US Failure Breeds a Stronger al-Qaeda

This is an edited excerpt from Ahmed Rashid's recently published Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (Penguin Books, 2008 available from Amazon, US$18.45). Used with permission.

Seven years on, the US-led war on terrorism has left in its wake a far more unstable world than existed on that momentous day: 11 September 2001. Rather than diminishing, the threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, it has grown, engulfing new regions of Africa, Asia and Europe and creating fear among peoples and governments from Australia to Zanzibar.

In the region that spawned al-Qaeda and which the US has promised to transform after 9/11, the crisis is even more dangerous. Afghanistan is once again staring down the abyss of state collapse despite billions of dollars in aid, 45,000 Western troops, and the deaths of thousands. The Taliban have made a dramatic comeback, enlisting the help of al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists in Pakistan, and getting a boost from the explosion in heroin production that has helped fund their movement.

By mid-2006, the Taliban had on several counts begun to provide the Pashtuns in the south of Afghanistan the semblance of an alternative government. The absence of justice had become one of the primary recruiting tools for the Taliban, who car­ried out a primitive ‘justice on the spot' system, according to their interpretation of Sharia law. Their system was brutally harsh but effective, compared with that of the existing courts, which were riddled with cor­ruption and long delays.

People did not necessarily prefer Sharia law, but they were comparing it with the absence of any other kind of law. Crime dropped dramatically in areas where the Taliban provided such services. The public also took note when Taliban head Mullah Omar issued a 30-point rule book for Taliban fighters to improve their performance in governance and behaviour. Yet the old bad ways were still there, as the Taliban could not tolerate education, especially for girls. In 2006 the Taliban killed 85 teach­ers and students and burned down 187 schools, while another 350 more schools were shut down in the south because of Taliban threats.

At the end of the summer of 2006, the Taliban aimed to rout Cana­dian forces and capture Kandahar city. Over the summer the Taliban collected hundreds of men in Panjwai, a district near Kandahar, and one at a time began to infiltrate them into Kandahar. NATO retaliated belatedly on 2 September, when some 10,000 troops, including 2300 Americans, 2200 Canadians, and 3300 British, launched Operation Medusa to clear Panjwai.

They discovered thousands of well-entrenched Taliban. Panjwai's dense orchards, vineyards, mud walls, alleys and tunnels provided ideal cover for the Taliban as they fought house to house, often using civilians as shields. The Canadians surrounded some 700 Taliban in a cluster of vil­lages called Pashmul, but the Taliban called in heavy reinforcements from Pakistan. Heavy fighting ensued until 17 September, when Pashmul, spread across just four square miles, was finally cleared by Afghan troops, who fought the Taliban in hand-to-hand combat.

NATO chalked up 512 Taliban killed and 160 captured, but then sig­nificantly hiked its figures to more than 1000 killed. Hundreds of Taliban reinforcements coming from Pakistan had been killed in air strikes. While NATO troops were still counting the dead, a suicide bomber killed four Canadian soldiers in Pashmul on 18 September. Once again the Taliban had taken advantage of a rotation of Canadian troops to mount their of­fensive.

After the battle a report compiled by US, NATO and Afghan forces described the preparations the Taliban had made to capture Kandahar. In the battle, the Taliban had fired an estimated 400,000 rounds of ammunition, 2000 rocket-propelled grenades and 1000 mortar shells, all of which had been stockpiled in Panjwai over many months. More than a million rounds of unused ammunition were unearthed. The Taliban had established training facilities to carry out sui­cide bombings. A full surgical field hospital was uncovered.

NATO intel­ligence was now better able to map out the Taliban support structure in Balochistan, from ISI-run training camps near Quetta to ammunition dumps to arrival points for the Taliban's new weapons and meeting places for Taliban commanders in Quetta. "Madrassas run by the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam Party continue to provide the main source of recruitment while Tali­ban decision making and its logistics are all inside Pakistan," the Afghan defence minister, General Rahim Wardak, told me.

NATO had only just been able to prevent a massive Taliban assault on Kandahar city. There was growing anger within NATO at Pakistan. "It is time for an ‘either you are with us or against us' ultimatum delivered bluntly to Musharraf," one NATO commander told me in Kabul. "Our soldiers in the south are hurting because of what is coming out of Quetta, where the Pakistanis are providing the Taliban with a logistics chain and operating cushion."

General David Richards, head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, delivered a blunt message to then-General Pervez Musharraf in the first week of October, warning him that if Kandahar fell, so might his government in Islamabad, because the West would not have tolerated such a setback and would lay the blame squarely on Pakistan.


The first six months of 2006 witnessed the greatest number of conflict-related deaths since the fall of the Taliban - more than 1000 dead, compared with 1600 killed in the whole of 2005. Twenty-four aid workers had been killed, compared with 31 for the whole of 2005, and 47 American and 17 European soldiers had died in the same period.

Although they had failed to pene­trate Kandahar, the Taliban had put so many men in the field that they were able to continue suicide bombings, ambushes and attacks in the west­ern and eastern provinces for several weeks. On 31 October they launched simultaneous attacks in five provinces in which 150 people were killed, in­cluding four NATO soldiers. It was impossible to improve governance or carry out reconstruction in such a state of insecurity. "The violence is hol­lowing out government institutions, cowering the population, and testing even enlarged NATO force levels," said Chris Alexander, the deputy chief of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Yet according to a UN survey, some of the violence was also due to tribal, factional and drug-related rivalries. Putting a stop to such local­ised violence and corruption was President Hamid Karzai's responsibility, but he seemed to be rejecting the fledgling institutions of government the UN and others were trying to build. Instead, he resorted to traditional tribal methods of governance that were retrograde and ultimately contributed to more vio­lence and fear.

President Karzai saw good governance as a projection of powerful tribal personalities rather than as the building of institutions. His own of­fice was still disorganized, even though millions of dollars had been spent on it by British and American consultants. The presidential staff was just as dysfunctional as it had been in 2002, with no teamwork or account­ability and nobody accepting responsibility when things went wrong. The chronic disconnect between the government, NATO, the UN and the major donors continued.

The cabinet and its decisions barely registered in the public conscious­ness. Ministers did not travel in the provinces unless they were taken there by US or NATO commanders. Pashtun elders described the cabinet as waraktun, or Karzai's kindergarten. At the same time, President Karzai still refused to build a political party, while he blamed Pakistan for everything that was going wrong. The Afghanistan Compact of February 2006 had ensured better funding for development than ever before, but that did not resolve the problem of how the money could be put to better use when the government itself appeared to be paralysed. President Karzai's own concept of nation building was fatally flawed.

On 30 July, Gen Richards took over command of the merged NATO and US forces. It was the first time that a non-American officer had com­manded American troops in battle since the Korean War. All year, NATO had insisted that it would conduct the war differently from the Americans. There would be less ‘kicking down of doors', fewer civilian casualties, and captured Taliban would be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

However, NATO's intentions remained at odds with its pri­mary aim of protecting its own forces, which entailed substituting man­power for firepower. Without adequate armour, artillery or helicopters, NATO forces continued to depend on air strikes to support ground troops in combat.

In the last six months of 2006 - from June to December - there were a staggering 2100 air strikes, compared with just 88 in Iraq over the same period, and more than were expended in the first four years of the war in Afghanistan. In addition, US Special Forces operating under the Coalition also used excessive air power, and their secret manoeuvres were largely unaccountable to NATO or the Kabul regime. Afghan civilian ca­sualties rose dramatically and became a major embarrassment for President Karzai.

The Taliban became expert at claiming civilian casualties after every battle. They also began to use more suicide bombers to sow insecurity and fear. This was something completely new for the Afghan people. There had not been a single suicide attack during the Afghan war against the Soviets. The first known suicide attack was in 1992, when a Saudi-backed warlord, Maulvi Jamil-ur Rehman, was killed in Kunar province. In 2001, Ahmad Shah Masud was killed by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers. The Taliban mounted only six suicide attacks in 2004 and 21 in 2005. Then, in 2006, there were a staggering 141 suicide attacks, causing 1166 casualties, and the following year 137 attacks took place, raising casualty numbers by 50 percent, to 1730.

Many of the initial suicide bombers were orphans and mentally unstable teenagers from the asylums and orphanages in Pakistan. Senior Taliban military leader Mullah Dadullah correctly predicted that their sacrifice would create a wave that would en­able him to recruit more capable bombers from the madrassas and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The Taliban glorified suicide bombers, calling them "Mullah Omar's missiles" and "our atomic bombs".

Dadullah warned that "an increase in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan will make it easier to inflict losses on them." By the spring of 2006, suicide bombers were blowing themselves up outside the gates of the British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Lashkargah, and targeting Canadian convoys in the middle of Kandahar city.

Even Kabul was not immune. In one brazen attack on 8 September 2006, a suicide bomber hit a US convoy just outside the American em­bassy in Kabul, killing 16 Afghans and two US guards. The result­ing crackdown led to the arrests of a suicide bomber network in the city, which revealed to interrogators how extremist groups in Pakistan supplied the group with explosives.

Several captured Afghan and Pakistani suicide bombers recounted how they were recruited in Pakistani madrassas, then moved to safe houses in Quetta and Chaman, where they were trained. Taliban couriers then took them into Afghanistan, where they were lodged at safe houses and provided with explosives and cars.

Crossborder safe havens

Indeed, the links to Pakistan were unmistakable. "Every single bomber we arrest is linked to Pakistan in some way. The training, provisions, explosives, technical equipment, are all being manufactured in Pakistan, and the CIA knows this," said Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghan intelligence. During the summer of 2006, 17 would-be suicide bombers who had been arrested in Kabul were interrogated by the CIA and NATO about their recruitment and training in Pakistan.

There was also a huge increase in the Taliban's use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which rose from 530 in 2005 to 1297 in 2006, a strategy that took NATO totally by surprise.

Many of these new tactics were a result of a new wave of foreign fight­ers who were flowing back to Pakistan and Afghanistan for the first time since 2002. Fighters from Central Asia, western China and Turkey, as well as Arabs from a multitude of countries, came as a result of al-Qaeda's call to help the Taliban. They worked in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region, helping train a new generation of Taliban and Pakistani extremists in the arts of bomb making and fundraising, and also as sub-commanders in Afghanistan, honing the Taliban on new tactics.

The Arabs in the camps used their in­ternational contacts to encourage more Muslim militants living in Europe to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training. These included Mus­lims from Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavia. In 2007, many of these militants were to fight alongside the Pakistani Taliban as they ex­tended their writ across the NWFP. Al-Qaeda was reconstituting itself in ways that were unimaginable after its initial rout in Afghanistan.

In June, US, NATO and Afghan intelligence compiled their informa­tion in a secret report that detailed how the Taliban movement was con­stituted. It surmised that the Taliban comprised four distinct elements: hardcore extremist lead­ers linked to al-Qaeda, fighters recruited in Pakistan, unemployed youth and disaffected tribes. The hardcore leaders had to be isolated, and no compromise could be shown to them. At least four of the top ten Taliban leaders were based in Pakistan.

Fighters recruited primarily from the Af­ghan refugee camps in Pakistan were "heavily indoctrinated" and "trained within Pakistan in combat, communications, IEDs and suicide operations". The report described how the "elder fighters with experience are produc­ing a steady throughput of fighters for the insurgency." The last two catego­ries of Taliban could be won over with jobs, education and development projects, as they were not heavily indoctrinated but were "a result of the insurgency, not the cause of the insurgency".

The report described Paki­stan's role in the most unflattering light of any intelligence report so far:

ISI operatives reportedly pay a significant number of Taliban living/operating in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight. ... A large number of those fighting are doing so under duress as a result of pressure from ISI. The insurgency cannot survive without its sanctuary in Pakistan, which provides freedom of movement, safe havens, logistic and training facilities, a base for recruitment, communications for command and control, and a secure environment for collaboration with foreign extremist groups. The sanctuary of Pakistan provides a seemingly endless supply of potential new recruits for the insurgency.

As the report circulated to NATO capitals, it became impossible for Eu­ropean governments to ignore Pakistan's duplicity. The ISI's refusal to disrupt the Taliban's command and control in Quetta now posed a major threat to NATO's entire effort in southern Afghanistan. The UN presented an equally tough report to the Security Council in September. Tom Koenigs, a seasoned German diplomat and now head of UNAMA in Kabul, painted a grim picture of the worsening insurgency. He described how five Tali­ban command centres were operating "with widespread use of safe havens outside the country". The five were the Taliban northern command, active in Afghanistan's northeastern provinces, a Taliban eastern and southern command, and separate fronts established by two Taliban allies, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.

By January 2007, John Negroponte, the US director of national intelligence, gave a startling assessment to the US Senate, stating that al-Qaeda was "cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders' secure hideout in Pakistan, to affiliates in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe." Whereas previously US intelligence officials spoke of al-Qaeda as being based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, now the United States was admitting - six years after 9/11 - that the group was based solely in Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda's focus also shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where it saw a demoralised army, a terrified citizenry and an opportunity to destabilise the state. For the first time, the army's corps commanders accepted that the situation had radically changed and the state was under threat from Islamic extremism. In fact, the Pakistan Army was now fighting a civil war.

Today, al-Qaeda has a safe haven in FATA, and along with it reside a plethora of Asian and Arab terrorist groups who are now expanding their reach into Europe and the US. The US and NATO have failed to understand that the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarised madrassas and the lack of opportunities in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country, nor experienced traditional Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become.

Befuddled internationals

NATO had bet a great deal on its mission in Afghanistan: that it would find meaning for its continued existence and re-create the unity that Western Europe showed during the Cold War. Yet NATO arrived with little understanding of the Afghan conflict, a lack of realism regarding public opposition at home, a complete lack of transparency in dealing with the public, and an over-reliance on US leadership and analysis of the conflict. Increasingly, NATO officers blamed President Bush's administration for refusing to get tough with Pakistan.

Above all, NATO had addressed Afghanistan as though it were a classic post-conflict peacekeeping operation confined to the country's borders, whereas it was actually an insurgency that was a crossborder phenomenon, as the Taliban were also present in the neighbouring countries.

In 2006, NATO forces in Afghanistan had grown from 32,000 to 45,000 troops, but only one third were available for fighting. The Taliban's summer 2006 offensive created major problems within the NATO alliance. Thirty-seven countries now contributed troops to the NATO force in Afghanistan, and criticism mounted from those countries doing the fighting against those who refused to fight. As al-Qaeda opened new fronts in North Africa and threatened to carry out suicide attacks on mainland Europe, there were fears of an even larger Taliban offensive in 2007, and European governments anticipated greater opposition from their publics toward their troop deployments in Afghanistan.

Moreover, NATO's counterinsurgency effort required the close integration of civil and military objectives. But NATO was unable to get it right, as it failed to provide adequate reconstruction efforts in the war zone; its quick-impact projects made no dent in the rebuilding of infrastructure that was desperately needed to get the economy moving. In 2006, a large proportion of international aid was being delivered to just four opium-growing and insurgency-hit provinces in the south, leaving the rest of the country bereft and angry.

USAID, the largest donor, directed half of its aid for 2006 - some USD 119 million - to these four provinces but had little to show because the lack of security there prevented aid workers from venturing out.

The divisions in NATO, its recourse to intensified aerial bombing, which only increased civilian casualties, and the continued refusal of many European countries to fight the Taliban, left Afghans asking how committed the international community really was to Afghanistan.

Before the world's eyes in the summer of 2006, East Timor, a once-failed state that had received the most aid money per capita in the world and had been administered by the UN, fell apart through riots and mayhem. There was no guarantee that the same thing could not happen in Afghanistan. There was a lesson here, said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. International aid, money and troops did not guarantee a quick fix or a solution to failing states unless the entire package was welded together with a coherent nation-building strategy that everyone agreed upon.

NATO had bet its future role on bringing peace to Afghanistan, but every day the risks of failure and the fear of a geo-strategic meltdown seemed to increase. "In committing the alliance to sustained ground combat operations in Afghanistan ... NATO has bet its future," said Gen James Jones, the former NATO chief. "If NATO were to fail, alliance cohesion will be at grave risk. A moribund or unravelled NATO would have a profoundly negative geo-strategic impact."

This edited version first appeared in Himal Southasia