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An Absolutely Frightening Story in 'The New York Times'


The superb story by Matthew Rosenberg in The New York Times on Tuesday, casually titled 'U.S. Disrupts Tack on Militants,' is actually one of the scarier things written about Afghanistan in quite a while. (And that is saying something). One of the numerous problems confronting Afghanistan is that it faces various threats from extremist groups that operate out of Pakistan. These Pakistani Taliban, and their allies in Al Qaeda, are now busy waging war against the Pakistani state after years of being nurtured by that state's military. And the Pakistani Taliban are close allies of the Afghan Taliban, which was founded by the infamous Mullah Omar, and which has spent the last twenty years alternately enslaving (before 9/11) and tormenting (after October 2001) the people of Afghanistan. And yet:

United States Special Forces raided an Afghan convoy that was ushering a senior Pakistan Taliban militant, Latif Mehsud, to Kabul for secret talks last month, and now have Mr. Mehsud in custody. Publicly, the Afghan government has described Mr. Mehsud as an insurgent peace emissary. But according to Afghan officials, the ultimate plan was to take revenge on the Pakistani military...

Now, not content to be merely the target of a proxy war, the Afghan government decided to recruit proxies of its own by seeking to aid the Pakistan Taliban in their fight against Pakistan’s security forces, according to Afghan officials. And they were beginning to make progress over the past year, they say, before the American raid exposed them.

Rosenberg adds: "Not only has Washington failed to persuade Pakistan to stop using militants to destabilize its neighbors—a major American foreign policy goal in recent years—but its failure also appears to have persuaded Afghanistan to try the same thing."

To describe the Afghan government's initiative as insane would be generous. Yes, it is true that Afghan resentment at Pakistan is understandable and deep, and that the country's weariness and anger about being treated in a colonial manner by its larger and nuclear-armed neighbor makes plenty of sense. But the idea that this is going to help Afghanistan emerge from its decades-long troubles is far-fetched, to say the least. For starters, Pakistan is much, much more powerful than Afghanistan, and is unlikely to take kindly to this particular  proxy war. Secondly, the attempt to discriminate among different Taliban factions is destined for disaster. Indeed, this is precisely what has motivated Pakistani policy in Afghanistan for the past decade, with horrific results...for Pakistan. There may be distinctions to be made among different Taliban factions, but they are all extreme and interconnected, and nurturing some of them while opposing others has brought Pakistan to its current, blood-soaked impasse. (This same attempt to discriminate shows up among supporters of peace talks with various Taliban factions—something that so far, unsurprisingly, has not succeeded). And finally, as Rosenberg points out:

American officials said they were also worried that the Afghan actions would give credibility to Pakistani complaints that enemies based in Afghanistan presented them with a threat equivalent to the Afghan insurgency. No one in the Western intelligence community believes the comparison to be anywhere close, given that the Afghan Taliban insurgency, with help from its Pakistani allies, has killed tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan in the past 12 years, including more than 2,000 Americans. “What were they thinking?” said one American official of his Afghan counterparts.

The sense that the Afghan government's plan has not been fully thought-out is confirmed by some of the quotes in Rosenberg's piece:

As a consolation, the Afghan officials said they now wanted Pakistan to know that Afghanistan could play dirty as well. One said they would try again if given the opportunity.

This isn't strategy: It's the result of wounded pride. However much sympathy one may have for Afghanistan, a new proxy war is not the solution.