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Obama agenda in Afghanistan: Don't forget about Pakistan

If the US wants fundamental change, it must alleviate Pashtun frustration in Afghanistan and get Pakistan to give up supporting Islamists and the Taliban.

By Oliver Roy / December 2, 2009

Florence, Italy

As he announced on Tuesday, President Obama is betting that sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will rapidly change the balance of power in the field, erode local support for the Taliban and bolster their local opponents, give breathing space to the Kabul government to clean up its act, allow humanitarian aid and development to reach the countryside, and possibly bring some war-weary Taliban to the negotiating table.

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Al Qaeda would thus be deprived of any sanctuary, and the US mission there would be accomplished.

In essence, the American president announced a short-term military surge in Afghanistan to lay the ground for implementing a long-term political agenda, first put in place by the Bush administration in 2002, that focuses on good governance, fighting corruption, training a professional police force, and promoting economic and social development.

Since the political project has failed over the past eight years, the logic goes, only military action can revive the conditions for it. So everything depends on military progress in counterinsurgency.

It is true that, at a time when the Taliban are on the move and the Kabul government embodies more than ever a failed state, nothing can be done without a military surge. The Taliban smell victory and have no interest in negotiating. The only alternative is to leave or to escalate the fighting.

But can the new counterinsurgency work?

The idea seems to be to use tactics that worked in northern Iraq: playing traditional tribal leaders against radical Taliban, offering them incentives, and hoping that the large strata of the population who don't share the Taliban's agenda will turn against them.

In this perspective, the corrupt and distrusted Kabul government is more a liability than an asset, which means that the American and NATO troops would have to be politically involved at the local levels instead of handing over the keys to Kabul once the field has been cleared.

For such a policy to work, the Taliban insurrection must be correctly understood and Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan must be neutralized at least, and turned in a good direction.

The Taliban insurrection is both an ethnic and a social movement. The Taliban embody both a Pashtun irredentism and a shift in the traditional tribal system. The insurgency is limited to Pashtun-populated areas or pockets: the south; and, in the north, Baghlan, Kunduz, Balkh and Badghis, often delivered by the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In Pakistan, too, the "liberated Islamic areas" are all Pashtun. Non-Pashtun Islamic militants choose other ways to act.

The issue of Pashtun frustration at being shut out of power has not been ignored by the Western powers. They supported the dismantling of the ethnically non-Pashtun Northern Alliance forces that took Kabul in November 2001: a rather easy task after the assassination of their charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud.