One More Thought on Unconventional Approaches to Dealing with al Qaeda: If the Afghans Kick Us Out, Let’s Hire the Haqqanis
What will Afghanistan look like if NATO totally withdraws after 2013 without a security agreement? It will probably look like China in the 1930s if Mao had not shown up. The major population areas will be controlled by the central government and its security forces. The largely non-Pashtun north-west will be dominated by warlords as it has been since the Soviets left, with the brief exception of Taliban rule. “Pashtunistan” in the south and east, particularly along the Durand Line which separates the Pashtu populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain an area contested with the Taliban. Minus NATO air and logistics support, the Afghan Army will be hard pressed to hold the territory it now controls, and expansion will be unlikely. Afghanistan will not collapse, but it will likely be unable to stop a return of heavy al Qaeda influence, and ridding Afghanistan of al Qaeda was what got us into Afghanistan to begin with.
It would be good if Karzai’s successors would agree to the proposed small scale NATO presence to continue to assist with the training and logistics of the Afghan security forces as well as to keep a counterterrorist capability in country to guard against a return of al Qaeda and its affiliates. I hope this happens, but hope is not a strategy, we need a back-up plan of what we will do if a Karzai surrogate refuses to sign a security agreement. Absent the threat of an al Qaeda return, many Americans would be glad to tell the Afghans to have a nice life and leave, and I think our president is among them. Unfortunately, the al Qaeda threat will not go away; we have our hands full worrying about it in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia already. The prospect of re-plowing old ground in Afghanistan is depressing at best.
In devising strategy, we always have to have branch plans to deal with what will happen if our primary plan doesn’t work or if the assumptions on which it was built prove invalid. Perhaps it is time to take a page from history. Having arbitrarily drawn the Durand line which now divides the Pashtun majority population of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the British deftly used power politics to control it. They did this by cynically hiring Pashtun tribes to keep the other tribes in line. If a client tribe decided that it could get a better deal elsewhere, say with the Russians, the British would simply hire and supply other tribes to take its place. The British Empire would occasional also mount a punitive expedition to reinforce its displeasure with a particularly recalcitrant group. Young Winston Churchill initially made his reputation in one of these punitive campaigns and eventually wrote a book about it.
At the present time, the most effective potential candidate to be an anti-al Qaeda client is the Haqqani Network. This is a for profit family-based criminal organization that we currently label as a terrorist organization; they see themselves as armed businessmen. In the past, they have fought on all sides of the various conflicts that have plagued Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion late in the last century, always on the side of the highest bidder; sometimes that has been us. At the present time, the network is working with the Taliban, and has proved to be its most effective military arm; they have reportedly been behind several high profile attacks in Kabul as well as the one that blew up a number of Marine Corps Harrier jump jets in a 2010 airfield raid. They are not good people, but neither is Karzai and his clique; however the Haqqani network can be very effective, and it is much more capable of controlling the Afghan-Pakistan border than the corrupt and largely incompetent Afghan Border Police. The Haqqanis are bad guys, but they are at least competent and their goals don’t include attacking the American or European homelands.
The Afghan government needs to know that we are not without other options to it as the primary barrier against a return of Al Qaeda. Right now Karzai thinks he holds all the cards because he believes that we have little choice to put up with his fecklessness. Undertaking serious negotiations on a potential agreement with the Haqqani network might be our best tool for bringing Karzai’s allies to their senses even if he is too far gone to see reason.
The problem in dealing with mercenaries is that you have to ensure that they stay bought, and side changing is a well-honed Afghan art as Churchill and the Brits well knew. The Haqqani Network won’t come cheap, and Al Qaeda’s Arab oil-rich backers have money as well, but the United States and its NATO allies will save billions if the Afghans government kicks us out. A Haqqani alliance might well prove to be a bargain.