Every country where the US has intervened has been worse off because of it
It is surprising how US intelligence agencies’ inability to differentiate between Taliban and al Qaeda – despite 12 long years of war in Afghanistan – is confounding the road to disengagement in late 2014. It has also complicated shutting down Guantanamo Bay, something President Barack Obama promised on his first campaign trail. And much worse, it has led to near-complete breakdown in communication with the most important partner in the war – Pakistan. Hence the recent scramble towards a workable solution in Brussels.
Yet Brussels was predictably, perhaps deliberately, vague. Kerry thought, after “extensive talks”, that “results are what will tell the story, not statements and press conferences”. And Karzai’s “let’s hope forward for the best” was pretty much the same as our foreign secretary Jilani’s “We are looking forward to a very productive and forward-looking session”. If the past provides any insight into the present, Karzai and Pakistan’s foreign office exchanged accusations, Kerry sat wide-eyed, and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani chain-smoked. The result? More power to the Taliban.
After ISAF lost steam on the field some years ago – British forces in Helmand even bribed local Taliban to the tune of some millions to point their guns the other way – the new approach has been reconciliation with certain pockets of Taliban. But which former Taliban chieftains to take on board and what to offer them, has only increased differences within the coalition. First the Americans and Afghans pressured Pakistan into releasing high profile detainees, then the Americans flew a few to Qatar, and then Karzai got upset over being kept in the dark about the Doha initiative, and then the process unraveled. All the while, Washington refused to entertain Kabul’s requests regarding Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo, even after the CIA cleared them of serious charges.
The lumping together of Taliban and al Qaeda is a throwback to the days when George Tenet headed the CIA, from a little before till a little after 9/11. And while the Americans could be forgiven for confusing the two groups back then, adhering to the same thesis shows they expect the on ground narrative to fit their understanding of things, instead of the other way around. This inflexibility has also led to sharp differences with Pakistan, and harmed Islamabad’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, which has focused on pitting militant groups against each other.
The Afghan Taliban, though subscribers to the same Wahabi extremism as al Qaeda, do not share the latter’s expansionism. Their “war with the West” is limited to Afghanistan, and will last only so long as foreigners occupy their country. The Americans still do not understand their widening cleavage with al Qaeda, especially since the ‘foreigners’ expanded the theatre of war into Pakistan and bankrolled the TTP. Mulla Omar forbade the Taliban from engaging with the Pakistani military. And the TTP, despite public allegiance to him, favour al Qaeda’s tactics.
The Pakistani intelligence realises that a post US withdrawal clash between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda is imminent, which is why it has exploited differences in the two groups, and their proxies, to contain al Qaeda advances in the tribal area. And the Americans, showing little appetite to such developments, have targeted both camps with drone strikes. Some of their initiatives, like focusing exclusively on ‘good Taliban’ pockets bolstered by Pakistan, indicate the CIA might even be deliberately sabotaging the ISI efforts of five or more years. The only outcome can be stoking the insurgency on the Pakistani side till at least the American drawdown.
More recently, the NYT’s report, and Karzai’s admission, of the CIA bringing “millions of dollars”, sometimes in plastic bags, to the Afghan presidential palace, only confirms doubts that the Americans have been without a workable strategy ever since they realised the limits of the military offensive. And since much of the money has gone to tribal chiefs as well as Taliban commanders – as per Kabul’s own admission – the disconnect between Washington’s stated goals and the ground reality has become more apparent.
This failure to really understand the war-on-terror enemy also led the Americans into far worse adventures in the Middle East as it tried to take control of the so called Arab Spring. Libya descended into Salafist chaos as soon as NATO strikes dislodged Gaddaffi, and Washington’s Gulf darlings spared little time in funneling jihadi armies into Syria as world focus shifted to Damascus. Again sticking to the old paradigm – that the old anti-Israel Iran-Syria axis is the biggest enemy – led the Americans to ignore the jihadi threat, and it turned a blind eye to Saudi/Qatari initiative of using religious extremists to unseat the Alawite Baathist regime and weaken their Shi’a nemesis Iran.
The GCC and US/Israeli interests may have been aligned initially, but if the al Qaeda aligned al Nusra front is able to dislodge the Assad regime, Israel and America will have the most to lose, placing them in the same camp as Iran. In one of modern geo-politics’ greatest ironies, the Israelis and their American friends will realise, as soon as petrodollar funded Salafi rockets start landing in Tel Aviv and Tehran, that they have more in common with the biggest regional enemy since the fall of the Shah’s peacock throne than oil monarchies they have held so dear all these years.
In all the wars and ‘interventions’ since 9/11, the Americans and their allies have left every country they have targeted worse off than before, be it Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. And little will change if they decide to indulge militarily in Syria. And in all these adventures, they have failed to realise that the biggest threat has come from al Qaeda fanatics, and those fanatics have had their bread and butter, and their arms, come from the Saudi establishment and its friends. Yet Washington continues to cajole Riyadh and its allies. It seems America does not understand who its real enemies are.
The writer is Middle East Correspondent, Pakistan Today, and can be reached at [email protected]