The days are growing longer, the nights correspondingly shorter, and soon, things are going to begin to heat up in Afghanistan as the yearly winter hiatus, the annual break in thirty years of war, comes to an end. It’s a rite of spring in that part of the globe. This year looks to be a particularly important year in the world’s most consistently war-torn country.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda have taken advantage of the inability of NATO and American troops to follow them into the tribal areas of Pakistan. There, they have regrouped. And once again, they are fierce opponents. Taliban and Qaeda fighters stream across the border into Afghanistan in numbers too numerous to prevent. It’s a crapshoot for these fighters. When these movements have been detected by American or NATO intelligence, air strikes and ground action follow quickly. In one such instance, in January, NATO forces confronted a group of fighters making the crossing and killed an estimated 150 of them. But that does not matter, as more and more young men answer the call to jihad.
The tribal areas of Pakistan have become an impenetrable basing area for America’s enemies. The areas are close-knit. Loyalties run deep and outsiders are rare. Accordingly, our intelligence is weak. This occurred because we are constrained by borders. We operate in Afghanistan, unable to provide anything other than air support for occasional Pakistani military forays into an area of their own country where central authority is loathe to make its presence felt.
Our enemies in Pakistan and Afghanistan have their own idea of borders, and their map is quite different from anything hanging on the walls of the UN. To them, Afghanistan and Pakistan are defined areas, yes, but they are not political constructs that hold any authority over them. They have taken shrewd advantage of our own constraints to define the battlefield on their own terms. In Afghanistan they fight. In Pakistan, they rest, recuperate, and recruit.
Both the United States and British governments recognize how crucial the spring offensives could become. Alongside the surge of troops into Iraq, President Bush has announced that additional troops are heading to Afghanistan. The day after British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the fazed withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, he committed 1,000 more to Afghanistan to make up for troop shortfalls from other NATO nations.
The Taliban cannot be allowed to establish control in areas of Afghanistan. As the Taliban go, so goes Al Qaeda. The more area the Taliban controls, the more freedom Al Qaeda has to operate, thus helping them reestablish even further the central control that led to the string of successful attacks in the 1990’s and 2000 culminating in the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
In addition, elements of the Pakistani government have been hedging their bets against continued NATO commitment in Afghanistan. There is evidence that Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, has continued to materially fund Islamist extremists in the tribal areas. It is only a short leap to imagine this support making its way to the Taliban and eventually to Al Qaeda itself. NATO and the U.S. must have a strong, if not cripplingly effective showing against the Taliban and Al Qaeda this spring in order to marginalize them in the region, thus emboldening the Pakistani government to not only stop funding our enemies, but to give them an opportunity to participate in their ouster without endangering the regime of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
This spring would not be so important had we been able to curtail the resurgence of our enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan these past few years. But the war in Iraq made this impossible. As a result, the situation has reached critical mass. Once again, the Taliban is able to field large numbers of fighters, and once again, Al Qaeda is a reconstituted, centrally run terrorist organization in the area with global reach.
Iraq is a train wreck, but Afghanistan is frightening.