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Afghanistan's Cross-Border Threat

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Toni Johnson
April 18, 2012

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The April 15 attacks by Taliban forces in Afghanistan raised new questions about NATO, U.S. exit strategies, and whether the Afghan government is ready to handle security responsibilities. CFR's Daniel Markey says the attacks indicate "that there are gaps in the NATO and Afghan ability to defend most anywhere in the country, but not huge gaps." Markey says the war will not be resolved without addressing the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which was linked to the latest spate of attacks. He also says that rather than leaving as soon as possible, U.S. priorities should be focused on ensuring Afghanistan is not left "a mess," which could have deeply troubling consequences for Pakistan.

How do you read the coordinated attacks this weekend? What does it tell us about what the Afghan government is up against?

They should probably be interpreted in a narrow sense. That is to say, what we see is that the Haqqanis or the broader Taliban network is capable of striking at a relatively low scale, but in a relatively sophisticated fashion, against places that we might have thought would be more completely defended. What this tells us is that there are gaps in the NATO and Afghan ability to defend most anywhere in the country, but not huge gaps. It's not like you're seeing mass forces challenge either Afghan or NATO forces out in the field in a way that you might if the Taliban was strong in that way. So it's a certain kind of strength for the Taliban, but you can also see why the NATO spokesperson and others are characterizing this as a sign of relative weakness on their part as well.

NATO and U.S. forces have been focused on training Afghan security forces. How do you think they did in this instance?

By most accounts, the Afghan security forces acquitted themselves well and managed to bring the threats under control; although it took in some cases up to eighteen hours, they did so with relatively low loss of life and without seeing things spiral out of control, and for that, they seem to get pretty high marks.

The problem is that you saw this set of seven coordinated attacks taking place across different cities at roughly the same time without being unmasked ahead of time. There was a clear intelligence gap here.

You can't resolve the Afghan war in a way that will be acceptable to any of the players unless you figure out what you're going to do about the Haqqanis, because they have the ability to play a spoiling role more than nearly anybody else in the equation.

In a country like Afghanistan, where there are a lot of people who are armed, and which has suffered war for a very long time, and has a lot of people with mixed motivations--people who can be bought or coerced into joining forces with various Taliban groups--it's not surprising that you can pull off something like this. The question is if you can pull it off again and again, and at least so far, it seems like it takes a fair amount of work to do this kind of thing, and it doesn't happen every day or every week or even every month, which is good news from an American perspective.

How much effort has gone into creating a robust intelligence service inside Afghanistan?

My sense is that a great deal of effort has gone into vastly improving the U.S. and NATO collection ability over the past five years or so, and that some of that has translated into improving Afghanistan's own service, but not all. The two things still are separate and distinct and operate in somewhat different ways. My sense is that the U.S. side tends to rely more heavily on technology, on intercepting conversations and things like that, [and] on imagery, whereas the Afghans rely more heavily on human intelligence--on interrogations, on informants, and things like that.

You mentioned the Haqqani network earlier. What kind of concerns does this attack raise specifically about Pakistan's role in Afghan security?

Over the past several years, one of the central dramas has been the United States repeatedly criticizing Pakistan for either not doing enough to crack down on the Haqqani network inside its territory in North Waziristan, or more than that, possibly supporting them or facilitating their activities inside Afghanistan. And in response, the Pakistanis have either claimed they are doing all they can to stop the Haqqanis or that the Haqqanis really aren't the major problem in Afghanistan. Then increasingly, even if they are less willing to say it publicly, both side sides seem to recognize that the real question is whether the Pakistanis can bring the Haqqanis to the negotiating table, whether the Americans will accept them at the negotiating table if they were to bring them there. These types of attacks that get attributed to the Haqqanis (correctly, in my estimation) just give further reason for both sides to see that as a central part of the endgame in Afghanistan. You can't resolve the Afghan war in a way that will be acceptable to any of the players unless you figure out what you're going to do about the Haqqanis, because they have the ability to play a spoiling role more than nearly anybody else in the equation.

This is the latest in a series of escalations within Afghanistan--numerous attacks against NATO troops, riots over the Quran burnings, and the halting of talks with the Taliban. This all begs the question: Where do we go from here?

Each time you see one of these kinds of attacks, there is some sort of gut-wrenching, soul-searching anguish that maybe everything is falling apart and nothing will work, and we need to revisit all of the strategy. [But] as a practical matter, the people who are in NATO and the U.S. government and probably even within the Afghan government more or less tend to stick with the plans that they've got. Those plans are that they will continue some sort of a steady military drawdown to 2014, and then there will probably be some sort of residual force, probably as many as twenty thousand forces in Afghanistan after that, supporting Afghan security forces, and continuing to train them and back them up, with logistics and intelligence and so on, as well as political and economic support. And events like this one tend not to affect that broad outline for a strategy.

The real threat to that general strategy has more to do with the fact that the American public is less inclined to support this war than they ever have been, and that's how you get a potential for a changed strategy. When Americans hear about this kind of attack, that just [adds to] the steady drumbeat of other events in Afghanistan that you just mentioned.

What about talking to the Taliban specifically? Is there still opening for that, or is that moment passing?

There is still an opening for that, as much as there ever was. I've always been somewhat skeptical about the reconciliation and dialogue [because] I didn't see why the Taliban would really want to be a part of it if they felt like they were still able to wait out the Americans. Just because it's been publicly declared over doesn't mean somebody is not talking to someone somewhere, and so I'd be reluctant to guess what's actually happening. A very, very small number of people actually know, and unfortunately I'm not one of them.

Is there anything else you think is pertinent?

A lot of Americans are watching as this increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan draws down, and essentially just hoping that we can find some face-saving way out as fast as possible that doesn't threaten our security in the future, or threaten it to a degree that we can't manage. All of that is perfectly reasonable. The problem is that if we leave Afghanistan a mess, and by that, I mean that if we leave it in a position where groups like the Haqqani network can reassert themselves, the implications for Afghanistan could be very bad, but that would only probably be the tip of the iceberg in terms of our problems because our greater problem would then be with Pakistan.

We would see that they were continuing to facilitate [instability in Afghanistan], so our relationship with them would suffer more than it ever has. And Pakistan is a very large country by population and it's getting larger, and it's a nuclear armed country, and [we] would really be doing ourselves a disservice to end up in a relationship of conflict with them, looking into the decades into the future. So we have a real interest in trying to resolve the war in Afghanistan in a way that allows us to have a reasonably good working relationship with Pakistan as well. That should be our highest priority, not getting out as quickly as possible, although of course everybody wants that.

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