By Richard Weitz (06/25/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The military conflict in Afghanistan remains stalemated. Coalition forces continue to win conventional battles against the Taliban insurgents, but the guerrillas remain sufficiently robust to prevent the Afghan government from establishing control over much of the country, or NATO governments from envisaging a near-term exit from the Afghan War. Recent developments in Pakistan threaten to make matters even worse.                                                                                                                            

BACKGROUND: NATO commanders argue that the military situation in Afghanistan had improved substantially during the past year. In their view, the Taliban has been unable to achieve major successes on the battlefield, and the coalition is attacking the Taliban’s core leadership cadres. The number of foreign troops supporting the Afghan government continues to rise. At present, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has over 52,000 personnel, from 40 nations, including all 26 NATO countries. An additional 19,000 American troops serve under separate U.S. command, while the Afghan National Army continues to grow stronger thanks to a comprehensive multinational train-and-equip program.

NATO representatives note that although Western troops have been operating in Afghanistan for six years, Afghans have not turned against the coalition despite a traditional aversion to foreign military presence. According to NATO leaders, the only area in which the Taliban has achieved some success has been in public relations, especially in exaggerating NATO’s responsibility for noncombatant casualties.

Recent military developments appear to confirm NATO assessments about the conventional military balance. Last week, NATO and Afghan forces easily expelled hundreds of Taliban fighters from over a dozen villages the latter had occupied near the southern city of Kandahar. The offensive involved an impressive combined air-land operation in which warplanes and attack helicopters provided close air support for a primarily Afghan-led ground operation. Taliban commanders might have occupied the villages in the Arghandab district as a preliminary move toward attempting to reassert control over their former stronghold of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city.

The outcome demonstrated again that the Taliban cannot establish a formal area of control inside Afghanistan. Taliban units have had to evade conventional battles with coalition forces and rely instead on asymmetric tactics. Even so, these latter operations have proven sufficiently successful to prevent coalition forces from consolidating control over much of Afghanistan. Last year, Taliban attacks killed 8,000 people in Afghanistan, the highest number since the 2001 coalition invasion that drove the Taliban from power.

An increasingly common Taliban response has been to employ suicide bombings and ambushes using improvised explosive devices. The number of roadside bomb detonations exceeded 2,600 in 2007. In addition to these guerrilla tactics, the Taliban has also conducted a few well-planned and highly visible showcase attacks. In April, for example, the Taliban conducted a brazen attack in downtown Kabul during a ceremony attended by President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders. Another of these “spectaculars” occurred last week, when Taliban forces attacked Kandahar's main prison and freed hundreds of their supporters, many of whom have rejoined the insurgency. These tactics have created a public security and service vacuum conducive for Taliban exploitation.

Furthermore, analysts with the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently warned that despite spending $16.5 billion during the past five years, the U.S. government has been unable to develop an Afghan National Army or National Police capable of countering Taliban threats without substantial coalition support. NATO and other foreign military contingents will need to remain in Afghanistan until the government’s security forces become considerably stronger.

IMPLICATIONS: The Taliban’s continuing military operations have exacerbated relations between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. The jailbreak in Kandahar and the Taliban seizure of neighboring villages occurred within 100 kilometers of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The Taliban, along with some members of al-Qaeda and other foreign Islamist fighters, have been able to establish sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan, especially in the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA). This region has long enjoyed substantial autonomy from Pakistan’s central government based in Islamabad. Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Admiral Michael G. Mullen, warned that any future 9/11-style attack from al-Qaeda would probably originate from the organization’s new sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

The presence of large ethnic Pashtun tribes on both sides of the 2,430-kilometer (1,510 mile) Afghan-Pakistan frontier facilitates the infiltration of Taliban insurgents, who are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns. An estimated 40-50 million Pashtuns live on either side of the Durand Line, which formally divides the territory of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Many in Afghanistan do not consider the Line a formal international border.)

With varying degrees of American support, Pakistani authorities have tried diverse methods to curtail cross-border operations by Taliban units. These have ranged from deploying regular armed soldiers to reestablish control to launching regional socioeconomic initiatives, and to, most controversially, negotiating peace agreements with local leaders in which they would commit to policing the foreign fighters in their midst. None of these efforts have succeeded in curbing the guerrillas’ infiltration into Afghanistan.

A recent survey of the Pakistani public, conducted from May 25 to June 1 on behalf of Terror Free Tomorrow by the Pakistan Institute for Public Opinion, found that 48 percent of the 1,300 respondents want the Islamabad government to negotiate peace agreements with Afghan Taliban fighters rather than use military force against them. Almost three-fourths of the respondents (74 percent) opposed unilateral U.S. military action against al-Qaeda targets based in Pakistan. Pakistan’s newly elected democratic government has found it harder than the previous authoritarian regime to ignore such public sentiments.

American plans to promote closer ties between the Afghan and Pakistan governments—such as by establishing trilateral intelligence-sharing networks or by helping convene a “joint peace jirga” of Afghan and Pakistan Pushtun leaders—have also achieved only marginal improvements in regional security cooperation. The trilateral border commission, which includes military representatives from Pakistan as well as Afghanistan and NATO, has not met for months.

One of the arguments raised by American officials to solicit additional troop deployments for Afghanistan has been the need to counter the surge in cross-border attacks and infiltration that have occurred since the new Pakistani government has negotiated peace deals with Afghan militants.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose prospects of winning reelection next year are threatened by the continued fighting, announced last week that he was prepared to send Afghan troops into Pakistan to attack the Taliban sanctuaries directly. Although Pakistani officials dismissed the remark as election rhetoric, they warned they would resist unauthorized intrusions into their territory by Afghan or other foreign forces. Their response resembled that made last year, when Democratic Senator Barack Obama said the United States might need to send U.S. combat forces into Pakistan without Islamabad’s formal approval to attack any al-Qaeda elements based there.

Pakistani authorities are also still complaining about a U.S. air strike against Taliban guerrillas in the border region that killed eleven Pakistani soldiers. In unprecedented language, the Pakistani army described the June 10, 2008, attack as "completely unprovoked and cowardly.” On June 21, NATO forces along the border region lobbed several artillery rounds into Pakistan after an Afghan-ISAF base in southwest Afghanistan came under bombardment from unknown assailants based in northwest Pakistan.

CONCLUSION: The protracted military stalemate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater is stimulating renewed interest in negotiating some kind of settlement with “moderate” elements of the Taliban. In return for renouncing violence and embracing the Afghan constitution, which enshrines various civil rights for women and other groups, the Taliban would be allowed to participate in national elections and engage in other kinds of civic activities. Until now, Taliban leaders have insisted on wide-ranging (and unacceptable) concessions for any such deal, including the withdrawal of Western troops and control over considerable Afghan territory. Last year’s experience with a short-lived Taliban government in the southern city of Musa Qala, in which Taliban commanders imposed the kinds of extremist social and political policies that had marked Taliban rule before September 2001, suggests that even major compromises might not to moderate Taliban demands.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of Project Management at the Hudson Institute.