Afghanistan: Keep up the War on Terror at its Source
Afghanistan: Keep up the War on Terror at its Source
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

Afghanistan: Keep up the War on Terror at its Source

Afghanistan is half a world away from Australia. Yet Australian troops are deploying in one of that country's most remote and violent provinces, a region where militants are launching increasingly brazen attacks in an effort to drive the international community out. It is highly likely Australian troops will suffer casualties in the coming months. So why are they there?

The answer is simply because what happens in Afghanistan is of vital interest to Australia. The effort to rebuild this country is about international - and Australian - security. In a world of globalised terror, if we don't challenge extremism at its source, it comes to us.

Failed states provide havens for extremist training camps. As the International Crisis Group has documented in the past, many of the terrorists that planned and carried out the Bali and Jakarta bombings were trained in Afghanistan during its decades of conflict and instability.

And there are the social costs. Millions of Afghanis fled during those decades, becoming refugees around the world, with thousands making their way to Australia. It is in Australia's interest that Afghanistan becomes a stable and sustainable state - one that does not export terrorism or refugees.

Despite the recent gloomy headlines, not all the news from Afghanistan is bad. The past five years have brought some very significant achievements. There is a popularly elected president and parliament, a Supreme Court and a publicly debated constitution. Five million children have returned to school.

But the sheer scale of the violence has jolted the West into realising that it took its eye off the ball, and that the gains made so far are fragile. There have been more than 2000 deaths so far this year, roughly one-third of them civilians, one-third anti-government forces and one-third local security forces. More than 70 foreign troops have lost their lives.

A large part of the problem is that, until now, southern Afghanistan was left to fester. International troops sent to enforce the peace were confined first to Kabul and only gradually rolled out elsewhere, and to the safest areas first.

In the absence of security and development in the south, popular disillusionment and discontent were inevitable, energising anti-government actors such as the Taliban, including both cross-border and local elements. NATO's southward expansion could stem the rot, but this will be a tough mission. Uruzgan, the province where Australian and Dutch troops are now deploying, had seen only a couple of hundred American troops before, so a robust international security presence could challenge these extremists.

With the lives of Australian soldiers on the line, Canberra must urgently reassess policies towards Pakistan. Afghanistan's most important neighbour has been a two-faced ally in this war, arresting some al-Qa'ida members yet allowing the Taliban to regroup and launch attacks from its territory.

In addition to the Taliban, Australian troops will confront many other groups that oppose central government control over the province and the rule of law, including those involved in the booming drugs industry: many of them government officials. Drug lords and abusive power-holders, having no wish to see security and stability threaten the culture of impunity they enjoy, act as spoilers. Fighters' ranks are swelled by the disenfranchised in a political set-up that has seen one tribe promoted over all others in Uruzgan.

As the NATO-led forces roll out in the south, the response of such elements has been to try to break the domestic political will of the troop-contributing nations, such as Canada and Britain, by launching ferocious attacks, including suicide bombings, on newly arrived troops. The Australian forces can expect the same.

All of this makes it vital that Australian troops have highly capable political advisers who do not see the mission simply in terms of good guys and bad guys but understand the complex dynamics, and under the security umbrella of international foreign forces can work on building the end goal of a stable state.

We have to understand that this is a long-term effort. This is not a fight in which the last Taliban or al-Qa'ida supporter will be shot, allowing foreign forces to head home. The international community will need to be in Afghanistan for many years to help the national and local administrations establish their credibility and capabilities, and earn the trust of a disillusioned people.

Contributors

Former Senior Analyst, South Asia
Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer
Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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