The BBC and The Times have obtained a classified NATO assessment of the Taleban. The leaked report, which has made headline news, has informed us that NATO thinks Pakistan is supporting the Taleban, that the Taleban are defiant and enjoy widespread support, that Afghans frequently prefer them to their corrupt government and that Afghan government officials have secretly reached out to insurgents locally. The presence and actions of international forces as a driver of the insurgency apparently did not come up in the detainee interrogations which form the basis for the assessment. That all this should be news only exposes the wishful thinking which lie at the heart of the international mission in Afghanistan, says AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark.
According to The Times,* the State of the Taleban report was put together by the US military at Bagram air base in Afghanistan for top NATO officers last month.The Times and the BBC report that the assessment is based on 27,000 interrogations of more than 4,000 captured Taleban and al-Qaeda operatives, plus other foreign fighters and civilians. ‘As this document is derived directly from insurgents,’ the authors of report are quoted as saying, ‘it should be considered informational and not necessarily analytical.’ It is difficult to assess just how important it might be within NATO without reading it in full and it should be noted that the sources are Taleban or Taleban-friendly. Even so, it makes very interesting reading.
Excerpts from the report as published by the BBC can be seen at the end of the blog. The main lines are:
Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders. The effectiveness of Taliban governance allows for increased recruitment rates which, subsequently, bolsters their ability to replace losses.
Reflections from detainees indicate Pakistan’s manipulation of the Taleban senior leadership continues unabatedly… ISI officers tout the need for continued jihad and expulsion of foreign invaders from Afghanistan… ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel.
While they [the Taliban] are weary of war, they see little hope of negotiated peace. Despite numerous setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable course of action… [The Taleban’s] ‘strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact [despite setbacks in 2011].
There are many fascinating details of the assessment: Afghan National Security Forces selling their rifles and apparently collaborating with insurgents; the suggestion that the Taleban believe they have become less radical and this is popular among the cadres; the way the leadership soaks up battlefield losses; the exact places in Pakistan where senior leaders live. However, the main contention that the Taleban have a political constituency and that the insurgency is driven both by domestic government corruption and external Pakistan support (denied again today by Islamabad has been flagged up in numerous reports over the years – a few are listed at the end of this blog. What also has been clear is that members of the Taleban both commit war crimes and abuses and have legitimate political grievances. Both have to be taken on board if Afghanistan is to have any chance of peace.
For me, such an analysis first came in early 2006** when I was looking into the situation in Helmand where the British army was about to deploy. I encountered tales of such egregious tribal and factional based abuse, including torture and summary execution by the then governor and now senator and still close Karzai ally, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, that ‘resistance’ did seem a reasonable course of action.
What the report appears to be silent on is the other huge factor driving the war, the ten year foreign occupation – as many Afghans, whether they welcome international forces or not, call it. Night raids, killing civilians, detentions – even when all three of these actions may be legal and/or militarily necessary – upset people. Then there was the torture, mainly by US forces, in the first couple of years and the support the international military gives to abusive Afghan actors. Curiously, there is no mention of this – did the detainees not mention the foreigners?
Discussions along the lines of the report frequently happen in private with members of ISAF and the various diplomatic missions whose countries support the Afghan state. There is often a ‘doublethink’*** quality to discussions as diplomats and generals try to put a positive spin on problems that they also admit to.
Yet none of these doubts and concerns have dented international policy. The US/ISAF/NATO seek to hit the Taleban hard in order to ‘degrade’ it, encourage better ‘governance’ to make the Afghan state more attractive to its people and build up Afghan security forces, all in the hope that the post-2014 state will be able to withstand the insurgents by itself – or with minimal outside involvement. In other words, the very best hope the international powers offer Afghans is continuing low-level, civil war.
Reporting on the NATO assessment, the BBC correspondent, Quentin Sommerville, described current policy as like building pillars round a void – no matter how much effort and money and lives are invested, the void remains. This assessment has laid bare the self-deception at the heart of international backing for Afghanistan. It raises many questions, not least, if this is, at least in part, what NATO actually thinks, why are they still sending soldiers to kill and die here?
One of the major problems of the post-2001 settlement has been the narratives told about and to Afghans and to the voters back home which were never really anchored in reality. There has been a frequent gap between talk and belief and between talk and action. Praise for the Afghan army and police in public, while in private, there is criticism and worry. Promises of democracy and then white-washing of fraudulent ballots. Assurances that human rights will be protected and then an endorsement of impunity for both war criminals and those currently abusing their power.
In Afghanistan, few are fooled and it leads many to wonder (a question I have been asked on many occasions) whether the foreigners are stupid or complicit. Back home, voters have also become increasingly bewildered as news of corruption and abuses have filtered back even as the same story is peddled by their governments: their brave soldiers fighting to defend a democratic, women-friendly state against the black-hearted, terrorist Taleban. Voters are convinced that Afghanistan – in its current incarnation – is not worth fighting or footing the bill for.
There is a chance that the leaking of this report might be an Emperor’s New Clothes**** moment when the international powers start speaking honestly – or at least not lying – about what they are doing in Afghanistan and what they actually hope to achieve. On the ground, their current narratives of success and progress are fooling very few. When there is such a deep gap between what is thought and what is said and policy is built on what one wishes were true, failure surely awaits.
* The Times article is here, but there is a pay-wall. Reports quoting The Times can be found here and here.
** ‘Afghanistan: the roots of insurgency’, BBC Radio 4, File on 4 February 2006
*** The term coined by George Orwell in his novel of totalitarianism 1984whereby two mutually contradictory beliefs can simultaneously held as correct.
**** One of Hans Christian Anderson stories in which a vain Emperor is tricked by two tailors who say they will make him the most beautiful set of clothes in the world, using a special fabric which is invisible to the stupid and those who are unfit for their jobs. When the ‘suit’ comes back and is fitted, the Emperor can’t see it and pretends to do so, as do his courtiers, saying it is the most beautiful suit they have ever seen. The Emperor parades in front of his subjects, all of whom applause. Suddenly, a small child in the crowd cries out, ‘But he isn’t wearing anything at all’ and the cry is taken up by the all crowd.
Research on what is driving the insurgency – in no particular order:
Sarah Ladbury and Cooperation for Peace and Unity (Afghanistan) (CPAU),Testing Hypotheses on Radicalisation in Afghanistan: Why Do Men Join the Taliban and Hizb-i Islami? (Kabul: Department for International Development, 2009).
Anand Gopal, The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar(Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper), New American Foundation, November 2010)
Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, The Insurgents of the Afghan North: The rise of the Taleban, the self-abandonment of the Afghan government and the effects of ISAF’s ‘capture-and-kill campaign’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 6 May 2011
Stephen Carter and Kate Clark, No Shortcut to Stability: Justice, Politics and Insurgency in Afghanistan, Chatham House study (2010)
Antonio Giustozzi (ed), Decoding the New Taleban: Insights from the Afghan Field, New York/Chichester: Columbia University Press/Hurst 2009, especially Martine van Bijlert, ‘Unruly Commanders and Violent Power Struggles.’
Mark Shaw, ‘Drug Trafficking and the Development of Organized Crime in Post-Taleban Afghanistan’, Chapter 7 in D. Buddenberg and William A. Byrd (eds), Afghanistan’s Drug Industry: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics, and Implications for Counter-Narcotics Policy (Washington, DC: UNODC and World Bank, 2006), pp. 189–200
Andrew Wilder and G. Stuart, ‘Money Can’t Buy American Love’, in: Foreign Policy, 1 December 2009
Andrew Wilder, Cops or Robbers? The Struggle to Reform the Afghan National Police Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2007
Kate Clark, Obama’s War Strategy: Stamping out the fire by pouring on gasoline, 16 December 2010, Afghanistan Analysts Network
Thomas Ruttig, How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between its Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology, AAN Thematic Report, June 2010 Excerpts from ‘The State of the Taleban’ as published by the BBC (weblink is above) and by The Times (from the print edition, marked separately) ‘Reflections from detainees indicate that Pakistan’s manipulation of Taliban senior leadership continues unabatedly.’‘In the last year there has been unprecedented interest, even from GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] members, in joining the insurgent cause. Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over GIRoA, usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders. The effectiveness of Taliban governance allows for increased recruitment rates which, subsequently, bolsters their ability to replace losses.’
‘For the first time, detainees report the use of officially signed ceasefire and loyalty agreements. […] Whether or not it is official, the Taleban throughout Afghanistan are already working with [the Afghan government] on the local level.’ […] Captured Taleban documents cited in the report suggest that Afghan official are supporting attacks against Western troops and make reference to a ’conspicuous increase’ in reports of coordination. These include arms sales and intelligence-sharing between Afghan forces and the insurgents, and occasionally ‘even the incorporation of Afghan security forces into Taleban operations’ (The Times)
‘In some areas where [Nato] has withdrawn, Taleban influence has increased, often with little or no resistance from government forces.’ (The Times)
‘ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel. The Haqqani family, for example, resides immediately west of the ISI office at the airfield in Miram Shah, Pakistan.’
‘While they [the Taliban] are weary of war, they see little hope of negotiated peace. Despite numerous setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable course of action.’
‘Through the use of neutral observers and judges who report only to higher-level commanders, the Taliban leadership quickly identifies issues and replaces leaders. In rare cases Taliban leaders have already gone as far as to expel or imprison their own members.’
‘As opposed to years past, detainees have become more confident, not only in their potential to win, but the virtue of their cause.’
‘Detainees from throughout Afghanistan report that popular support for the insurgence in terms of recruitment and donations increased within the last year.’
‘The Taliban leadership controls nearly all insurgent activity in Afghanistan. Outside groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and others must receive permission from Taliban leaders prior to conducting operations on Afghan territory. Despite public statements suggesting distance between the Taliban and international extremists, no formal split has yet occurred. However many with the Taliban appear prepared to enforce a separation from these groups should they receive orders from the Taliban central shura in Quetta, Pakistan.’
‘Because Sirajuddin [Haqqani] remains in hiding, his younger brother Badruddin co-ordinates all military operations for the Haqqani network. The group has become highly centralised around Badruddin and very little can occur with his knowledge or consent.’
‘Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan.’
Pakistan ‘knows everything’
‘The Taliban leadership designated Kabul City a ‘free area’, in which any commander can conduct operations without prior co-ordination with local command.’
‘A senior al-Qaeda commander in Kunar province said: ‘Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can’t [expletive] on a tree in Kunar [province] without them watching. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad.’
‘The Taliban continue to openly raise the majority of their revenue through donations. Collectors travel door to door throughout Pakistan requesting donations, without disguising their Taliban affiliation.’
‘Once Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] is no longer a factor, the Taliban consider victory inevitable.’
‘Almost without exception Taliban members do not receive salaries or other financial incentives for their work.’
‘The effectiveness of Taliban governance allows for increased recruitment rates which, subsequently, bolsters their ability to replace losses.’
‘Taliban leaders anticipate personnel losses. Commanders and fighters are easily replaced, at least initially, with minimal impact on operations. After eliminating a commander, Isaf will often switch focus to other areas and targeting lines. While this type of targeting may remove specific insurgents from the battlefield, it will typically have a negligible effect on insurgent operations overall.’
‘The narcotics trade provides funds to Taliban operations, though the nature of this process is widely misunderstood. The Taliban does not officially encourage nor discourage narcotics production, and it does not play a direct role in the farming, smuggling, refining or distribution process. However the Taliban regularly collects a percentage of zakat [donation] from any individual involved in any stage of narcotics production. This zakat may be collected in Afghanis, Pakistani rupees or frequently, raw opium or hashish.’
‘A detainee from Parwan province said: ‘This year, more funds were given to the Taliban to conduct operations than in any previous year.’‘
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020