without having to be close to the border. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) have mobilized with no cross-border support. I think one could argue that havens in the former Northwest Frontier Province constitute a kind of refuge but they are unquestionably a domestic rather than international problem for Islamabad.

Still, sanctuaries (or quasi-sanctuaries) on both sides provide base areas for insurgencies that might be easier to limit if the governments in Kabul and Islamabad could reach a diplomatic agreement not to provide refuge to each other's enemies. For this to happen, what would need to be clear to Pakistan is that the regime in Kabul has staying power.

The other question is whether Kabul could survive with Indian backing in the event that our support is insufficient after 2014. Pakistan could view this prospect with alarm and have additional reason to reach a settlement. But I wonder how far India would or could go in its support for Karzai. Two alternatives look plausible to me:

- One would be for Pakistan to push for a quick takeover of Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban once we are gone. India did not regard the first Taliban takeover as a cassus belli and might not even provide logistical support for the Karzai regime if the Afghan army disintegrates quickly enough. The question here is whether the Quetta Taliban and the Haqqanis would have the strength to impose themselves outside the Pashtun region with Pakistan's support.

- The other prospect would be a breakdown of Afghanistan into ethnic regions. This could vitiate any border agreement and strengthen centrifugal forces in Pakistan. If insurgency in Pakistan worsens, Islamabad could see India as the beneficiary and tensions between the two south Asian powers could sharpen.

In any case, I think you have identified a critical point: what looks like a de-escalation for us will be an escalation of danger for the countries and factions in the area after 2014. We will need to be ready not just to witness a complicated struggle at a lower level but also, I would add, possibly a rise in tension between the two regional great powers.

David P. Billington, Jr.