The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot ‘cut and run’ in Afghanistan. Twice in the last quarter century, the US has squandered great victories achieved in Afghanistan by failing to follow up battlefield success with an enduring and resourced commitment to helping to build a stable government in Afghanistan. Both times the cost of ‘taking our eye off the ball’ in Afghanistan had been high. It is imperative not to make the same mistake a third time or the cost will again be painful, and we probably won’t get a fourth opportunity.
In the late 1980s, after the largest covert operation in the nation’s history, American-supported Afghan mujahideen defeated the Soviet 40th Red Army. Next, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. The mujahideen were badly divided however, and quickly fell into civil war. The US could have led an international effort to restore order and rallied key players like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to try to end the conflict. Instead, Afghanistan got virtually no attention from the White House or the Congress. By the late 1990s, the radical Taliban movement had taken power and was hosting the even more radical al-Qaeda terrorist group that attacked America, first in 1998, then again in 2000 and finally on September 11, 2001.
In late 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency led a campaign to topple the Taliban with the support of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s foe inside Afghanistan. Again the results were spectacular and came much faster. By early 2002, the Taliban were routed, al-Qaeda was on the run and the two were retreating into Pakistan. A concerted effort in 2002 and 2003 probably would have destroyed al-Qaeda and developed an Afghan State that could exercise its control over the Pashtun belt in the south where the Taliban are strongest. Instead, American resources and attention shifted to Iraq and the Afghans got marginal support from America. By 2006, the Taliban had come back. Again, American resources surged toward Iraq and the Taliban comeback accelerated. By the end of 2008, they had become increasingly confident and controlled much of the countryside in the southern part of the country where Pashtuns are a majority.
Today the war is being lost in Afghanistan but it is not yet lost. President Obama has decided to send resources to the war to break the momentum of the Taliban. By summer, we will have doubled our troop commitment on the ground. He is right to do so.
If the Taliban consolidate their position in southern and eastern Afghanistan, it is certain they will again give al-Qaeda a safe haven to plot against America, expanding the sanctuary they already have in Pakistan. There is no reason to believe Mullah Omar has broken with Osama bin Laden since 2001. Many have asked him to, including the Saudis last year, with no result. Indeed, his rhetoric since 2001 has increasingly been that of a global jihadist, placing the Afghan Taliban struggle inside the global fight against Nato’s ‘Crusader’ armies. If Omar did not break with al-Qaeda in 2001 after 9/11, when the survival of his Islamic Emirate was at stake, it is far less likely he will break when he senses our will is broken in Afghanistan. His goals are to drive us out and impose the medieval hell he built in the 1990s back on the Afghan people.
Even more devastating would be the impact in neighbouring Pakistan. A victory for the Afghan Taliban would encourage its new partners, the Pakistan Taliban, in their struggle to take over the world’s second largest Muslim country. This February several Pakistani Taliban leaders united their forces and proclaimed their allegiance both to Omar and bin Laden. Already on the march in Pakistan from the tribal frontiers to inside major cities like Karachi, a Pakistani Taliban further invigorated by its partner’s success across the Durand Line would be well positioned to take over much of the country. The Pakistani army would probably make a deal, as it already has in the Swat district. Al-Qaeda’s room for manoeuvre would be even greater and it and its friends like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba might well get their hands on the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.
India would be at risk as well. It has invested extensively in trying to stabilise the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan because it knows the Taliban are an enemy of India. The painful experience of IC-814 still resonates in India’s election campaign as a reminder of what a Taliban Afghanistan means for the Indian people. Those who planned the Mumbai attack are allies of Mullah Omar and bin Laden.
Ignoring Afghanistan has cost the US and the region a great deal. Now is the time to help the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom do not want the Taliban back, to build a national security force that can protect them. We cannot afford to make the same mistake three times.
Bruce Riedel is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East policy in the Brookings Institution and a Professor at Georgetown University.