THERE is no shortage of books and literature detailing the failure of the Western forces in defeating the Taliban insurgency that had started to spread by 2003 marking the beginning of the ‘second US-Afghan war’. But a fascinating insider account of the first phase of the US invasion of Afghanistan and the CIA’s covert operation that installed Hamid Karzai in power in Kabul has come out only recently.
Authored by Robert Grenier, a former CIA official, the book titled 88 days to Kandahar provides a scintillating insight into the covert intelligence operation that led to the ouster of the Taliban regime. The most startling revelation in the book is about the CIA’s secret negotiations with some top Afghan Taliban leaders including Mullah Akhtar Osmani, a commander, and Mullah Jalil, a former Taliban deputy foreign minister. The CIA’s contact with them and some other senior commanders continued even after the US invasion of Afghanistan. The account exposes the serious divisions within the top echelons of the hardline conservative Islamic movement over some critical issues.
It comes out quite clearly that many senior Taliban leaders were not happy with Osama bin Laden and his Arab fighters turning Afghanistan into an Al Qaeda centre for global terrorism. There was certainly no love lost for Bin Laden. But it was essentially the fear of the Afghan public backlash that restrained them from handing over the Al Qaeda leader to the Americans or even forcing him to leave the country. Though Mullah Omar appeared more obstinate on the Bin Laden issue, he too wished for his Arab guest to leave the country somehow in order to save Afghanistan from US rage. But it was not to happen.
The revival of the Afghan Taliban as a powerful insurgent force should not come as a surprise.
Being CIA station chief in Islamabad during 9/11, Grenier played a key role in planning the US military campaign in Afghanistan and one of the jobs he took upon himself was to engineer a revolt from within the Taliban ranks against Mullah Omar. He probably might have been successful had the US delayed the invasion. Interestingly, the senior Taliban commanders used satellite phones provided by the CIA to communicate with US officials.
It was indeed a quick victory for the US-led forces in what Grenier described as the first American-Afghan war with the routing of the Taliban regime in 2001. But the triumph was short-lived. Three years later, the US found itself involved in its second Afghan war with thousands of coalition forces engaged in fierce battle with revitalised and regrouped Islamic insurgents.
The revival of the Afghan Taliban as a powerful insurgent force that was apparently routed in 2001 should not come as a surprise. In fact, the radical group was never really defeated. Their fighters melted away into the population or took sanctuary across the border in Pakistan among their Pakhtun brethren. Most of the leadership had survived the offensive and also moved to Pakistan.
In that initial period, senior leaders were fragmented and disunited over what they should do. The shock and trauma of the fall of their regime had paralysed the leadership. The organisation had crumbled. There was no structure under which to regroup and revive. While some were determined to fight, others were more inclined to explore negotiated political options.
It took less than two years for the Taliban leadership to recover and rebuild its structure. In June 2003, a 10-member leadership shura council was formed and given responsibility to formulate a political and military strategy for the resistance. The period from 2003 to 2005 was a turning point as the Taliban consolidated their organisational structure and expanded their activities.
The Taliban’s resurgence was also aided by the strategic mistake made by the United States to re-empower former strongmen and warlords, which caused old ethnic and tribal tensions to resurface. One of the biggest mistakes was the failure of the West to avoid the perception that it was a party in the Afghan civil war. As a result, this phase of the war, that came to an end last December, saw the winding up of the US combat mission with no victory, illusory or otherwise.
The challenges that confront the United States in Afghanistan now are remarkably similar to those faced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Grenier maintains. US strategy seems as confused as it was during the course of the war.
Now the American officials are reassessing their Afghan withdrawal plan. The Obama administration is already trying to build up bipartisan support for extending the presence of US forces beyond 2016.
Slowing the drawdown of the US troops in Afghanistan is likely to be the most important issue in the discussion when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets American officials in Washington next week. This rethinking over the troop withdrawal plan appears to be driven by the perpetual concern that the Afghan security forces are still not ready to fight the insurgents without outside support. The worries have increased with the rising number casualties of Afghan troops over the past years.
According to some reports, the Afghan army lost more than 17,000 troops and civilian employees as a result of desertions, combat deaths and discharges, leaving the force significantly weakened in the fight against the Taliban. Such attrition levels appear to be unsustainable.
But it is not clear how slowing the drawdown could help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, the goal that has remained elusive for more than one decade of conflict. It is unlikely that a limited US presence can guarantee the stability that more than 130,000 American troops at one point could not achieve. “It would be a mistake to change the withdrawal schedule without strong evidence that it would make a difference,” warns an editorial in the New York Times.
It also raises questions about how the American wars of Afghanistan were fought without even an illusory victory. There is a danger that extending the troops’ presence could drag the US into the third phase of its war in Afghanistan. There is a real risk of the US getting stuck deeper in the Afghan quagmire.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2015