Snatching Defeat From Victory

From the January 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

The hornet’s nest of Afghanistan has gotten bad. So bad, in fact, that Washington is mulling an astonishingly unsavory option for restoring order: allowing the Taliban some of its power back.

The Taliban, of course, is the radical Islamist government that the United States ousted in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and which it has been fighting ever since at the cost of over 500 U.S. and coalition soldiers’ lives. That it would now take steps toward legitimizing these fighters is a bitter acknowledgement of its lack of success in defeating them.

It is also merely the latest in a series of signs illustrating the extent to which the United States is militarily and financially overstretched and overwhelmed by crises.

Since being kicked out of Kabul in 2001, Taliban fighters have grown in strength and sophistication in their attacks year by year. Enjoying substantial support among tribes on both sides of a wild 500-mile stretch on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, they have easily eluded NATO troops (presently numbering 31,000), since NATO has agreed not to take the fight over onto Pakistani soil.

On September 5, Pakistan made an agreement with what was reported to be local tribesmen in the Pakistani border province of North Waziristan. This rugged area—in addition to being home base for Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the masterminds behind the Taliban offensive in southern Afghanistan—has supported a flood of Talibani soldiers to fight coalition troops in Afghanistan. Under the accord, the Pakistani government agreed to halt air and ground attacks on tribal militants linked to the Taliban, to withdraw the Pakistan Army from checkpoints in the province, to release captured militants and return their confiscated weapons, and to pay compensation for civilian deaths and property damage in the region. In exchange, foreign militants agreed to stop attacking Pakistani military and crossing the border into Afghanistan.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged his powerlessness, saying the deal was his only option. He said it was “worth a try because there is no other way” to solve the problem than to accommodate the Taliban. “[I]f we think that military will succeed, we are sadly mistaken. We will suffer,” he said.

Western media attacked the deal. According to the Times of India, strategists sharply criticized it as “a sell-out to extremists at the expense of U.S. and NATO ground troops in Afghanistan” (Oct. 5, 2006). As PBS’s Frontline reported, “Critics paint the agreement as a victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban because it grants militants a safe haven from which to launch more cross-border attacks” (Oct. 3, 2006).

Ismail Khan, of the premier Pakistani English-language daily Dawn, says the accord was actually signed not with tribal elders, but with Taliban militants who were on Pakistan’s wanted list but pardoned after the deal. “As such,” Khan wrote, “the argument that the peace agreement is against the Taliban, and not with the Taliban, just does not hold water” (Oct. 14, 2006).

Furthermore, Khan reported that no provision had been put in place to ensure the militants’ compliance. Unsurprisingly, eyewitnesses documented increased Taliban activity in Pakistan after the deal was signed, and NATO officials in Afghanistan said attacks around the border tripled.

Husain Haqqani of Boston University told United Press International, “It is clear that the Taliban is not negotiating [with the Pakistani government] to end the conflict, but to increase their leverage in the conflict” (Oct. 12, 2006).

It is clear, though, that the U.S. and NATO acquiesced to the deal. The Oct. 14, 2006, Weekend Australian reported on clues the U.S. and Britain had actually authorized Musharraf’s negotiations. Washington reportedly convinced Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai not to oppose it, but to “wait and see” whether it would work out. According to the Australian, Indian reports said the U.S. had “clearly bought General Musharraf’s ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ argument ….”

And despite the obvious failure of Taliban representatives to uphold their end of the bargain, it is still being hailed as a success and a model for more such deals.

Indian papers quoted the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan as saying that it could serve as a blueprint for how to deal with the Taliban. Several media reports said it paved the way for a peace deal in Afghanistan. The Australian article said it “could form the basis of an accord aimed at ending the insurgency and bringing the Taliban into the government in Kabul,” and called it a blow to President Karzai, “who has been opposing efforts to bring the Taliban into his government” (emphasis mine).

In the weeks after the deal, coalition troops made similar, smaller arrangements with Afghan tribal militias, soliciting their help in checking Taliban militants so NATO troops could withdraw.

Even after a suicide bombing November 8 killed a record 42 Pakistani army recruits (in retaliation for a government missile strike on a school training Islamic insurgents), neither Pakistani nor U.S. officials appear to be put off. “The [Pakistani] government would continue its ‘policy of political settlement’ and work to promote North Waziristan-like peace deals with ‘non-violent peace-loving locals and the Taliban,’ with an objective to ‘marginalize militants,’ Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, spokesman for Pakistani Military, was quoted as saying by the News” (Xinhua, Nov. 10, 2006). As for America’s response, the very day after the horrific attack, U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher declared, in relation to whether the strategy was working, “I think the jury is still out.”

These shocking facts point to a substantial softening of the U.S. and NATO position against the Taliban. They were substantially confirmed in early October, after a visit to Afghanistan by members of the U.S. Senate. Sen. Bill Frist acknowledged the U.S. was being overwhelmed by the Taliban’s insurgency in that nation. He described Taliban fighters as being “too numerous and too popular” to be defeated, and said that pragmatism demanded that they be invited to participate within the national government. “You need to bring them into a more transparent type of government,” he said. “[I]f that’s accomplished, we’ll be successful.” (A spokesperson later clarified that he did not mean Taliban fighters, but “tribes often targeted by Taliban recruitment.” The track record shows that coalition forces aren’t skilled at discerning the difference.)

“Approaching counterinsurgency by winning hearts and minds will ultimately be the answer,” Frist said. “Military versus insurgency one-to-one doesn’t sound like it can be won. It sounds to me … that the Taliban is everywhere.”

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez agreed, saying, in the words of CNN, that “negotiating with the Taliban was not ‘out of the question’ but that fighters who refused to join the political process would have to be defeated” (Oct. 5, 2006). “A political solution is how it’s all going to be solved,” he said.

A columnist at the Malaysia Star drew the obvious conclusion that this type of thinking is powerful evidence of a superpower in decline. “[T]he U.S. State Department has given up on differentiating between different rebel ideologies, interests and demands, the Pentagon has given up on bombing them back to the Stone Age, and the White House is just about to give up on Hamid Karzai as the sole alternative to the enemies at the gates” (Oct. 22, 2006). That is a lot of giving up—and a massive concession to the anti-democratic, radical Islamist forces in the region.

For many Americans, the war in Iraq has considerably overshadowed the conflict in Afghanistan, which the Trumpet has labeled “The Forgotten War.” But the enemy’s advances are reaching a point where the situation can no longer be overlooked. And now, with the U.S. and NATO assuming a posture of appeasement and capitulation, the sacrifices made over the past five years appear set to be nullified.

This development is a shocking example of what happens when a nation’s pride in its power has been broken (Leviticus 26:19). To understand the nature of the biblically prophesied curses under which the United States military in particular is suffering today, read “How to Lose a War” from our September 2006 edition.