Manipal, India — There are indeed parallels between the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban. Both have brown complexions and prefer to avoid a shave. Both get excitable when challenged, and regard the United States and its military allies as the enemy. However, that is where the similarities stop.
The Iraqi insurgents are overwhelmingly nationalist, usually moderate in their religious views, and have taken to arms to end what they view as a humiliating occupation of their country. In contrast, the Taliban are Wahabbi extremists, who enforce a lifestyle that has nothing in common with the evolving needs of the past 1,000 years. While the Iraqi insurgents are more than 90 percent Sunni Muslims, the Taliban are nearly all Pashtuns, although they have abandoned the moderate ethos and customs of this admirable race in favor of an ultra-Wahabbist lifestyle that places a premium on personal cruelty.
Once General David Petraeus, as U.S. commanding general in Iraq, no longer tried to occupy territory and began a process of handing responsibility to local forces, the anger at the occupation began to dissipate, and so did the ferocity of the attacks on the United States and its allies.
As yet, despite the radicalization caused by the past five years, the insurgents in Iraq are not inclined to impose a Taliban-like state in Iraq. Should U.S. troops withdraw completely within an 18-month timeframe, Sunni Iraq can yet be prevented from going the way of Afghanistan and becoming extremist. Just as the Vietnamese ceased to be a threat to the United States once they got control of their country, so will the Iraqi insurgents, once U.S. and allied troops leave Iraqi territory.
In Afghanistan, the chemistry of the Taliban is hardly nationalist. It is virulently extremist. Once the movement regains its breath, it can be expected to stealthily spread to more and more villages until once again the bulk of the Afghan people come under its control.
During the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s the Taliban – and their predecessors – enjoyed plentiful support from the United States, as well as massive financial help from Saudi Arabia. Today, all that remains of the palmy past is the safe area set up for the militia by their friends in the Pakistan army. And instead of helping them with arms and cash, the United States is now making their lives miserable by bombings and raids.
The Taliban need at least a year to recoup and replenish, and the only way they can get this respite is to tempt NATO into a "ceasefire" that would ensure them safe haven, as well as protect their ability to spread. No wonder they are desperately seeking such an arrangement, and have once again sent siren calls to old friends in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to rescue them from NATO.
Sadly, even though they ought to have known better, the Saudis have been persuaded by Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Kiyani that a grand reconciliation with the Taliban is possible. Given the character of the beast, it is unlikely to be domesticated. It will be only a year before fighting breaks out again, with the Taliban in a much stronger position.
Amazingly, some analysts are now talking of a "break" between al-Qaida and the Taliban, when in fact the militia functions as foot soldiers for the followers of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Imagining a separation between them poses the risk, once again, of treating the symptoms of terrorism while leaving intact the roots.
The core of the problem lies in a sliver of land on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and only control over this territory can stanch the supply of jihadis in the Afghan theater. There is no escape from a military solution, just as there was no other way to deal with previous historical pestilences, such as the Nazis. As India's experience has shown, terrorism subsides only after the defeat of its proponents in the field, and never before that point. At present NATO is in retreat in Afghanistan, losing control of village after village to the Taliban, its commanders reduced to panic.
Afghani President Hamid Karzai would be an excellent Hollywood star, but as an administrator he has been a failure. The reason is that he is loathed by his own people. Instead of calling off the offensive against the Taliban, NATO should go around the hapless Karzai and link up with tribal and other chiefs across the Pashtun heartland – in both Afghanistan and Pakistan – and secure their help against the Taliban militia, which the traditional chiefs fear.
As in 2001, a strategy combining softening-up air raids and ordnance barrages with quick movements by teams of Afghan army regulars and tribal militias could eliminate the Taliban from the villages they now control. More attacks are needed on this group that remains ideologically committed to the Osama bin Laden vision for humanity. It has clearly shown this in its treatment of the populations it controls in present-day Afghanistan.
If Petraeus, who takes over as commander of the U.S. Central Command this month, gives the Taliban the breathing space they so desperately need, he will be ensuring their return to power in Kabul within a few years. Equally to the point, if Saudi Arabia restarts its generous financial aid to the Taliban, it will be a lethal blow to the United States and its allies. Both financial starvation of the Taliban and military pressure need to continue.
Short cuts often prolong wars. There is no short-cut solution to the mess that has been created by the Pakistan army in its own backyard. Rather than returning to the 1990s policy of cozying up to the Taliban, the United States and NATO must intensify the search for the militia, deny them safe haven, and arm those willing to battle them, no matter what brand of cologne they use.
NATO must also give the Pakistan army an ultimatum – either it takes out the Taliban within its territory, or NATO will.
In Iraq, the insurgency is showing signs of subsiding, but this is because of the new policy of leaving almost all operations to local troops. The insurgents there are not religious fanatics, but nationalists. Afghanistan presents an entirely different situation. In this theater, NATO needs to finish a job that ought never to have been derailed by the occupation of Iraq. It needs to decapitate the Taliban.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)