Prevent Taliban from staging a comeback in Afghanistan

THE recent Kabul conference was aimed at achieving lofty goals but it ended with nothing more than the usual pledges of additional aid. Almost nine years after the US and its allies effected a regime change in Afghanistan and six months after President Barack Obama decided to send 30,000 more American troops to the beleaguered nation, Afghanistan remains mired in instability. The Taliban may not be winning, but it is not losing either and the US and its NATO/ ISAF allies have little to show by way of lasting success in counter-insurgency operations. 
The Lashkar-e-Toiyaba has joined hands with the Taliban-Al-Qaeda combine to fight the allies and wanton acts of violence are a daily occurrence. With neither side making major gains, the emerging situation is best described as a strategic stalemate. Consequent to President Obama’s carefully considered “surge”, there are now 93,000 US troops in Afghanistan. This figure is set to rise to 105,000 by the end of the summer, but even then the coalition forces will remain thin on the ground. 
While it is too early to draw firm conclusions, success in recent operations has eluded the allies. The combined US and British operations in Helmand province — the nucleus of Afghanistan’s narcotics-driven terrorism — succeeded in driving the Taliban out of its strongholds but only temporarily, and the allies have had to once again launch fresh operations in Helmand. Violence continues to persist in Marja despite large-scale Marine Corps operations. 
Major military operations in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar have been delayed. Inevitably, it will be a long and bloody exercise. The Indian experience has been that it takes a ratio of 1:30 — that is, the sustained deployment of 30 security forces personnel for every terrorist — to gain and maintain military control over an area affected by insurgency or rural terrorism. 
As has been witnessed in the Kashmir valley, as soon as the troops pack their tents and go away to launch operations in another area, the terrorist groups make a triumphant comeback. They once again lay down the law through fatwas, collect “taxes”, extort money for unhindered trade and dispense their peculiar brand of justice. Since the Afghan state cannot effectively deliver governance and justice, the people grudgingly look to the Taliban. 
Urban areas require an even more concentrated deployment and the local civilian police and para-military forces are much better equipped to handle these rather than regular armies. Despite the best efforts of the allies, the Afghan National Army (currently numbering 1,10,000; final target 2,60,000) and the Afghan Police have failed to acquire the professional ethos and motivation levels that are necessary to deal with jihadi extremism. Training standards in small counter-insurgency operations are low and cutting edge junior leadership is still lacking. They are also short on numbers as recruitment rates are low and desertions high. 
Meanwhile, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda seem to have no difficulty in recruiting an endless stream of suicide bombers from the thousands of madarsas astride the Af-Pak border. In fact, they pay them monthly wages. Crossed wires between the Obama Administration and President Hamid Karzai, and tensions between Karzai and the Pakistan leadership as well as the Pakistan Army’s and the ISI’s proclivity to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds have weakened the overall response to the constantly changing terror tactics of the opposing forces. 
President Karzai has lost confidence in the US commitment to comprehensively defeat the Taliban. Consequently, he has begun negotiations with the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers. The Pakistanis are keen to include the Haqqani faction in the talks, but the Afghans and the US are firmly opposed to Sirajuddin Haqqani. All the international and domestic players involved in the complex web of Afghan politics want a direct role in the negotiations. Many are conducting their own negotiations 
Taliban factions have noted with glee President Obama’s ill-advised, self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing US troops in July 2011 after a review in December this year. Although high-level US civilian and military officials have said that a long-term American presence in Afghanistan is a certainty, the Taliban groups are convinced that the US no longer has the political will and the military staying power to sustain a large deployment. 
NATO countries and other allies of the US are keen to cut and run as their much smaller armies are facing rotational difficulties, and the war has lost popular support. The Pakistanis, who seek strategic depth in Afghanistan and consider the Taliban as their strategic assets, still harbour ambitions of installing a pliable government in Kabul. As most students of military history would readily concede, a prolonged stalemate between a large, well-armed and well-equipped modern force and a motley array of guerrillas or other non-state actors like terrorist groups has almost always culminated in a victory for the underdogs. This happened in Vietnam. This has also been seen in Afghanistan earlier when the Afghan warlords defeated the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1980s with help from the CIA and Pakistan. 
If radical extremism is to be comprehensively defeated in the Af-Pak region, it is important for the US and its allies to stay the course as long as it takes. As they have no more troops to contribute to the effort, the net must be enlarged to include military contributions from Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, perhaps under a United Nations flag. The international community must stand united to ensure sustainable stability in Afghanistan. Under no circumstances should the Taliban be allowed to stage a triumphant comeback. 
The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Delhi