'SIGNALS TO THE TALIBAN'

By Julian Lewis

World Defence Systems – January 2013

In 2010, the new British Government declared that combat operations in Afghanistan would cease by 2015, the year already fixed for the next UK general election. Had such a timetable for withdrawal been chosen in secret, it would have been viewed as intelligence of the greatest sensitivity. An enemy would have placed maximum value on discovering it – instead of being presented with it as a unilateral gift.

There was, of course, a rationale: setting a deadline for departure would force Afghan politicians and security forces to 'step up to the plate'. It would make the Afghan Government more amenable to reaching a deal with its opponents. A political settlement with ‘reconcilable’ elements of the Taliban could then enable a rudimentary form of democracy to endure and develop.

Yet, telling one’s enemies when the fight will be abandoned whilst its outcome is still in the balance is an unusual way to negotiate. Why should those who intend to continue the battle bargain with those intending to quit? What is there to discuss, from the point of view of the Taliban, except the terms under which it will resume control of the country? Why would insurgents continue to fight against superior forces until 2014, but desist thereafter when many will have gone?

Our message to the Taliban seems to be: 'You have two more years in which to reach an agreement – or else we are going to leave. Well, actually, we are going to leave anyway – whether you reach a deal with us or not.' This offers little incentive for a peaceful outcome. Instead, it gives our opponents a variety of options. First, they could pretend to reach agreement or even join a coalition, in the run-up to withdrawal, whilst secretly plotting a coup. Secondly, and less ambitiously, they could lure key figures into fake negotiations as a prelude to assassination attempts. This has already happened. Thirdly, they could scale down the level of their military activity, creating a false sense of improved security, whilst conserving their strength for renewed hostilities after 2014. Fourthly, and most probably, they could intensify the insurgency as ISAF forces are reduced in order ultimately to claim to have driven us out.

British ministers invariably paint a rosy picture when reporting on Afghanistan. The official line is that, by the time we withdraw, the Afghan security forces will be sufficiently strong, skilled and equipped to contain the threat indefinitely. This prospect would be more credible and convincing if the Afghan Government had greater political legitimacy, enjoyed genuine public support and did not give the impression of being tainted by corruption at the highest levels. Who is going to fight for leaders busily diverting state funds abroad in apparent anticipation of fleeing the country? In reality, the Taliban’s prospects of regaining control, in the medium to long term, largely depend on what effective Western military pressure they will continue to face after 2014.
 

BASES FOR DETERRENCE

It is true that the exit of uniformed foreign forces may encourage the less ideological insurgents to lay down their weapons; but it is naïve to expect an overall decline in the efforts of the Taliban. Can they be contained, or suppressed, or at least deterred from re-importing Al-Qaeda into the country? The answer depends upon the outcome of talks between the United States and the Afghan Government about retaining strategic bases in the region after the 2014 departure date. This is something which British ministers have generally failed to endorse when challenged in Parliament to do so. However, on 19 December 2012, in response to a question about the future of Camp Bastion, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged that:

"The United States is currently considering where to retain strategic bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and my understanding is that it is highly likely – though not yet absolutely certain – that it will choose to continue to occupy Camp Bastion."

Only such a policy could seriously reduce the danger of NATO’s eleven-year campaign unravelling completely.

This author’s views on the value of strategic basing have been set out in detail in the US Department of Defense publication Joint Force Quarterly1, and more concisely in the Daily Telegraph Online2 in the following terms:

"The choice should not be limited to one between continued counter-insurgency and the total cessation of military activity. There is an intermediate option of containment – by the continued use of one or more strategic bases … If ISAF believes that the Afghan National Army can maintain its Government in power, then the next stage should be a phased withdrawal of troops into the best protected of these bases. The time will have come for the exercise of power in specialised and selective ways, rather than blanket coverage."

In terms of effort expended, costs incurred and results achieved, the use of spies, special forces and so-called ‘drone strikes’ clearly feature high on any list of sanctions against the re-emergence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Special Forces can, of course, be inserted for specific operations and unmanned aerial vehicles can be operated from the other side of the world. Yet, it is doubtful if espionage can be sustained, or Special Forces maintained, at the necessary levels of intensity in the long-term without a significant military footprint in the region. Moreover, strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles, though lethally effective when correctly targeted, are vulnerable to deception operations designed to generate local hatred and national hostility when innocent civilians are attacked. A retained regional presence makes this much less likely to occur.
 

THE NECESSITY FOR SANCTIONS

British politicians are reluctant – at least in public – to contemplate any scenario other than Afghan self-sufficiency. Here is an exchange between this author and David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions on 5 December 2012:

Question: "The Taliban have been told when most of our troops will be leaving, and they need to be told what sanctions to expect if they help al-Qaeda to return. What would those sanctions be and would an allied regional strategic base serve to make them credible?"

The Prime Minister: "The most important sanction for everyone to bear in mind is the fact that the Afghan national security forces are already at a level of 335,000 and are increasingly capable and increasingly able to police and secure their own country, but of course we will continue to be involved, not least through the officer training academy we will establish. The Americans will have a strong relationship – as we will have a strong relationship – with the Government of Afghanistan, and we will obviously want to help them in all the ways we can to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven of international terror."

The Prime Minister’s reluctance to comment on the value of strategic basing as a reinsurance policy may be the result of not wishing to disturb US-Afghan negotiations on the subject. However, if it stems from unwillingness to contemplate a Taliban takeover of part or all of the country, then it is a serious mistake.

There is only one way to put pressure on our enemies to reach a political settlement – by convincing them that their insurgency will be countered and contained if they do not. And there is only one way to insure against the re-emergence of Al-Qaeda under the aegis of the Taliban – by threatening the latter with lethal retribution if they aid the former to return. One cannot deter an opponent without spelling out the price he will pay in the event of non-compliance. Nor can one modify his behaviour if that price is too low or its imposition is too uncertain.
 

A MODEL FOR THE LONGER TERM

A time must come, sooner rather than later, when a decisive message to our opponents is devised, despatched and made public. If a satisfactory settlement is eventually to be achieved, it must be negotiated from a position of strength, not weakness. Shouldering the burden of nation-building in Afghanistan has been a source of weakness for the ISAF participants. It involves a massive outlay of resources and gives the insurgents ample scope for inflicting grievous piecemeal casualties which Western countries will not accept indefinitely. If security could be achieved with limited costs and negligible casualties, by contrast, objections to our military commitment would all but disappear.

Permitting the complete reversal of Western efforts in Afghanistan would have serious repercussions. First, it would massively increase the confidence of the global jihadist movement, whilst undermining faith in NATO as a steadfast and reliable ally. Secondly, the return of Al-Qaeda to Afghanistan would boost its affiliates and imitators within Pakistan. Thirdly, the nightmare scenario of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into extremist hands would become significantly more probable. Finally, the West would still be without a credible strategy to check and counter the advance of extremism in one country after another. Afghanistan is far from alone in being under threat, and a less costly method than micro-management and nation-building must be devised to deal with the spread of militancy and extremism in other Islamic states.

A containment strategy, built on the exercise of deterrence and of periodic sanctions from strategic bases, would reduce such costs and all but eliminate military casualties. At the same time, it would maximise the chances of eventually reaching a settlement in Afghanistan by signalling to our enemies that there are lines they will never be allowed to cross without incurring unacceptable penalties. Time would no longer be on the side of the insurgents. They would at last have an incentive to compromise – if, indeed, enough of them were potentially ‘reconcilable’; but, if they did not wish to do this, then a safety-net would remain in place in case local Afghan security forces proved to be inadequate after 2014.
 

THE WIDER IMPLICATIONS

How would a notional Al-Qaeda Planning Staff view their assets and liabilities? On the plus side, in Afghanistan, opportunities to re-emerge look good in the medium term, unless the Taliban decide that Al-Qaeda are now too hot to handle. In Pakistan, the Government’s attitude varies from ambivalence to complicity, and its nuclear arsenal remains the ultimate terrorist prize. In the Arab world, the fall of dictatorships offers unprecedented scope for Al-Qaeda penetration as the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood spreads. Gaddafi fell, and Assad may follow, in uprisings supported by Western leaders who see questionable parallels with the collapse of communism. Al-Qaeda will also advance within Western societies, if their Muslim communities are prevented from integrating and absorbing Western values.

On the minus side, in Western societies, the numbers of Muslims engaging in terrorist acts remain minuscule, despite the growing size of their communities. In the Arab world, expectations have been raised of something better than the substitution of one form of dictatorship by another. And, in Pakistan and other Muslim countries subject to Al-Qaeda pressure, the West is starting to apply alternative techniques – as bin Laden found to his cost – instead of allowing itself to be sucked into the mire of infantry-intensive counter-insurgency.

Much more than just the fate of Afghanistan is riding on the decision, soon to be taken, on retaining an effective military presence in the region. The British Government has made its own non-participation in a strategic basing plan, after 2014, crystal clear. Washington alone will decide which way the Al-Qaeda balance sheet will tilt and whether the signal to be sent to the Taliban will be one of resilience or one of retreat.


Dr Julian Lewis is Member of Parliament for New Forest East. He is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, a former Shadow Armed Forces Minister, and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London.


[1] JFQ, issue 65, April 2012, ‘International terrorism: the case for containment’, available at http://www.ndu.edu/press/international-terrorism.html

[2] Daily Telegraph Online, 3 May 2012, ‘A viable plan for making Afghanistan safe from terror’, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/9244064/A-viable-plan-for-making-Afghanistan-safe-from-terror.html