How to beat the Taliban

Opinion piece in The Australian.

FIVE years after the Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan, it is increasingly clear that there is nothing inevitable about success against the extremists. Nor is failure preordained. Although the vast majority of the Afghan population still welcomes the international presence, many local leaders are withholding support from both sides as they try to determine which side is more likely to emerge on top. They have bitter memories of past international promises of long-term engagement followed by premature withdrawal.

The reality is that there are no quick fixes in Afghanistan. And nowhere is this more evident than the remote southern province of Uruzgan, where several hundred Australian troops are posted as part of the international effort to provide security and rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure.

Uruzgan is one of the poorest provinces in one of the world’s least developed countries. This was Taliban heartland in the 1990s, and the movement’s leader-in-hiding, Mullah Omar, hails from the region. Yet between that regime’s overthrow in 2001 and the NATO-led move down south last year, the area was simply left to fester, providing the perfect haven for militants to regroup and recruit. Complicating the picture is the exploding drugs trade, which is both a symptom and a source of instability and corruption. Afghanistan last year produced a record opium crop and is on track to beat that this year. Police chief posts in drug producing districts in the south are auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars each year, and the UN drugs chief recently described the production of opium in southern Afghanistan as “out of control”.

So, what is to be done? Strategies must start with cutting off the staging posts and sanctuaries provided to the insurgent leadership in Pakistan. Pakistan’s tribal belt provides a safe haven for Taliban militants and a near endless source of jihadi recruits from fundamentalist madrassas.

Ultimately this conflict will only be won by addressing the legitimate grievances of the Afghan people, not by negotiating with violent extremists. There has to be a long-term effort to build effective, fair local institutions that provide real security to the population. The international community must be prepared to provide the political cover and courage to the country’s leadership to tackle corrupt and discredited powerbrokers rather than the present short-term strategy of simply drawing everyone, no matter how tainted, into the fold, creating a culture of impunity and corruption.

This is foremost a struggle for hearts and minds. The insurgents understand this all too well. They are conducting an effective propaganda campaign, giving television and radio interviews and distributing pamphlets to make themselves appear far more powerful and pervasive than they really are. They routinely exaggerate or lie about the successes of the “mujaheddin of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” against what they describe as the “American Christian kafir terrorists occupation military-led NATO forces”. In response the Government and its international allies are too often reactive at best, and frequently make claims that themselves defy credibility.

International forces must stay the distance – another decade at the very least – with increased emphasis on training and equipping Afghan security forces. While the international community can provide the security umbrella, it is ultimately local forces and institutions that will determine success against the insurgents.

Jobs are vital too, creating real occupations for local youths so they do not have to turn to the gun or poppies. One widely praised initiative is a small vocational training project in Uruzgan, led by the Australians. It teaches locals skills such as bricklaying and carpentry, and then works with the Afghan Government to place them in jobs in an area where there are otherwise few lawful options.

All of this matters to Australia because the outcome of this struggle is of vital national interest to it. If Afghanistan becomes a failed state, extremists will once again use its territory for training camps and as a launching pad for terrorist attacks across the world. Australia’s sizeable contribution to the international effort reflects its interest in creating a viable state. Most significantly, the Australian Government has made it clear that this is a long-term commitment. It’s also one that is likely to be expanded soon, hopefully with bipartisan support. This increase could most usefully take the form of additional forces in the south, as few other nations seem prepared to step up to the plate in the region that matters most.

More must be done on the diplomatic front. Prime Minister John Howard should leverage his close relationship with Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to push Pakistan to take strong and sustained action to cut off the militants’ sources of recruitment and sanctuaries on its soil. With Afghanistan’s future in the balance, Australia can help tip it towards success by making the long-term and effective commitments required if Afghans are to defeat the spoilers, rebuild their shattered state and deny a safe haven to future terrorists.

Nick Grono is vice-president of the International Crisis Group in Brussels. He has travelled to Afghanistan regularly since 2004.

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