Why Do the Afghans Need Our Help?

Matt Yglesias writes over at Think Progress:

The other thing I wonder about is these incredibly long time horizons for getting the Afghan army up to speed. Why so long?

We’re not training these guys to mount an amphibious invasion of Japan or get into dogfights with the IDF. The idea is that they need to be able to fight the Taliban. And which superpower is funding, arming, and training the Taliban? Nobody! They’re making do with limited support from perhaps some elements in Pakistani intelligence and maybe some Gulf money.

Given Afghanistan’s long series of civil wars, there are experienced military commanders around on the non-Taliban side and plenty of veteran fighters throughout the country. It seems as if relatively small quantities of American support should decisively tilt the balance of power. And, indeed, in the winter of 2001-2002 they did decisively tilt the balance of power. Did the Northern Alliance troops suddenly forget how to fight? Did we forget how to help them?

Yglesias is essentially asking the question, why can’t the Afghans fight their own war?

Probably because we won’t let them. All the talk about the strategy for the war comes out of American mouths. We never hear the Afghans talk about how they hope to conduct the war or how they hope to defeat the Taliban. If the United States and the Coalition own the war, they will fight it their way.

But Yglesias raises good questions. I agree: Afghans have been fighting for centuries. What sort of training are they missing to fight their compatriots? It is basic war, light weapons, IEDs, and bribes, threats, and coercion being used to win over friends and foes. Who knows the social terrain better? The Afghans or us?

We also need to pay attention to the demographics of the Afghan forces, to ensure that the representation of the various ethnic groups is not distorted in favor of one or the other group. And we must eschew employing Northern Alliance forces in the South, as Yglesias seems to suggest. That feeds the view that this is an anti-Pashtun war.  If anything, this creates a backlash. Pashtuns have been fighting each other in the Frontier region of Pakistan for centuries.  They will readily do so again, if we let them.

Finally, are we training the Afghan forces to NATO standards? Yglesias implies that “we” have forgotten how to help them. But why not use Pakistani and Indian trainers to train them on basic tactics and weaponry in Afghanistan and in their own countries? Pakistani Pashtun officers and soldiers helped the mujahideen against the Soviets and then reportedly the Taliban, as effective advisors, in the Taliban’s drive toward Kabul in the 1990s. They could now work to build the Afghan forces against the same Taliban. This ought to speed up the flow of recruits, and at much less cost than it is for the US or the allies to do so.

Billeting Afghan forces in communities will help isolate the Taliban and protect the people. But they need to be kept under scrutiny so they remain honest. If they abuse their privileges, then we may accelerate the end of the war in favor of the Taliban.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council. This essay was also published at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel.

Afghanistan Election Winner

No matter what the pundits and the election commission says after tomorrow’s elections in  Afghanistan, one thing seems clear : we know who has won. It is the people of Afghanistan. Rather than hurl rockets or grenades at each other, they have debated and traded arguments. Rather than picking up arms, they have clicked on to the computer and the TV screens to watch what the candidates were saying. And their disparate and distinct voices are being heard. The fact that we have an election taking place, despite all the constitutional and other difficulties and the threats from the Taliban is victory enough for the Afghan people. And, if the election goes to a second round, the victory will be even greater.


No, this is not Westminster democracy at work. But then this is not Westminister. This is Afghanistan, a land of freedom-loving people who resent anyone who constrains them. It is democracy when a person walks miles to vote, while facing death threats. It is democracy, when a candidate like Ramzan Bashardost or Ashraf Ghani can talk about issues and still get 10 per cent or 6 per cent of the votes. This did not happen in the recent US presidential elections for the any of the so-called minor candidates. It is democracy when President Hamid Karzai is brought out of his isolation chamber to participate in a nationally televised debate.

The pundits and the scholars will debate the legitimacy of the elections and its results. But Afghans appear to have found their freedom of discourse and the tools of modernity: TV and the internet, and the cell phones, that will make it impossible for whoever wins the nominal elections to rule them with an iron fist. The genie of popular participation pits all Afghans on one side and the Taliban disruptionists on the other. It cannot be put back into the old bottle again. That is the true power of the people that cannot be captured by the calculus of body counts and war. If President Barack Obama is looking for victory in Afghanistan, it has an Afghan face on it; indeed it has the millions of faces of Afghans that took their lives in their hands to cast their votes on August 20th.

A successful Afghan election in which more than 50 per cent of registered voters cast their votes may well have a positive Demonstration Effect in the neighborhood. Pakistan and Tajikistan pay heed. Let the people decide. Don’t decide for them. 

The fervor of these elections takes me back to my early days as a young TV journalist in Pakistan, covering the rise of a fiery Zuklfikar Ali Bhutto challenging his former mentor, strongman Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1969. Bhutto rallied the underclasses and the peasants with his slogan of ‘Roti, Kapra, aur Makaan’ ((food, clothing and shelter). No one gave Bhutto a chance. But those poor peasants and workers walked miles to listen to his speeches and voted, despite the threats of their feudal  landlords and political bosses. And they upended Pakistan’s political system. Changing it forever.

Afghans have that opportunity on August 20th. I, for one, salute their victory in advance.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.  This essay was also published at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel.  

Pakistan Nukes Misfire

Few issues grab more attention on the global stage today than the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The assumption in the West has always been that Pakistan cannot adequately safeguard these weapons and that radical Islamists will grab them, putting Western interests at risk in the region.

While the fears may be real, the stories that emerge are often not so real.

The latest version of the old “telephone game” seems to be the piece that Shaun Gregory wrote for the CTC Sentinel at West Point and that Peter Bergen blogged about recently. Bergen’s post pointing out Gregory’s claims on the AfPak Channel unleashed a virulent series of comments in the blogosphere and a slew of follow-on press reports. The gist of the message was that three attacks had been launched on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Gregory wrote that “a series of attacks on [Pakistan’s] nuclear facilities has … occurred.”

The unstated assumption was that these attacks were coordinated and aimed to capture nuclear weapons or materials. Gregory is a scholar who is not wont to make claims without clear and verifiable evidence. Only he can clarify what his intent was. Bergen’s position of authority in the world of journalism gave the story a fresh life.

Unfortunately, the message published on the AfPak Channel was picked up worldwide with the speed of a brush fire and its assumptions are not supported by the facts about these three attacks. None of them was aimed at getting into or seeking control of nuclear assets.

Bear in mind the following:

The facility at Wah is a massive ordnance complex that is known to manufacture conventional weapons. It may or may not have nuclear weapons facilities inside its enormous perimeter. Gregory does not offer any evidence on its nuclear activity. The attack of  August 21,  2008, on one gate and another explosion in a bazaar near another gate of the Wah facility was acknowledged to the BBC by Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar as retaliation for the deaths of “innocent women and children” in the tribal territory of Bajaur. No mention of any intent to penetrate or capture nukes.

The attack of November 1, 2007, on the Pakistan Air Force bus carrying trainees near Sargodha in Central Punjab also was not an attack on a nuclear facility or storage site. It was a lone suicide bomber on a motorcycle who crashed into the bus carrying the airmen. Security experts saw this as retaliation for the air force attacks the previous months in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan.

Again, one may assume that the Sargodha air base might be used for loading or launching airborne nuclear weapons. But there was no indication that this was an attack aimed at the Pakistani nuclear facilities or capabilities. Sargodha lies on the road often used by Sunni Punjabi militant groups traveling to the Afghan border region where they support the Pakistani Taliban, and sometimes al Qaeda, as franchisees. This may well have been their bloody handiwork against a target of opportunity. But there’s no evidence of any attack on nuclear facilities here either.

The third attack on Kamra in December 2007 again does not provide any evidence of a plan to penetrate the aeronautical complex where military and civilian aircraft and spare parts are manufactured. The target was a bus carrying more than 30 children of Air Force personnel on their way to a school inside the complex. At least five of them were injured. Kamra produces, among other things, parts for the Boeing 777. There is no evidence offered by Gregory of any nuclear work being conducted at Kamra.

The blogosphere has now picked up this story and no doubt it will become part of the hyperbolic record on Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards. Unless it is retracted or clarified by the source: Shaun Gregory.

There is no perfect security for any nuclear system. Even the United States cannot account for all its nuclear assets or materials nor stop someone from flying a nuclear armed bomber across the country. But Pakistan appears to be very serious about securing its nuclear assets. Its nuclear safeguards are “robust” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies of London. Indeed, Gregory too uses the same word to describe Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards.

This latest story on Pakistan may be gripping but when not supported by facts; it creates more noise than substance.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.  This essay was also published on ForeignPolicy.com’s AfPak Channel

Pakistan and the Taliban: After the Death of Baitullah Mehsud

Highlight - Nawaz

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, published an op-ed in the newly-launched AfPak Channel at Foreign Policy.  The essay, entitled “Pakistan and the Taliban: Leaders Caught Betwixt and Between,” discusses the aftermath in Pakistan of the death of Baitullah Mehsud from a reported U.S. drone attack. 

The full article can be read at the New Atlanticist.

Pakistan and the Taliban: Leaders Caught Betwixt and Between

Following the reported death of Baitullah Mehsud from an American drone attack, Pakistan faces a number of challenges. Will it be able to take an offensive against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as it faces disarray? Will it be able to resist the US pressure to “do more” against the Afghan Taliban now that the United States has done Pakistan a big favor by removing Mehsud from the scene? Will it muster the troop strength and the resolve to move against the TTP in South Waziristan, or try using local surrogates again to do the job for it?

How the ruling troika of the president, prime Minister, and army chief resolve these issues will indicate the path of political development in Pakistan in the next fateful year. Each faces major hurdles. President Asif Ali Zardari can rightly take credit for cooperating with the U.S. in its drone attacks on targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But will he do so publicly? And risk further depleting his dwindling support among the masses? A Gallup Pakistan and Al Jazeera poll released last week indicates his popularity at only 11 percent inside Pakistan. Yet, persistent complaints about the drone attacks by Pakistani officials fuel public anger against the United States. Some 59 percent of those polled consider the United States to be Pakistan’s major threat today, according to the same survey.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani appears to be increasingly asserting the position of his office and of parliament, as opposed to the de facto presidential system that Zardari inherited from former President Pervez Musharraf. But Gilani is not ready for prime time. At least not until he gets the nod from the army high command or unequivocal support from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif is holding back since he does not wish to upset the fledgling political system, allowing the army to step in again.

Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani continues to be the key to Pakistan’s political future for the time being. His every conversation and public appearance, including his recent meeting with politico and legal wizard Aitzaz Ahsan, is read by avid political observers with all the fervor of Kremlinologists examining photos of Soviet Union May Day parades. Yet, he too faces a deadline of sorts: In November he completes the second year of his three-year term. During his final year, the jockeying will begin for his succession and deals may be offered to him or to others in the higher command by the current appointing authority, the president. History indicates that each time an army chief has been given an extension or “promoted” to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in addition to being army chief, or a junior officer has been elevated to the highest rank in the army, the government has faced a coup d’etat in short order. Will Kayani buck history? The Gallup poll indicates only 8 percent support military rule. But army headquarters rarely follows polls. And only rarely do they follow the dictates of the United States.

The Army will be reluctant to open a front against the Afghan Taliban, who have been obtaining sanctuary inside FATA while avoiding conflict with the army. It will be equally reluctant to mount a large ground offensive in South Waziristan at a time when it is still mopping up in Swat and Malakand. The infighting among TTP factions may allow the army to use local rivals to neutralize the TTP to some extent.

But the death of Mehsud may open new fissures inside Pakistan, and between it and the United States, as Pakistani power politics take center stage once more. The scene is set for Grand Tactics yet again, leaving aside the strategic issues that Pakistan needs to be facing in the longer term.

One such issue is the economic challenge of a growing population, and exploding unemployment. The “youth dividend” that former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz used to talk about as benefitting Pakistan’s economy may become the ball and chain, dragging down the country if the youth bulge of Pakistan’s population cannot be educated nor given jobs. Pakistan’s government desperately needs to address these issues, especially in central and Southern Punjab where the militant Sunni franchisees of Al Qaeda and the TTP have their base and from where they have been recruiting jihadist militants with ease. Otherwise, the wave of fanaticism will be more than Pakistan’s overstretched army could handle.

What can the United States do? It must proceed to deliver rapidly and directly on its promised aid package and ensure that the benefits are spread throughout Pakistan. Aid aimed just at FATA would be seen as only serving US interests in Afghanistan. Nationwide distribution of US assistance will help the United States address the antagonism of the majority of Pakistanis. And it must seriously find a way to include Pakistan in the targeting decisions for the drone attacks. Or this will continue to be seen as America’s war and drag down Pakistan’s political leaders who side with the United States.

There are no easy choices. Nor any quick fixes. Pakistani politics will be in a state of turmoil in the months ahead, and come January the U.S. will be in a new election cycle. Despite his desire to think long term, President Obama then may be forced to make short-term compromises, including perhaps a deviation from Pakistan’s path toward democracy. The time to act is this summer, before the problems become too overwhelming and restrict the choices available to U.S. and Pakistani leaders.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council.  This was the inaugural essay in ForeignPolicy.com’s Afpak Channel.