THE PRE-DAWN SILENCE in eastern
Afghanistan's Nuristan province was shattered on July 13 by the racket of
machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades; the attack on the new base was
fiercer and the insurgent force larger than American troops could have expected.
The first enemy fire struck the mortar pit, then their RPGs blew up a tow
truck. Stars and Stripes, the U.S. armed forces' overseas newspaper,
reported that after two hours of combat "some of the soldiers' guns seized
up because they expelled so many rounds so quickly."
The attack on the small base near
the remote village of Wanat drew enormous media attention. It was not just the
fact that nine American soldiers lost their lives. A reported 200 well-armed
insurgents managed to mass around the base and came close to overrunning it. Stars
and Stripes noted that "so many RPGs were fired at the soldiers that
they wondered how the insurgents had so many." This early morning attack
quickly came to symbolize the growing difficulties of the Afghanistan war.
Insurgent activity in Afghanistan
has spiked in recent months. According to Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser,
the U.S. commander of NATO forces in the region, there were about 40 percent
more attacks in eastern Afghanistan over the first five months of 2008 than
during the same period a year ago. Schloesser has also described the attacks as
"increasingly complex." A mid-July ABC News/Washington Post
poll found that a surprising 45 percent of Americans "do not think the war
in Afghanistan is worth fighting," despite the attacks of 9/11.
A critical factor behind
Afghanistan's deteriorating state is the turn of events in Pakistan, where the
Taliban and al Qaeda have found a safe haven in recent years. After the October
2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan felled the Taliban, most of al Qaeda's senior
leadership relocated to Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, the
remote and mountainous regions that border Afghanistan, and set about finding
allies within tribal society.
Pakistan's military mounted a
campaign to flush al Qaeda out of the tribal areas after the group was
connected to multiple assassination attempts against Pakistani president Pervez
Musharraf, but the military suffered so many losses that Musharraf eventually
concluded he had no choice but to deal with his would-be killers. In March and
September 2006 he consummated the two halves of the Waziristan accords, peace
agreements that essentially ceded Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Musharraf also cut deals with Islamic militants in the regions of Swat, Bajaur,
and Mohmand. The treaties, punctuated with frequent skirmishes, symbolized
Pakistan's inability to confront its extremists.
The negotiation process only
accelerated after a new parliamentary majority rode to power in February on a
wave of anti-American sentiment. While negotiations and peace deals with
militants have long been part of Pakistan's political landscape, the scale of
negotiations under the new majority was unprecedented. Talks opened with virtually
every militant outfit in the country, and the government has entered into seven
agreements encompassing nine districts.
It was easy to predict the failure
of the Waziristan accords, in which the government received only unenforceable
promises from extremists, and there is no reason to believe that the new
accords will yield a different result. Rather, they are likely to increase the
geographic areas that serve as safe havens for Pakistan's extremist groups-with
predictable harm to Afghanistan.
he primary advantage that terrorist
sanctuaries in northwestern Pakistan provide to the Afghan insurgency is the
ability to operate with relative freedom in that country. The U.S. military is
constrained in cross-border strikes and hot pursuit because Pakistan views the
tribal areas as sovereign territory. Not only is Pakistan a U.S. ally, but
there are also serious concerns that too heavy a U.S. hand in the tribal areas
will destabilize the government and push more members of Pakistan's military
and intelligence communities and civilian population into the extremists' camp.
Thus, the American military is
handcuffed in its ability to respond to attacks when the enemy melts back over
Pakistan's border. Reluctance to strike in Pakistani territory also prevents
the U.S. military from disrupting the enemy's bases and supply lines. The safe
havens in northwestern Pakistan give the Taliban and allied groups a virtually
untouchable rear area, where they can recruit, arm, train, and infiltrate
fighters into Afghanistan.
Pakistan is used both defensively
and offensively by insurgents. The July attack in Nuristan was just one of many
attacks along the border. Militant groups based in Pakistan have been able to
carry out a string of fresh attacks and bombings in the provinces of Zabul,
Paktika, Paktia, Nangarhar, and Kunar--all of which sit along the border.
The second advantage that Afghan
insurgents derive from Pakistan is the ability to train and gain combat
experience. American military and intelligence officials have told us that more
than 100 training camps are operating in the North-West Frontier Province and
tribal areas, up from an estimated 29 camps last year in Waziristan. The camps
vary in size and specialty, and some are temporary.
At these camps, a host of extremist
groups--including local Taliban organizations, hardcore al Qaeda recruits, and
Pakistani terror groups focused on Kashmir-are trained in a variety of tactics,
techniques, and procedures. Training for the Taliban's military arm focuses on
the fight against the Pakistani army or NATO forces in Afghanistan. Other camps
focus on training suicide bombers or preparing al Qaeda operatives for attacks
in the West. One camp exclusively services the Black Guard, Osama bin Laden's elite
In addition to the training camps,
insurgents have gained experience fighting against Pakistan's military,
Frontier Corps, and police forces. Though not all Taliban fighters who battle
Pakistan's security forces travel to Afghanistan to fight NATO, some do. The
Pakistani theater has allowed the Taliban to refine its tactics against a
professional military, and these tactics have in turn migrated into
The peace treaties that Pakistan's
government has entered into with extremists also allow a greater flow of
recruits to join insurgent groups. Some are volunteers, while others are
draftees. The author of a remarkable travelogue about Pakistan's Khyber agency
recently published in the English-language daily The News was told by a
local business owner that the Taliban forces families to provide one male to
join their ranks. "Those who refuse," he was told, "risk having
their homes demolished and a heavy fine ... imposed."
Indeed, once peace agreements are
signed, the Taliban frequently establishes a parallel political administration.
Two of the top priorities are extracting taxes and recruiting fighters. This
provides the Taliban with a robust force that allows it to hold local territory
and send more fighters to Afghanistan. In fact, the Nuristan assault was
conducted by a broad range of extremist groups. Tamim Nuristani, the former
governor of Nuristan, said the attackers were "not only Taliban. They were
[Pakistan-based] Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hezb-i-Islami, Taliban, and those people who
are dissatisfied with the [Karzai] government."
In an effort to defeat NATO, the
Taliban and allied groups are targeting coalition supply lines through
Pakistan. More than 70 percent of NATO's supplies pass through the Torkham Gate
in the Khyber tribal agency. The Taliban runs much of that province, with
Pakistani troops heavily patrolling the road to Afghanistan but little else.
Despite this military presence, the Taliban still periodically disrupts supply
lines. In March, Taliban fighters blew up 36 parked oil tankers destined for
Afghanistan in what appeared to be a chain reaction triggered by an initial
bomb blast. In July, an armed Taliban squad in Landikotal smashed the windows
and punctured the tires of a NATO supply convoy. The Taliban has distributed leaflets
threatening drivers who deliver oil or other supplies to coalition forces.
Insurgents in Afghanistan will
continue to use the situation in Pakistan to their advantage. One of the keys
to a successful U.S. mission in Afghanistan is a sound Pakistan policy.
Otherwise, the war may be lost on both fronts.