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US Options on the Table for Iraq – Taliban Lessons for Afghanistan

Commentary, 14 June 2014
Central and South Asia, Middle East and North Africa
The Taliban are taking note as militants seize large swathes of Iraq. As the United States considers its options, it must do so bearing in mind its decisions in Iraq – whatever they may be –may well affect the drawdown in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are taking note as militants seize large swathes of Iraq. As the United States considers its options, it must do so bearing in mind its decisions in Iraq  – whatever they may be – may well affect the drawdown in Afghanistan.

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As the international community considers how to respond to the stunning capitulation of a swathe of Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and as President Obama considers ‘all options on the table,’ the Taliban may well be looking on with great interest.  This year, the USA begins its pull out from Afghanistan and the Taliban have made no secret of their intention to reclaim the country when ISAF leaves.  ISIS’s blitzkrieg assault on Mosul, Tikrit and other towns and its planned invasion of Baghdad will be a source of both inspiration and information for the Taliban. 

The Taliban will be scouring news reports and videos to determine tactics and procedures used by the Iraqi insurgency.  They will want every piece of information they can get to adapt their plans to wrestle control of the country from the Afghan Army as efficiently as the ISIS seems, so far, to have done from the Iraqi Army.  They may even be sending agents or emissaries to the country to get first hand accounts and sensitive information from the Iraqi insurgents.

As for inspiration, the Taliban will be compiling reports, stories and sermons in Pashtu about the heroic exploits of their Arab brethren.   They have to do this because their ordinary followers cannot be trusted to remain immune from the ungodly effects of satanic TV and uncensored press.  Their highly effective spin-doctors will, however, probably feel redundant during this process.  The facts of ISIS’ achievements are more awesome than the creative commentary that accompanies their usual propaganda outputs. 

Act in Iraq, Repercussions in Afghanistan

So when considering what to do in Iraq, the USA will need to also consider what to avoid in Afghanistan.  While only few people believed that a band of ill-disciplined insurgents, too barbaric even for Al-Qa’ida, would be able to capture the second largest city in Iraq and threaten its capital, many fully expect the Taliban to be able to do the same in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban are greater in number, better resourced and with stronger support in the population than ISIS had in Iraq.  They further face a simpler political mix within their country.  Tribal divisions aside, the country faces a binary political choice between the Taliban and the rest.  True, there is a broad racial overlay with the Taliban dominating the Pashtun peoples and Tajiks and other minorities favouring the ISAF supported state of Afghanistan.  However, these differences are presented, if not seen, as primarily a coincidence of political alliance rather than race. 

All races are free to choose between the Islamist politics of the Taliban or the democratic (within the constrains of political corruption) politics of the State.  Afghanistan’s political culture is based on a history where an ideology follows power and a counter-ideology opposes power.  For this reason many Afghans, even those in positions of authority today, expect to have to change sides when the pendulum swings the way of the Taliban. So, provided the Taliban can make a sufficiently strong military push, political or ideological capitulation is potentially more easily achievable by them in Afghanistan than by the ISIS in Iraq.

The international community and particularly the USA will be well advised to think now about the crisis it will face when the world looks on in shock as the Taliban begin their promised resurgence.  As in Iraq, they could of course do nothing but that would raise the question ‘what did the thousands of US soldiers die for in Iraq?’

Providing the Iraqi government with sufficient boots on the ground to push the ISIS back into the oblivion from whence it came would beg the question ‘what are you going to achieve now that you failed to achieve in over a decade with over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq?’  An imperfect compromise between the two extremes will result and will bring with it criticism from both the interventionist and isolationist lobbies. Add to that the inevitable criticism from the Republican party in the USA, the President faces a compromise choice between two unattractive options.  The only political benefit he can draw from this is to see it as a dry run for the dilemma his country will face a year or so down stream.

Demanding Maliki’s Resignation

Of the many constructive things he could do in sorting out this political mess is to make any support for Iraq conditional on the current government making a meaningful commitment to good governance and a culture of accountability.  While he has recently made some veiled comments in that direction, he should consider being explicit. 

Prime Minister Maliki has clearly failed to unite the country, failed to provide it sufficient security and has done very little to reach out to the deprived Sunni heartlands.  He must be invited to do the decent thing and fall on his sword as a condition of Western assistance.  That would be a powerful and clear message to the new incumbent of the Presidential Palace in Kabul in July.  Iraq today provides an opportunity for a clear change in messaging: the West will no longer help irresponsible and ineffective leadership.

Group Captain (Rtd) Afzal Ashraf served as an Engineer officer in the Royal Air Force. His tours of duty included counterinsurgency and policing focussed operational tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and a position in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where he was responsible for political and military policy as well as security sector reform in Iraq.

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