A classic mistake in military strategy is to become so obsessed with a secondary objective that it comes to dominate your entire campaign, not only sucking away essential resources from other more important goals, but actually working against them. This process can often be self-reinforcing.
Once a particular issue has been publicly proclaimed as vital, then your prestige demands that you must sacrifice more and more to achieve it—and the more you sacrifice, the less possible it becomes to admit that the sacrifice has been in vain. A particularly disastrous example of this syndrome was Hitler’s obsession with the capture of Stalingrad.
The West is in danger of making this mistake with regard to Afghanistan. Already, long forgotten has been the fact that the US intervened in Afghanistan not to overthrow the Taliban or take one side in the Afghan civil wars, but to eliminate Al Qaeda. Today, however, the Al Qaeda leadership is still alive and free, while the defeat of the Taliban has become not just a principal goal of US strategy but a key test of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (Nato) “relevance”.
If the Taliban can indeed be defeated, that would be a very good thing not just for the West, but for Afghanistan and the entire Muslim world. However, to have any chance of achieving this may require a level of indefinite military and economic commitment of which the West may simply not be capable.
The second point is that in the context of the “war on terror” as a whole, defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan is indeed a secondary issue. Of far greater long-term importance is the survival of Pakistan as a state, and its development as a successful modern society and economy. The reasons for this should be obvious.
Afghanistan has always been a backwater of the Muslim world. Pakistan is central to that world’s future. It has six times Afghanistan’s population, a powerful army and nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s relations with India are critical to the peace and development of South Asia. The large Pakistani diaspora in Britain means that Islamist extremism in Pakistan reaches into the heart of the West. A great deal of the Taliban’s support comes from the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, whose people are closely linked to their co-ethnics in Afghanistan, and among whom hostility to the US is overwhelming.
The Taliban are using these areas as safe havens from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan. This is understandably causing great anger and frustration in both the Afghan government and the West. The danger is that if Taliban attacks intensify, and the prospect of Western victory recedes still further, the US may react either with open military raids into Pakistan or by putting massive and successful pressure on the Pakistani government to launch an overwhelming military offensive against the Taliban and their local supporters in the Pashtun areas.
The first strategy would utterly humiliate the Pakistani government and spread anti-Western fury and Islamist extremism across Pakistan. The second would almost certainly lead to civil war in Pakistan, and the present war in Afghanistan becoming a regional one. This might temporarily reduce the Taliban’s pressure on Nato in Afghanistan, but at the cost of radically destabilizing Pakistan. In other words, the US would have gained a limited and temporary tactical victory at the cost of a grave strategic defeat.
The US must keep firmly in mind that while certain elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services may well be protecting the Taliban, by far the most important reason for the Taliban’s power in the Pashtun parts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan is that they have the support of local populations.
This is a replay of repeated Pashtun uprisings in the name of Islam stretching back more than 160 years, of which both the British and Russians had bitter experience.
Given patience, fortitude, political compromise, bribery and above all successful economic development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, it may be possible for the West over many years to defeat this latest Pashtun surge. We should not, however, dream of being able to do this quickly through military measures alone, least of all ones that would in fact make the conflict, and the terrorist threat from this region, even more widespread and even less soluble.
Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author, with John Hulsman, of “Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World”.