AFGHANISTAN AND THE "SPRING OFFENSIVE"
The simultaneous attacks against military and civilian infrastructures lead by the Talebans on Kabul and nearby provinces on April 15th have raised serious questions on the complexity of the Afghan scenario and on its future developments:
The Talebans, opposition movement to the government of President Ahmed Karzai, want the defeat of the Afghan security forces and of their NATO allies, while waiting for their withdrawal;
The Karzai regime has blamed ISAF's information apparatus for its inefficiency;
following these events, Australia has begun evaluating the possibility of anticipating the withdrawal of its contingent, currently expected for 2014: a decision that could potentially have a significant psychological impact on the other members of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission;
international deadlines could also have an impact: the NATO summit in Chicago (May 20-21); the U.S. presidential elections in November. Moreover, several observers of the Afghan scenario talk about “Summer Offensives” (as opposed to the ones in the Spring), meaning that the Talebans will continue their actions for the months to come.
The Spring offensive
The Talibans, a movement with a tribal base (the different Pashtun clans) born in the 90s after the ousting of the Soviet occupiers and that installed a fundamentalist regime in Kabul lead by Mullah Omar between 1996 and 2001, have organized their operative bases in the bordering tribal areas of Pakistan. It is from here that they launch their terrorist attacks on Afghan territory. They are organized along networks: the most relevant are those of Mullah Omar, Gulbudin Hekmatiar, Ismail Khan and Abdul Aki.
The spiritual leader of the Talebans (literally koranic students) is Mullah Omar Ahmed, born in Nodeh (near Kandahar) in 1959. Founder and emir of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, from the 27th of September 1996 till the 13th of November 2001, was based koranic law (Sharia) and on its precepts: burqa and no school for women, long beards for men; in synthesis, the elimination of any apparently Western influence, severe punishments for transgressors, including stoning and public executions.
Following the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 to put an end to the Emirate, the Mullah Omar has gone underground (with the United States having put on his head a 10 million dollars reward for information and 25 million dollars for his capture). News about the death or capture of the Mullah Omar are recurrent and soon denied!
On January 28th Washington has began direct talks with “moderate” Talebans in Doha, Qatar: negotiations are centered on Taleban prisoners held in Guantanamo and on the possible opening of a Taleban political office in Doha.
On April 15th the Talebans took governmental forces by surprise with simultaneous attacks, well organized over the preceding days: three against the capital (Parliament, the neighborhood where the embassies of Germany, United Kingdom and Japan are based, NATO bases – the ISAF HQ and the airport) and three in the nearby provinces of Nangahar (the Jalalabad airport), Lowgar (U.S. base of Pul-e-Alam) and Paktia (Gardez police training center).
All above mentioned provinces border with Western Pakistan and its tribal areas, known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), and is particular with Northern Waziristan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). These are all areas outside Islamabad's government control due to their impenetrability and perviousness. Furthermore, they don't benefit from any governmental subsidy because they are considered “linked to terrorism”.
As already stated, the Afghan Talebans use the FATA as a base to launch their offensives against Afghan governmental and ISAF coalition forces; the FATA is also used by Pakistan opposition movement TTP (Terik-el Taliban in Pakistan) to attack the Pakistan government. This is the “double front” of the FATA. In our specific case, the FATA was the base for preliminary reconnaissance and for the stocking of the arms used in the attacks.
The attacks proved the coordination of the Taleban operative groups, who occupied dominant positions over the various objectives (the highest floors of the “Kabul Star” hotel in the Embassy neighborhood and of another hotel in construction near the Parliament-Embassy of Russia); the use of shadid (suicide bombers), that exploded near the enemy defense and along the perimeter of the various objectives, was also relevant.
Following hours of clashes for the occupation of posts and the counteraction of enemy defense, the attack on the targets (that lasted about 17 hours according to media reports) has recorded the killing of 36 Talebans, 11 Afghan armed forces and 5 civilians.
As had already happened in the past, the retreat (only two Talebans were captured) and the return to normality of the areas under attack were well coordinated
The Taleban offensives at the beginning of Spring are an expected ritual, after the hazardous conditions of operations during the Afghan winter; they are also carried out to reaffirm their presence on the Afghan theatre and are a tool to raise the stakes during negotiations, as happening in Doha.
This time, the offensive was preceded by a series of events that have influenced the attitude of the local population, even though in some cases they were manipulated by some tribal chiefs. Events such as:
the burning of copies of the Koran at the Kabul Airport (U.S. Bagram base);
the desecration of a deceased afghan militant (U.S. soldiers urinating on his dead body);
the Kandahar massacre on March 11th by a U.S. Sergeant (who killed 16 people, including women and children).
The Afghan president Hamid Karzai has taken a stance against ISAF soldiers, inviting them to stay in their outposts – defined as FOB, Forward Advanced Base – and, above all, has decided the stop to the reconciliation talks in Doha. The Talebans proposed the negotiations take place solely between Afghans.
The insurgents have focused their actions against ISAF forces in Eastern Afghanistan; the Western provinces, Herat in particular, were spared because their control is effective and widespread; furthermore, they are distant from potential escape routes.
The Pashtun “Haqqani network” has given a considerable contribution to the Taliban's Spring offensive. They originate from the Afghan province of Paktia, their bases are in Northern Waziristan, in the FATA tribal area. The leader of the Haqqani network is Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the well known Jalaludin Haqqani, a legendary fighter against the Russian occupiers; Sirajuddin is in good terms with the Pakistani “intelligence” and with the Al Qaeda network of defunct Osama bin Laden.
The Pashtun represent 42% of Afghan population; they are mainly in the Center-South of the country and are divided in sub-groups, or clans, and are well rooted in their areas of origin (Ghilzai, Durrani, Popalzai – the clan of President Karzai – , Haqqani etc.). They are also sometimes at war with each other in struggle for or against the government of Kabul. The Pashtun are traditionally linked to the ancient capital of Afghanistan, Kandahar, rather than Kabul.
The rest of the population is composed of ethnic minorities from neighboring countries: tajiks (27%), hazari (9%), uzbeks (9%), turmens (3%) and other (10% including baluchis from bordering Pakistan).
On the domestic front it is important to consider that the confidence in the Karzai government, accused of being corrupt and of leaving only the crumbs of external aid to the population, has been withering. The Talebans, being opposed to the government in Kabul, have gained the looks of “saviors of the people”: they can rely on economic resources (even though they come from drug trafficking), offer jobs and pay for them. Furthermore, the modernist minority factions within the Talebans have shown some openings on women rights (allow school teaching; allow femal only schools).
On the international front, with the failure of the strategy adopted by the West (importation of democracy regardless of the updating of institutions and, to that effect, of the identification of moderate factions with which to dialogue), the keystone factor could come from Islam through the involvement of nearby countries (an option that Washington has already begun to evaluate), which means Shiite Iran and Sunni Pakistan; yet the option is not free from difficulties:
Iran cannot act in Afghanistan like it did in Iraq and Syria; and then there is the nuclear program.
Pakistan is advantaged by the strategy it has carried out so far, that of the “double dealing and double command” with the intervention – depending from case to case – of the “Intelligence services” or of the “army”.
What are the alternatives to the withdrawal of the ISAF mission?
After 11 years of military deployment in Afghanistan on the part of the West and with a considerable number of casualties at an elevated cost (billions of dollars), we must consider attentively the announcement made by the Australian contingent, especially in view of the international agenda: the May NATO meeting in Chicago; the possible resumption of talks for Afghanistan in Qatar; the November presidential elections in the United States (for Obama's second term).
There are serious doubts on the future results of the ISAF mission: we must remember that after the “twin tower” attack on 9/11 2001, the Afghanistan mandate included a reaction against those that organized 9/11 and against the “oppressive regime” of the country that hosted them, the institution of democracy to avoid similar situations in the future.
At this point in time, Osama Bin Laden has been eliminated, but the advent of democracy in Afghanistan is still a distant objective: we should ask ourselves whether Afghanistan can “fare for itself”, so that the ISAF mission can withdraw.
Despite the acceptable reaction of the Afghan government forces against the April 15 Spring offensive by the Taliban, there is the need to complete - before withdrawing from the country – the training and formation of the ANA (Afghani National Army) and the ordering of the ANP (Afghan National Police): the manning must be increased from the present 300 thousand to 350 thousand, especially by incrementing the police forces from the present 130 thousand men to 180 thousand (Starting 2015 there will be 4,1 billion dollars a year for financing and maintaing and keeping the Afghan security forces operative).
It is also necessary to organize the “exit strategy” with a shared vision and to co-ordinate it within the ISAF so as to avoid dangerous individual initiatives on the part of the participating countries, with negative “domino effect” repercussions, given the common economic difficulties of those nations. the policies of the US contingent should also be considered: withdrawal of 22 thousand soldiers next summer and total withdrawal by the year 2014.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan now could bring us back to a scenario that we have already witnessed in 1989 (withdrawal of the Soviets), with dramatic developments on the inside, close to an all out “civil war for power” between opposing factions; the operative and economic contribution of ISAF must be maintained until the Afghan forces are suitably trained and independently operational. This would avoid afterthoughts and further intervention