Last week’s mysterious leaking of a secret U.S. report summarizing thousands of interrogations of detained Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other suspects in Afghanistan has weakened the NATO campaign and peace efforts there by sowing discord between the alliance and its regional allies, while deepening doubts about the Taliban’s ultimate intentions. Indeed, the Taliban’s sympathizers – or at least someone unhappy with the NATO presence in the country – may well have leaked this report with these very goals in mind, so its content needs to be read with care.
According to the BBC and The Times, this report “On State of the Taliban” was compiled last month by U.S. military personnel at Bagram air base north of Kabul, where more than 3,000 Taliban prisoners are normally detained at any one time. The report summarizes the key findings of 27,000 interviews with more than 4,000 detainees, who encompassed suspected senior Taliban commanders, rank and file Afghan guerrilla fighters, members of al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organizations and Afghan civilians sympathetic to the insurgents.
The report made for some explosive headlines. Unfortunately, too often, media outlets simply repeated its excerpts verbatim, or with sympathetic supporting commentary, neglecting that all the opinions were second-hand and from suspect sources. The report’s authors didn’t provide, or apparently even seek, any evidence to confirm what the Taliban prisoners were telling them. And the Taliban told their interrogations precisely those things that would most serve their cause by boosting the insurgents’ moral and discrediting the United States’ closest allies in the war against them.
The United States and its NATO allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are already transferring the leading combat role in various provinces from NATO to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as they continue to withdraw forces added during last year’s troop surge. In light of this impending withdrawal, one of NATO’s main worries is that the Afghan government and ANSF may be ineffective and too corrupt to survive alone against the Taliban without an indefinite foreign troop presence buttressed by enormous volumes of international assistance.
The report certainly feeds this worry by describing widespread collaboration between the guerrillas and the Afghan security forces in areas that ISAF has transferred to ANSF control. Afghan soldiers reportedly sell their weapons to the Taliban, while even government officials supposedly express growing interest in joining the Taliban movement. The detainees are summarized as believing that, “Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government, usually as a result of government corruption.”
Another concern is Taliban duplicity. The Taliban leadership has moderated its formal position on some issues, and instructed its field commanders to do likewise in a recent field manual. But such policies seem like tactical maneuvers to reduce Afghan resistance to their return to power as well as facilitate recruitment and retention. The report suggests the stratagem has helped gain some external support and “at least within the Taliban, the refurbished image is already having a positive effect on morale."
But even if Taliban leaders endorsed a peace agreement, it would be hard to trust their intentions. They could easily imitate the North Vietnamese strategy of professing to accept a compromise settlement in order to secure a foreign military withdrawal, and then resuming offensive operations against the local government before it had fully recovered from its years of dependence on foreign military support.