The Magazine

Yes, We Can

In the 'graveyard of empires,' we are fighting a war we can win.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN, KIMBERLY KAGAN and MAX BOOT
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The idea that Kabul is under siege is a figment of the news media's imagination based on hyped reporting of a few isolated attacks. ISAF officers suggested to us that the recent insurgent raids on three government buildings, which generated so much negative publicity, were actually good news, because Afghan security forces, who have assumed lead responsibility for operations in much of the capital, were able to handle the crisis on their own. Commandos from the Afghan National Police Crisis Response Team stormed into the Justice Ministry within hours and killed all the attackers, who had hoped to carry out a protracted Mumbai-style siege. Other would-be suicide bombers were rounded up before they could set off their explosives.

Equally impressive progress is being made in Jalalabad, a city of perhaps 400,000 in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province. Violence is low; U.S. troops don't even patrol the city, leaving that job to the Afghan National Security Forces. The Afghan army, police, and border police coordinate their activities through a "fusion" center which responds to an emergency phone number that residents can call in case of trouble. Economic development is booming, spurred by "Nangarhar Inc.," a development plan overseen by a U.S.-run Provincial Reconstruction Team in cooperation with local officials. "Nangarhar has progressed light years in the last six or seven years," says Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Daniel, who commands a battalion based in Jalalabad.

Not all of Regional Command-East is as peaceful or prosperous. This remains the second-most violent region in the country, behind only Regional Command-South. This is hardly surprising since RC-East is located along the long, mountainous eastern border with Pakistan, which has become a safe haven for numerous Islamist terrorist groups. With rumored assistance from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, many of these groups are carrying out cross-border attacks in Afghanistan in pursuit of a bewildering array of strategies and objectives. Officers at the Bagram headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, who run RC-East from the site of one of Alexander the Great's base camps, have taken to speaking of an insurgent "syndicate." Their charts draw numerous intersecting lines between nine different groups which alternately compete and cooperate with one another.

The most famous of these is al Qaeda, but its strongholds are located in Pakistan, and it does not play a leading role in Afghanistan. The other groups are often colloquially referred to as the Taliban, but this catch-all phrase hardly does justice to-and can actually distort understanding of-a complex, multifaceted insurgency. The Taliban proper under the direction of Mullah Mohammad Omar ("One-Eye") are based in the city of Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, and their activities are largely confined to southern Afghanistan.

Other prominent insurgent groups include (bear with us) the Haqqani Network run by former mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin; the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), a party led by another former mujahedeen commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the Hezb-e Islami Khalisa, a breakaway faction of the Hezb-e Islami founded by the late Mohammad Yunus Khalis; the Tehrik-e Nefaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM), a group that is especially powerful in the Swat Valley and is run by Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of founder Sufi Muhammad; the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), commonly known as the Pakistan Taliban, who are headed by the notorious Baitullah Mehsud; the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Punjab-based terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai attacks as well as numerous attacks in Kashmir; and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was founded by a former Uzbek paratrooper, the late Jumaboi Khojayev, who was radicalized while fighting with the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The IMU has a pan-Central Asian focus, the TTP and TNSM are focused primarily on Pakistan, the LeT has a regional and even, increasingly, a global focus, while the Taliban and HiG are interested in taking over Afghanistan, and the Haqqani Network and HiK are thought to be primarily focused on seizing their traditional powerbases in eastern Afghanistan.