Mind Games in Afghanistan

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

Mind Games in Afghanistan

The timing of the leak of last week’s report on interrogations of Taliban members was suspicious. But NATO will have to get used to efforts to sow discord.

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.

As in Vietnam, moreover, the Afghan insurgents could resume fighting with the expectation that their main adversary, the international forces, would be considerably hobbled in responding since Western publics would prevent their governments from sending their troops back to battle. They might resume massive air strikes, but the resulting high number of civilian casualties, due partly to the absence of ground forces able to confirm the presence of noncombatants, could prove counterproductive.

The report should fuel concerns that the Taliban has adopted this wait until 2015 strategy. It relates that the Taliban fighters believe that they have been strengthening their battlefield position and that they will achieve victory in a few years simply by waiting for NATO troops to withdraw. “As opposed to years past, detainees have become more confident, not only in their potential to win, but the virtue of their cause,” one BBC-released excerpt reads.  Another relates that, “Detainees from throughout Afghanistan report that popular support for the insurgence in terms of recruitment and donations increased within the last year.”

Yet, the U.S. intelligence community in last week’s annual threat assessment paints a more mixed picture. It confirms that the insurgents remain “resilient,” but it notes that the guerrillas have “lost ground in some areas” where NATO’s “surge forces are concentrated.” NATO representatives made similar comments at their February 2-3 defense ministerial and at the February 3-5 Munich Security Conference. 

The report’s release was also bound to worsen ties between the United States and Pakistan. The detainees stressed the massive and enduring support they were receiving from their Pakistani backers, especially Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) service.

One passage says that, “ISI officers tout the need for continued jihad and expulsion of foreign invaders from Afghanistan.” The report adds that, “ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel,” claiming that, “Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad…Senior Taliban leaders meet regularly with ISI personnel, who advise on strategy and relay any pertinent concerns of the government of Pakistan.”

The senior al-Qaeda members chime in suspiciously with the cleverest quotes. “The Taliban are not Islam – the Taliban are Islamabad,” observes one senior al-Qaeda detainee. A senior al-Qaeda commander in Kunar Province apparently jokes that: “Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can’t [expletive] on a tree in Kunar without them watching.”

Relations between Washington and Islamabad are perhaps the worst they’ve been in decades. The United States and its NATO allies have, like their Afghan colleagues, become increasingly frustrated by the presence of Afghan guerrilla sanctuaries on Pakistani territory. Taliban and Haqqani guerrillas are sallying forth from their border sanctuaries in Pakistan and attacking Afghan army outposts in eastern Afghanistan, then fleeing back across the border with NATO aircrews in hot pursuit.

Less than a year ago, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered U.S. Special Forces to attack Osama bin Laden’s compound in central Pakistan without seeking Pakistani permission or notifying Pakistani authorities in advance. U.S. officials rightly feared that some Pakistani officials would warn bin Laden of the impending attack, but the strike embarrassed the Pakistani military.

In his September 22 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Mike Mullen bluntly denounced the continuing links between the ISI and the Haqqani terrorist network. Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan deteriorated further when on November 26, U.S. attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship attacked two Pakistani border outposts near Afghanistan in the Mohmand tribal area shortly after midnight, killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others. The Pakistani government accused NATO of having conducted an unprovoked, deliberate attack on Pakistani troops and the government retaliated by closing Pakistan’s two Afghan border crossings at Chaman and Torkham to NATO’s supply convoys.

And relations could very easily deteriorate further this year. Coalition and Afghan forces appear to have made considerable progress against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, but not in the eastern provinces, where they can exploit their sanctuaries in Pakistan. NATO figures indicate that there has been a 21 percent increase in enemy attack in eastern Afghanistan. As a result, this year will probably see the coalition shift its focus eastward, which will increase the fighting in the border regions.

But against this backdrop, it has to be said that the timing of the interrogation report’s release was suspicious. After months of strained relations since last September’s assassination of  former President Burhanuddin Rabbani by an alleged Pakistani agent, Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was making a one-day reconciliation visit on February 1 – the day the report hit the media – to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders.          

Khar told reporters that: “We can disregard this as a potentially strategic leak…This is old wine in an even older bottle.” Expressing frustration that the affair was overshadowing her peace outreach effort, she added that, “We must start engaging in the end of blame games.”

Despite Afghan complaints that the Pakistani intelligence service renders aid to the Taliban and other militants, and that Pakistanis were involved in the assassination of Rabbani, the Karzai government wants Pakistan involved in any peace talks. In particular, Afghan officials acknowledge that Pakistani government support is needed to induce the Afghan Taliban to end its insurgency since the Afghan Taliban use Pakistani territory as their main base of operations. In addition, the Pakistani authorities have in the past arrested Afghan Taliban members who seemed inclined to negotiate with the Kabul government independently rather than through Pakistani-approved channels.

The State of the Taliban report’s release has therefore deepened mutual suspicions, with NATO governments newly irritated at Pakistani government assistance to the Afghan Taliban and with Pakistani officials see the release as designed to prevent an Afghan-Pakistan reconciliation and make it easier for Washington to negotiate a separate peace with the Afghan Taliban.

During the past year, U.S and Taliban representatives have been holding “talks about talks,” seeking to determine under what conditions to begin more formal negotiations in Qatar. Neither Afghan nor Pakistani government representatives have joined these sessions, and they now fear being marginalized in future rounds of peace talks.

After calling the report “frivolous,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Basit declared that: “We are committed to non-interference in Afghanistan and expect all other states to strictly adhere to this principle. We are also committed to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process.”

The Pakistani government has endorsed efforts at reintegration and reconciliation in Afghanistan, but Pakistani authorities want to determine which insurgents will enter the negotiations and what terms they will accept. Pakistani officials will hedge against the possibility that the Taliban will regain control of some, if not all, of Afghanistan, by maintaining operational ties with the group, despite Afghan and U.S. complaints.

Following the report’s release, NATO took several steps to improve its position. NATO representatives stressed that the military balance was in their favor, and NATO governments stressed their determination to maintain some kind of operational presence even after 2014, and that they would continue to provide military and economic assistance to the Afghan government even after that date.

Ultimately, though, NATO will have to accept that this won’t be the last time it has to go into damage limitation mode. The reality is that this coming year is likely to see more mysterious media leaks – and other games – as the parties try to shape the psychology of the Afghan end game.