The battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq are increasingly being pushed towards the borders. The Taliban and Iraqi terror campaigns are relying on cross border havens to muster, arm and train fighters entering the country. The movement of combat from the political centers of gravity to the outlying border areas highlights the cumulative political and military successes over the past year. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, progress has been made in creating viable political and security institutions, increasing the legitimacy of the governments while decreasing the appeal of the al Qaeda sponsored insurgencies.
While this creates an increasingly difficult set of problems for Coalition forces in rooting out the bases of the insurgencies, the outsourcing of the Taliban and Iraqi insurgencies creates an opportunity for the Coalition. Once insurgencies are forced to operate outside of their natural borders, they become susceptible to the whims of their host government. Though it may not be obvious based on reviewing the news, combat fatalities or other metrics, the Iraqi insurgency, which appears to be stronger and more dynamic than the Taliban, is actually in a more susceptible position based on its reliance on Syria.
Afghanistan’s Border War
In Afghanistan, the majority of the fighting is taking place along the Pashtun areas along the Pakistani border. The most recent round of fighting, which resulted in 105 Taliban killed, is the latest in a string of operations along the Pakistani border. The Taliban are attempting to reestablish a foothold along the border and disrupt the upcoming elections in September.
According to US and Afghan officials, the support for the Taliban originates in Pakistan, which was the origin of the Taliban movement in the earlier 1990s. President Hamid Karzai is blunt in his assessment; “All the weapons, ammunition, budgets, money transfer systems and safe havens for terrorists are located in Pakistan.”
An anonymous US military source expresses frustration over the Pakistani’s unwillingness to deal with the problem, citing recent examples of attempting to cooperate with Pakistani forces in pursuing the Taliban; “But when we showed the pictures in Islamabad they said, ‘We saw nothing.’ It’s the same when we call on our direct communications lines to say we’re chasing the Taliban over the border – they see us coming and they refuse to pick up the phone.”
The Taliban and al Qaeda are taking advantage of the jihadi infrastructure of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was created to foment terrorism in Kashmir and Jammu (see LeT it be for background) but is an al Qaeda affiliate. An interview with a Taliban fighter of Pakistani origin details the support infrastructure in Pakistan. The Taliban camps are believed to be lead by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a hero of the Afghan -Soviet war and a former minister in the deposed Taliban government (see this short profile).
Maksud [the trainer of the Taliban recruits] never gave the name of the group that was training him, Ali said. However, the hills around Mansehra overlook Pakistan’s border with Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan province that is split between Pakistan and India.
The area has long been a training ground for Kashmiri guerrillas, unofficially supported by Pakistan. In recent years, several Kashmiri groups have joined forces with al Qaeda or the Taliban to attack Western targets, but critics charge that the Pakistani military remains reluctant to defang them.
Iraq’s Border War
In Iraq, the majority of the fighting is taking place in the western portion of the country, particularly in the Mosul region, Baghdad, and along the Euphrates River in the Anbar province. The recent string of operations along the Euphrates River has been designed to increasingly put pressure on the insurgency and close the ratline to Syria. The recent operation in Rawah is seen as crucial to severing the ratline. A base in Rawah has been built, allowing for local operations to be conducted north of the Euphrates close to the Syrian border.
Efforts to close border crossings continue. Security Watchtower highlights the efforts along the Syrian border, including the training being provided to Iraqi border agents and a detailed map of existing and future border fortifications designed to stem the flow of foreign jihadis.
It is difficult to deny Syria’s involvement in the Iraqi insurgency. Its security services are aware of who is involved with Islamist activities, and it alternates between cracking down on activities to looking away or even providing assistance.
Pros & Cons
Pakistan’s failures to police its own borders and the tribal regions are more due to its status as a quasi-failed state, and Syria’s is due to its status as a rogue state. While it may seem counterintuitive, Pakistan is the country more difficult to deal with at this juncture, for the following reasons:
– The rugged, mountainous terrain along the Afghani-Pakistani border.
– The lack of clearly defined borders.
– Pakistan’s fragile situation with extremists and their domestic supporters.
– The hesitation of the Pakistani government in asserting itself in the tribal regions.
– The ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) and the continued training of the LeT.
– Pakistan’s status as a US ally.
The situation along the Syrian border is different. Syria, while hostile to US efforts in Iraq, is isolated in the region, and weak from its humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon. While it is no small task, sealing the Syrian border is of an order of magnitude easier than the Pakistani border due to the relatively few border crossings separated by wide swaths of desert. The government is in control of the regions along the border, unlike Pakistan, and there are few political issues with clamping down on the support system.
The inevitable comparison between Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail and Pakistan/Syria are made. The Syrian Ratline/Ho Chi Minh Trail analogy is woefully inaccurate, and a Pakistani/Ho Chi Minh Trail comparison would be as well. For one, the Taliban is not operating with the assistance of the Pakistani government; the presence of the Taliban is more of a function of disorder than complicity.
There is one other reason any such comparison is inaccurate for both Pakistan and Syria. Unlike the Korean and Vietnam wars, where the pursuit of the enemy was prohibited across an arbitrary boundary, there is no great power to act as a brake on a US military response. Because of this, the US is not restrained in its response to the problem.
The options to address the situation include engaging in diplomatic negotiations, embargoes, the sealing of the borders, and even hot pursuit across the border, can be carried out with little negative affect. And should the US decide to incur the domestic political cost and strained relations in the international community, the option to conduct air and ground strikes against known camps, estabishing a safe safety zone, and crossing the border to establish enclaves within these countries exist.
Pakistan’s multiple attempts to correct its problems buys it time, but Syria has no such luxury. As the war pushes closer to its border, Syria’s complicity in Iraq will increasingly become the object of attention. The logical choice for Syria would be to turn on the insurgents in its midst, but as we saw with Saddam prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, logic isn’t always present in the minds of dictators.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.