With US troops set to begin a staged withdrawal in July, the Afghan war has reached a crucial stage. Meanwhile, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has stepped up its offensive against the Pakistani military and its affiliated lashkars in the northern tribal regions.
The Diplomat’s Charles Lister speaks with Jeremy Binnie, a senior terrorism analyst and editor of the ‘Terrorism and Security Monitor’ at IHS Jane’s, about what to expect in the coming months.
According to reports, ISAF has conducted a significant offensive against the Taliban in the last few months. US and British officials have claimed that parts of the Taliban are being ‘decimated,’ how do you expect the Taliban to respond this spring?
To be honest, it’s pretty difficult to independently assess the impact that the US ‘surge’ has had on the Taliban. Some areas have been effectively cleared of insurgents and the Afghan government has ostensibly re-established a presence. However, the extent to which the Taliban stages a significant comeback with its spring offensive remains to be seen.
Would you say that the scheduled US withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011 is playing any part in the Taliban’s strategic planning?
The internal workings of the Taliban are extremely opaque. Some analysts have speculated that, given the deadline, they will simply wait the coalition out then move in to oust President Hamid Karzai. However, from their point of view, they’ll want to continue to assert themselves where they can in Afghanistan in order to maintain their influence in preparation for any withdrawal. As a result, they will likely continue to carry out attacks, thereby putting themselves in a position where they can credibly claim responsibility for forcing the US and its allies to withdraw, which they would frame as a great victory over another superpower.
They are probably also cognisant of the fact that the US withdrawal will be gradual and will be accompanied by the steady expansion of the Afghan Army. So I see a situation whereby they continue their campaign as best they can, in what will be a fight to define the perception of the US withdrawal as a retreat or a managed handover of security to a capable government.
Following the March 9 suicide bombing in Adezai, Peshawar, a number of prominent tribal lashkars in northwest Pakistan have been threatening to suspend their cooperative role in fighting against the TTP and al-Qaeda. Are these threats realistic?
That is certainly a bad sign if it indicates that the TTP is successfully intimidating locals who were previously prepared to stand up to them. That said, it could be a threat intended to solicit more support from the Pakistani military. There have been repeated claims that the military isn’t doing enough to support these laskhars in much the same way as the US military did with the ‘awakening’ militias in Iraq. But pumping more uncontrolled arms into the tribal areas brings its own risks. Ideally, the military and government security forces would take the lead counter-insurgency role, not informal local militias.
In your opinion, will recent events, including the release of ‘CIA contractor’ Raymond Davis from Pakistani custody and the current escalation in US drone strikes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have a mobilising or restraining affect upon TTP militancy?
I’m not sure if the Raymond Davis situation will have any direct impact on the TTP, although they may use it to support their argument that the Pakistani government is a US stooge. The TTP has responded aggressively to the drone campaign by carrying out revenge attacks, mostly against the Pakistani state, arguing that it’s allowing the strikes to take place.
That said, it’s difficult to link any increase in drone strikes with an escalation in TTP attacks or a decrease in the jihadists’ capabilities. If you look over the reports of drone strikes in the last few months, there aren’t any big name Pakistani jihadists listed as dead, so that might suggest its capabilities haven’t been undermined that much. However, the drone threat limits the extent to which these guys can network to organise operations.
It could be noteworthy that there seems to have been a decrease in major attacks in Pakistani cities outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in recent months. The notable exception was the bombing in Faisalabad on March 8. But again, it would be difficult to attribute this to the drone campaign, rather than the Pakistani security forces rounding up TTP-affiliated networks in these cities and preventing the movement of jihadists in and out of the tribal areas.