US military and intelligence officials are concerned that a proposed alternative plan to ramp up cross-border attacks in Pakistan and rapidly build the Afghan security forces in lieu of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy may take hold and lead to a catastrophic failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This alternative strategy, which was proposed by Vice President Joe Biden and reported in The New York Times, calls for reducing the US military mission in Afghanistan and ramping up airstrikes and covert raids against the al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics,” The New York Times reported. “The Americans would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan.”
But US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal warned that a strict focus on a counterterrorism mission concentrating on al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan would cede the ground in Afghanistan to both the Taliban and al Qaeda and would have only a limited impact on al Qaeda’s leadership.
A ramped up program of cross-border strikes into Pakistan would also likely lead to the destabilization of Pakistan’s government and a possible revolt within the Pakistani military and intelligence services. And, a strategy that focuses heavily on counterterrorism tactics such as unmanned strikes and night raids would only play into the propaganda message of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Strong links between al Qaeda and the Taliban will provide safe havens
US officials have warned that focusing on al Qaeda while ignoring the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan underestimates the close relationships between the groups.
“The theory that al Qaeda will not seek shelter with the Afghan Taliban ignores the very lessons we have learned since the Sept. 11 attacks,” a US military intelligence official who focuses on al Qaeda and the Taliban told The Long War Journal. “If anything, the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda has strengthened, not weakened, over the past few years.”
The relationship between the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda is cited as the prime example of the increased linkage between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Siraj Haqqani, the military commander of the Haqqani Network, which operates in eastern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan, has close ties to both Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. He has recruited both foreign and local fighters to serve as suicide bombers and has employed them against Afghan and Coalition forces.
Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a senior Haqqani Network military commander, recently said the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban is strong. Sangeen made the statement in an interview with As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm. According to Sangeen:
“All praise is for Allah, Al-Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and Al Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Osama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen (Mullah Muhammad Omar) and has reassured his leadership again and again. There is no difference between us, for we are united by Islam and the Sharia governs us. Just as the infidels are one people, so are the Muslims, and they will never succeed in disuniting the Mujahideen, saying that there is Al- Qaeda and Taliban, and that Al-Qaeda are terrorists and extremists. They use many such words, but by the Grace of Allah, it will not affect our brotherly relationship. Now they are also trying to disunite the Taliban, saying that there are two wings, one extremist and another moderate. However, the truth is that we are all one and are united by Islam.”
The close ties between the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda were highlighted in General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment on Afghanistan, which was leaked to The Washington Post. According to McChrystal, the Haqqanis’ territories in Khost, Paktika, and Paktia provinces are ripe for al Qaeda camps.
“Al Qaeda’s links with HQN [Haqqani Network] have grown, suggesting that expanded HQN control could create a favorable environment for AQAM [al Qaeda and allied movements] to re-establish safe-havens in Afghanistan,” according to the McChrystal assessment.
Withdrawing into bases to conduct raids and Predator/Reaper airstrikes in Pakistan would only allow al Qaeda to prosper in Afghanistan.
“If we pull back, the Afghan military will not be able to hold ground, and the Taliban, the Haqqanis, HIG [Gulbuddin Hekmartyr’s Hizb-i-Islami faction], and smaller groups will take the ground in much of the South and East, and even in areas in the West and North,” a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
“Once we lose that ground, our access to local intel is hampered,” the official said. “We have no doubt al Qaeda and the Taliban will reestablish dominance in short order. The very security of the bases used to conduct the strikes in Pakistan would be in jeopardy.”
“There are already Taliban safe havens in many areas in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda trainers and advisers, and even some paramilitary units from Brigade 055 are in Afghanistan,” the official continued, referring to one of the brigades of al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
A pullback of Coalition forces would also create an incentive for the Pakistani military and intelligence services to revitalize their support for the Taliban, officials say.
“The Pakistanis have long believed we will pull back, that our will to ride out the storm in Afghanistan is weak, and they’ve kept some Taliban groups in reserve for just that day,” one official said.
“Pakistan will want to fill the political and security vacuum in Afghanistan with its historic allies: the Taliban,” an official said.
“The concept of strategic depth has not been tossed aside by the Pakistanis; it has merely been shelved until we in the US and NATO lose our will,” a military officer said, referring to Pakistan’s strategy to back the Taliban as a reserve force against its traditional enemy, India, as well as a way to keep India from exercising influence in Afghanistan.
Destabilization in Pakistan
An increase in Predator and Reaper strikes in Pakistan’s border areas will also have a negative impact on relations with Pakistan, and might potentially destabilize the Pakistani government.
“Powerful, anti-American elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment may revolt against an increase in US strikes inside Pakistan,” a senior intelligence official said. “There is much distaste for the strikes as is, and increasing the frequency of strikes while putting US troops on the ground inside Pakistan would be a red line for some.”
“The Pakistani military might be able to look the other way from the unmanned strikes, as they currently do, but drastically increasing the strikes along with the addition of US Special Operations Forces regularly entering the country would not be accepted for long,” the official continued. “Just look at the uproar last September’s raid in South Waziristan caused. The Pakistanis closed the Khyber Pass in protest.”
The Pakistani government has played a double game when it comes to US airstrikes in the tribal areas, which highlights the political sensitivities over the issue. The government officially condemns the strikes while privately approving them, and has tasked the military to provide intelligence on terror groups in the tribal areas. At least one US Predator base has been identified in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan. But to this day, US intelligence officials believe powerful elements within Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency are tipping off al Qaeda and the Taliban on strikes when they are able to.
US officials are also certain that a stepped up US ground campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas will force al Qaeda and allied groups to disperse to other areas in Pakistan, including in Baluchistan, Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Province, and Kashmir, all with the aid of elements within the military and intelligence services.
“This would be their revenge,” one official said. “And what next? Would we launch airstrikes in the heart of the Punjab, or against Muridke?” the official continued, referring to the vast Lashkar-e-Taiba complex near Lahore. Al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba are closely allied in Pakistan.
Over-reliance on cross border strikes aids Taliban propaganda
An over-reliance on airstrikes and covert raids would also play into the Taliban and al Qaeda’s propaganda message, officials say.
“Look at how airstrikes in Afghanistan are used against us; we’d only feed that machine,” a military intelligence official said.
“Not only does al Qaeda and the Taliban use the attacks to falsely claim we intentionally target civilians, they say the US is too afraid to match them on the ground,” the official continued, noting that a pullback would only help fortify this propaganda message.