Peace in Afghanistan has never seemed more distant. After a full decade of combat, even after the start of America’s phased military withdrawal, no one has the upper hand, let alone a realistic prospect of actually winning the war. Each party in the conflict—the Americans, their Afghan government allies, and their Afghan Taliban adversaries—has weaknesses and vulnerabilities that preclude a decisive victory. Although peace negotiations might seem like the only sane option in such a stalemate, efforts to bring the insurgents to the table have repeatedly failed. The Taliban’s top leadership has shown not the slightest interest in meaningful talks, or in peace at all.
The insurgents’ rejection of negotiations has nothing to do with how they’re faring on the battlefield. Far from it: in the past two years the U.S. military surge in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s traditional heartland, has mostly driven the guerrillas to the peripheries of far-flung villages, if not all the way back to their sanctuaries in Pakistan. The insurgents themselves admit that the coalition’s relentless nighttime commando raids on their hideouts have decimated the ranks of mid- and lower-level Taliban commanders, bomb makers, and operational facilitators. The danger is so great that senior guerrilla commanders rarely set foot on Afghan soil. Instead, the insurgents’ hierarchy spends most of its time hiding in plain sight across the border, safe in Pakistani territory. A senior Taliban commander admitted as much recently while on a rare visit inside Afghanistan. “Taliban fighters can live in Afghanistan, but our leaders can’t,” he told a Newsweek correspondent. “The reason is the night raids.”
That’s not keeping Hamid Karzai from publicly demanding an end to the American-led surprise attacks. Addressing a hand-picked gathering of more than 2,000 Afghan tribal elders and political leaders at a loya jirga (grand assembly) this past November in Kabul, the confident-sounding but increasingly erratic Afghan president announced his willingness to grant U.S. forces a 10-year extension beyond President Obama’s 2014 withdrawal date—on condition, he said, that the Americans no longer be allowed to participate in night raids. Guerrilla leaders dread the thought that the Americans might remain for another decade, crushing the insurgents’ dreams of a final victory. “Permanent U.S. bases will mean permanent trouble for the Taliban,” says a former Taliban ambassador who has quit the insurgency.
Even so, the insurgents responded gleefully to the suggestion that the night raids might stop. As effective as U.S.-led operations have been in crippling the insurgency, they nevertheless are hated by most Afghans, who regard the commando assaults as an insult to the sanctity of Afghan homes and an unacceptable threat to innocent civilians. To the Taliban, the cessation of U.S. night raids means far more than that. “If Kabul puppet soldiers alone carry out these operations in the future, we’ll be able to cause a lot more trouble in and around Kabul,” says the senior commander, declining to be named for security reasons. “The difference between these raids by Afghan puppets and the Americans is the difference between being attacked by birds or by falcons.”
The truth is, even the night raids haven’t kept the Taliban from causing plenty of trouble in and around Kabul. The past year’s headline-grabbing incidents have included a Mumbai-style assault on the Inter-Continental Hotel in June; a massive truck bombing in September that injured nearly 80 U.S. soldiers and killed five Afghans at an outpost roughly 40 miles outside the capital; coordinated strikes two days later on NATO headquarters, the U.S. Embassy, and other targets, leaving at least six dead, along with nine insurgents; and a suicide car bomb that took out a Rhino armored bus in late October, killing 12 Americans, a Canadian soldier, and four Afghans (two of them children). Security in Kabul is so dodgy that Karzai rarely leaves the Presidential Palace at all—he traveled the two kilometers from there to the loya jirga by helicopter. “People feel that as the U.S. withdraws, security is clearly deteriorating,” says a senior Afghan diplomat. As much as Afghans dislike the foreign military presence, they fear that the fighting will only intensify without it.
The threat of endless war doesn’t seem to faze most Taliban—they’ve known nothing else throughout their adult lives. “I started in the jihad when I was 18,” says the senior commander. “I’m 48 now, with a white beard. Even if we succeed in overthrowing the Karzai puppet regime, there won’t be peace. Like snakes, our neighbors will continue to fight us.” The former Taliban ambassador can only shake his head. “There will be no end to this war,” he says. “No one among the Taliban believes in peace.” A lot of them seem practically addicted to war. “Many Taliban are fanatical and enjoy fighting with no ultimate goal other than the power it brings them personally,” says a former Taliban Foreign Ministry official who remains committed to the cause. “Thoughts of peace never cross their minds.”
But what about all the news reports over the past two years telling of secret preliminary peace talks? The senior commander dismisses the thought with a wave of his hand. The Taliban are committed to an endless struggle, he says, and the Americans’ efforts to peel off defectors are useless. “We remain united and have plenty of fighters enjoying high jihadi spirits,” he says. “We have never seriously considered the peace option.” And he doesn’t see much chance that the Taliban will begin considering it now. “If Mullah Omar would ever express a willingness for peace talks, it would be a surprise bomb dropped on the heads of all of his followers.”
No one can be sure just what Mullah Mohammed Omar thinks. The Taliban’s supreme leader hasn’t appeared in public since he fled Afghanistan a decade ago. At present the question of peace talks is academic anyway. Karzai suspended all overtures to the Taliban after the assassination in September of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was tasked with exploring peace talks with the Taliban as head of Karzai’s High Peace Council. The assassin gained entrance to Rabbani’s home on the pretext of bringing him a flash drive containing conciliatory messages from the Taliban’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura—and then set off a suicide bomb concealed in his turban. Kabul’s intelligence service is convinced that the Quetta Shura was behind the assassination.
Still, the biggest obstacle to peace may be the lack of leadership in the guerrillas’ top ranks. The Taliban are formidably tenacious fighters, but their insurgency is badly divided, with no apparent overall direction. Nothing really unites them beyond their hatred of the Americans and their public declarations of allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Amir-ul-Momineen—“leader of the faithful.” And Omar himself might as well be a ghost. Even his top lieutenants have no more than fleeting or indirect contact with him—assuming he’s even alive. “One of our weaknesses is that the [Quetta] Shura is not in constant contact with Mullah Omar,” the senior commander admits. “And no one else has the authority to talk.”
That leaves a power vacuum at the top. There is no authoritative guidance on the most important questions of war and peace and the country’s future. This past October, a small group of senior Taliban political leaders wrote a 3,000-word memo and circulated it among top-ranking insurgent commanders, urging them to start thinking beyond 2014 about issues of governance, national reconciliation, education, the economy, and relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors. “We have to begin saying something positive about the future, about life after the war, about peace,” says the former Taliban Foreign Ministry official. “The Taliban’s prime weakness is that it is not a political movement,” says the former ambassador. “Our military leaders have no idea of how to give the insurgency a political and peace agenda. They just love to fight, even if the fight is endless and meaningless.”
Nevertheless, there is someone who just might be able to take the fight out of the insurgency: Pakistan. As long as Pakistan provides safe haven to the Afghan guerrillas, allowing them to plot, rest, refit, and resupply, they can’t be defeated. But by extending such hospitality and support, Islamabad wields the power of life and death over the insurgents—and they know it. “Pakistan could arrest us, even slaughter us, at any time,” says the former Foreign Ministry official. “We have experienced Pakistan’s nasty habit of suddenly changing friends in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban have not forgotten how former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf abandoned his previously solid support for Mullah Omar’s regime in late 2001—a reversal that helped precipitate the Taliban’s collapse. “The Taliban tree would die if Pakistan stopped watering it,” says the former ambassador. If the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani family—the leaders of what is widely regarded as the insurgency’s deadliest faction—were sent home to Afghanistan as things stand there now, they likely wouldn’t last long.
The trouble is that Pakistan has its own genuine strategic interests to consider in any discussion of whether to push the Taliban to make peace. And those interests do not always coincide with those of Washington. Islamabad is leery of the kind of government the Americans are trying to foster in Kabul: one that is strong, centralized, independent-minded, and nationalistic. Pakistan’s greatest fear is that it could find itself encircled by its old adversary, India—and for that reason the Pakistanis view even Karzai’s feeble and ineffectual regime as a potential threat. Karzai has welcomed India’s economic involvement in Afghanistan and has signed a strategic partnership with New Delhi. More than that, Islamabad is worried that a strengthened government in Kabul could revive Afghanistan’s old territorial claims on Pakistan’s western border—or perhaps even encourage Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns to seek autonomy or independence, as the Afghan government did after Pakistan’s birth in 1947. Kabul was slow to recognize the new Pakistani state and has never accepted the Durand Line, the international border between the two countries that was drawn up in the 19th century by the British Raj. Pakistan’s leaders regard the Taliban as a way to protect what Islamabad sees as Pakistan’s legitimate interests.
To hear the Taliban tell it, Pakistan is promoting war rather than encouraging peace. Insurgent commanders and officials tell Newsweek that over the past few months, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate has stepped up its direct involvement with the Taliban. As recently as two years ago, only a few Taliban commanders had direct contact with the ISI, according to the former Foreign Ministry official, who remains active as a planner in the insurgency. Now he estimates that at least half the insurgency’s hundreds of commanders are working closely with Pakistani intelligence operatives, receiving military advice and even shipments of arms and explosives from Pakistan via civilian intermediaries. An insurgent subcommander in Helmand province agrees. In the past the ISI dealt only with senior Taliban commanders, he says, but now its operatives are talking directly to small fry like himself—and urging everyone to fight harder.
‘The Taliban tree would die if Pakistan stopped watering it,’ says a former taliban regime abassador.
What’s more, according to the subcommander and other Taliban sources, the Pakistanis have begun supplying high-powered explosives to insurgents in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Taliban commanders used to be responsible for procuring their own explosives, mostly shipments of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer from Pakistan via insurgent channels, along with some military-grade explosives provided by Al Qaeda. Recently, however, the Qaeda connection has been all but severed, thanks largely to the Americans’ relentless drone attacks, and the gap is being filled by regular supplies of a new, more powerful explosive, apparently manufactured in Pakistan’s sophisticated munitions factories. Commanders say three kilograms of the new stuff gives the same bang as 20 kilos of more conventional explosives.
The new munitions have helped the Taliban to counteract their past 18 months of battlefield setbacks. The upgraded explosives are more portable than the old stuff and easier to conceal. “They’re keeping the Taliban alive” in the south, the subcommander says. Another Taliban commander theorizes that the new explosives may have powered the suicide car bomb that tore apart the heavily armored Rhino in Kabul in October.
As always, Pakistan denies aiding the Afghan insurgents. (Never mind that U.S. intelligence claims to have direct evidence of ISI involvement in the assault on the Inter-Continental Hotel and other specific attacks in Kabul.) Relations with Washington have only continued to deteriorate, hitting new lows this past November after NATO airstrikes on the border killed at least 24 Pakistani troops. Amid furious anti-U.S. street protests, Islamabad shut down the main U.S. supply routes into Afghanistan. The crisis effectively sank America’s already slim hopes of gaining Pakistani support in pushing the Taliban into negotiations. After more than three decades of relentless bloodshed, the people of Afghanistan seem headed inexorably for more of the same.
This essay was published in Newsweek International's Special Edition, 'Issues 2012,' on sale from December 2011-February 2012.