Interview: Gilles Dorronsoro
- Why Helmand is of "no strategic importance"
- The complex relationship between Hezb-i-Islami, the Taliban and Al Qaeda
- How feasible is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban?
- The problem with coaxing low-level insurgents to side with the Afghan government
Dorronsoro is a former professor, South Asia policy expert and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His recent focus has been on security and political instability in Afghanistan, particularly in the north. He first traveled to Afghanistan in 1988 during the Soviet occupation and has returned many times over the past 20 years. Dorronsoro has argued that sending additional troops to Afghanistan will only escalate the insurgency, and calls the coalition's intense focus on Helmand "misguided." In this interview with FRONTLINE/World correspondent Jason Motlagh, Dorronsoro talks about the gains made by the militant group Hezb-i-Islami in the northern provinces of Baghlan and Kunduz and what role its leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar may play in any negotiations. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 16, 2010.
Last year you made two trips back to Afghanistan and spent time in the north. There are a lot of reports of deteriorating security in that region. What did you see?
On my second trip in August it was much more difficult; actually the road was closed by the Taliban. So it gives you an education in the very quick deterioration of the security in the north. Right now, I would say that in the northeast, two or three provinces are extremely difficult.
The north has long been considered a safe area. What's driving these changes?
In the north you have two different areas. If you look west of Mazar-e-Sharif, it is mostly good, and if you look at the northeast proper -- Kunduz, Baghlan -- the security there is becoming really bad. Two things are going on: First, where there is no Taliban, you have more and more local commanders fighting each other for local power. [Second], in places like Kunduz and Baghlan, especially, you have a very strong Taliban movement. Just two years ago, Baghlan was very quiet.
Is there a parallel government there? Or is it still very disconnected in this area?
Where the Taliban are stronger, you have a so-called Taliban government in place. It's not the case in Badakhshan [province], for example, but it is in Kunduz and Baghlan, where you have this very well-organized Taliban movement, and very aggressive concentrated groups of 100 to 150 fighters in one operation.
What strength, if any, do Afghan security forces, the police or the army, have outside of the main northern cities?
You have a lot of provinces where you have no Afghan National Army. In the provinces, the police are actually quite weak. In places like Kunduz, you have 1 million inhabitants but you have a police force that is less than a few thousand, and the army is not really effective. So yes, the security forces are extremely weak and not able to really control the territory they are trying to secure. The major roads are extremely difficult. That's basically why the situation is not working, because there is no Afghan state.
The United States is sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in addition to the 60,000 to 70,000 that are already there. There's a big push now concentrated in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where the offensive is ongoing. Should there be more attention turned to the north right now?
Yes. But let's first describe the general situation in Afghanistan. In a few months, we will have a coalition of 150,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, once all the reinforcements arrive. At the same time, you have to add 100,000 contractors. So altogether, the people fighting or supporting the fight will be 250,000. It's much much more than during the Soviet [occupation]. That's the first thing to understand.
The second point is that in Helmand province, you have this offensive that is consuming a quarter of the resources of the coalition and accounting for a quarter of the causalities. It's huge for one province that has no strategic importance.
... What do you mean by that?
From 2006, the British, then the Americans, have been trying to do something in Helmand. In 2006, the first British offensive was a disaster. Since then, because the first offensive failed, every year you have a new offensive. I think you now have 20,000 troops in Helmand and a very high level of casualities for a place that is not a strategic place.
Securing Helmand is not going to stop the Taliban from infiltrating the West. This offensive is not going to stop the strategy of the Taliban. Helmand is a place where people have deteriorating options, that's true, but most of the money [generated by the drug trade] is going to the networks that are connected with the government, not to the Taliban. So the idea that you could basically weaken the Taliban [support mechanism] by taking or securing part of Helmand I think is misguided.
So you are saying that the perception that Helmand is feeding drug money into the Taliban war chest is misguided? That Helmand is not, in fact, a strategic location for combating the Taliban?
That's part of the answer. But I think the real answer is that the coalition did not accept the first failure, so every year we're trying something new. Just because you've put resources into something doesn't mean you have to go on. But you go on, because you have already paid for it. You don't want to lose Musa Qala because people died in Musa Qala. So you want to stay in Musa Qala.
What's going to happen now? Are they going to take the city of Marja? They are going to be in a few districts. But there is no Afghan state. So what are we going to do? Stay in Helmand, in Marja, in Musa Qala for five years, 10 years with a guerilla force that is everywhere? We're going to lose five, 10, 15 men every month in this province. So here I don't see a lot of solutions.
You say that the U.S. and NATO are not taking the north seriously enough. What if anything is being done to address this increased level of insecurity in the north? ...
Since last summer, two things have happened -- two things that are dangerous. First, there are more and more militias. The U.S. military has decided to pay a lot of local militias to fight the Taliban. And that's what we are seeing now in Kunduz, and also across the north. But these militias are going to be out of control. They're already out of control. Some of them are criminals; some are older fighters from the 1980s. And, they are not going to obey the minister of interior or even the Americans.The second thing is the targeted elimination of local Taliban commanders. It's a huge program started a few months ago. There are no official figures on this, but what we call the "black special ops" have killed hundreds of local Taliban commanders. It is disorganizing the Taliban movement. In the short term, it's working. But I don't think that long term it's going to work. It's the north that has become more disorganized and Kabul has basically less and less to say in what's going to happen. You have local strongmen emerging here and there. And the Taliban are using and exploiting this disorder and disorganization.
And don't forget what produced the Taliban in the '90s: social disorder. It is the same situation today: a central government that is nonexistent or very weak and totally illegitimate because [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai was not re-elected last summer. As we know, the fraud was huge. People do not trust Karzai. You have local disorder because of these local militias. And you have the Taliban coming from the outside, saying "OK, we want to restore order; we want to protect the population." And in some places it's working.
The primary objective of the German forces based in the north has long been reconstruction. They're trying to initiate development projects. ... Now that they are being confronted more and more, they are having to fight. Are they prepared and able to keep security in the north?
I think it's hopeless because these Germans have never fought a war. They don't know what to do, basically. That's a major problem with most of the armies in NATO today. They've no fighting experience. The Spanish, the Italians, the French learned quite quickly because they were under a lot of pressure in Kabul; they had to learn again what counterinsurgency war is. So I don't think the Germans are going to make a lot of progress. I think a few thousand Marines would do a more efficient job.
Now, in the north, the Hezb-i-Islami is a prominent militant group that does have some sort of alliance with the Taliban, but it's a little more complex than that. Can you elaborate a little on their agenda and their relationship with the Taliban and Al Qaeda?
Let's say the Hezb-i-Islami is an old party in Afghanistan. It was established in the '70s, the end of the '70s. And it's kind of traditional. [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar [the group's leader] is an old player in Afghanistan. He's been there ages, you know, and he has very different tradition from the Taliban. His ideology is very different from the Taliban
The way the Hezb-i-Islami is working is very special. Basically, Hekmatyar wants to make a coup in Afghanistan, he wants to take power, and he's extremely violent and he's been all the time exposure. In '92 when the so-called communist regime failed, you know, the spoiler was Hekmatyar. So the start of this new phase of the civil war was due to Hekmatyar.
And today Heymatyar is playing a very ambiguous game. His family is in Iran; he has good contact with the Pakistani intelligence. At the same time, he has also contact in Kabul. And he's the kind of player that is very difficult to understand what he's doing right now. He's careful in a way. He is a Pashtun from Kunduz. His family is from Kunduz. Historically, Hezb-i-Islami was strong in the north; then [Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah] Massoud and other parties became the major players. But now Hezb-i-Islami are back in places like Baghlan, Takhar to some extent, but more Kunduz and Baghlan, and they are trying to become the dominant party.
But it is correct that they do share, on the face of it, the same objective as the Taliban. They do want an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan that adheres to sharia law. So on the surface they are ideologically aligned. But you're saying, then, that is more right now an alliance of convenience for the time being because they have a mutual enemy.
Obviously Mullah Omar [leader of the Afghan Taliban] doesn't trust Hekmatyar, and Hekmatyar doesn't trust Mullah Omar.
And they've been at odds in the past.
Don't forget that the Taliban destroyed Hezb-i-Islami in '95 near Kabul. I mean, it was extremely violent. So I don't think there's long-term relationship between the two, they just have one enemy. They're under pressure from the coalition so they fight together.
And then Pakistan dropped its support of Hezb-i-Islami for the Taliban.
Absolutely. And that's why Hekmatyar is extremely cautious with all the regional players. He is not a huge military force. But if there's a political deal, he's going to be there.
Where's Hekmatyar now?
Most probably he's on the Pakistani border but on the Pakistani side. Probably near the Northwest [Frontier] Province and more in the north.
And most of his funding for his operation, is that coming from within Pakistan?
Yes, but also from Afghanistan.
Local trade, smuggling, this sort of thing?
Yes, the usual thing, basically. And Heykmatyar was in drugs, much more than the Taliban. Especially in the '80s and '90s.
Is that something that is ongoing?
Yes, yes. He's used to that sort of thing.
How much of the north would you estimate is under Hezb-i-Islami control now?
I don't think they have real control of even the districts. Hezb-i-Islami is a small group. Their level of organization is much lower than the Taliban's. The bigger question is whether the government has control of the north, and which parts. For example, Mazar-e-Sharif is a very quiet place. ... But at the same time we know that the governor of Mazar-e-Sharif is not even really talking to Karzai. So we're in a situation where local governors sometimes are quite independent from the central government. And if you go to the really local district level, in most of those places, people are rarely obeying the central government. They don't even have a relationship with the central government.
The Taliban is largely composed of Pashtuns. But Hezb-i-Islami has a broader appeal. They have fighters who are Uzbek, who are Chechen who are Pashtun. How have they been able to extend their appeal and attract people of different ethnicities and background?
It's not only the Hezb-i-Islami. You find Uzbeks also in the Taliban movement. But the structure is different from the Taliban. They are not Pashtun nationalists, but you still have a very strong Pashtun-based movement with a jihadist ideology. And they want to recruit other ethnicities. They want to recruit Uzbeks. Sometimes that works. But it has not been working with the Tajiks. Hezb-i-Islami was always more diverse from the beginning.
In the case of the Hezb-i-Islami, how much control today does Hekmatyar exert over the group?
There has been a shift. In the 1980s until the beginning of the '90s, Hekmatyar was totally in charge. He was a total Stalinist. The guy was number one, and he was killing members of his own group if they went a little bit out of the official line. This guy was running jails in Pakistan with the support of the Pakistani intelligence. He was killing and torturing people in Peshawar. So his organization was totally in control. And in the middle of the 1990s, after his defeat by the Taliban, the organization became something much more free. Hekmatyar is the boss. But I wouldn't say he's in control of everything in the way he was.
With all this talk about a negotiated settlement to end the fighting, what kinds of requirements do you see Hezb-i-Islami making to enter any negotiations? And what kinds of requirements would the Taliban need? And would they complement each other?
I would say first, there are two Hezb-i-Islami. One is directed by Hekmatyar; that is the guerilla movement. The other is the political wing of Hezb-i-Islami in Kabul. But they talk to each other, because, historically, they are from the same party. So Hekmatyar is not in a bad position. If there's a political deal, probably he could play a part in that.
One issue for the Taliban and for the Hezb-i-Islami that is not acceptable is the long-term presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. And I would say that, more and more, it's not just the Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban but also the Afghan population that are basically fed up with foreigners. That's one issue where it would be difficult to compromise. Beyond that, they are not necessarily asking for a withdrawal in six months. But like in Iraq, any long-term presence of foreign troops is difficult to accept.
When you say long-term presence of foreign troops, do you mean large-scale presence? Or any presence?
No, I'm thinking large scale. I mean, if it's 2,000 troops somewhere, it is not a big deal. But this kind of massive presence of foreigners operating militarily in Afghanistan is not sustainable. And I don't think it is going to be possible, even for the Western countries, to continue like that. It's costly, in terms of treasure, in terms of life, in terms of political prestige. I think it's not worth it, basically.
But do you think it is likely that these militant groups would enter into a negotiated settlement if the United States and NATO maintained some sort of presence in Afghanistan? Whether it is Special Forces, or in a coordinating capacity to help Afghan security forces get on their feet. Do you think that's going to happen?
That's very difficult to say. The whole object of negotiation is to deal with these differences. What I'm seeing right now is that for the Western countries, the Taliban is not in itself a problem. We have no problem with the Taliban. That's not the point.
Why shouldn't we be concerned with the Taliban?
The Taliban are not nice people. They don't have a strong public support in Afghanistan, but basically it's a national movement. They have connections with international jihadist movements, but their objective is Kabul. If they are in power in Kabul, it's not going to be nice for the Afghan population, but it is not a threat to us. Mullah Omar doesn't want to invade Pakistan or invade Central Asia. He doesn't want to send bombs to Paris, London or New York. It's not that kind of movement.
The problem is Al Qaeda and whether they are going to try to come back into Afghanistan. That's the only problem we have. On that, we need some guarantees. But even in September 2001, Colin Powell was very clear, at the beginning at least, that it was possible to make a deal with the Taliban. Because the national security of the U.S. and let's say Europe could be protected even if the Taliban became part of the political solution in Afghanistan.
... Mullah Omar has made statements that he would never let Afghanistan become a launching pad for terror attacks in other countries. Could you ever take Mullah Omar at his word on something like that?
It's a difficult question. How you read the situation is quite open. But what we know historically is that Mullah Omar had no part in 9/11. He did not organize the 9/11 attacks; he was probably not aware of it. And he tried to control Al Qaeda between 1998, when the U.S. embassy in East Africa was bombed, and 2001. So no, I don't see the Taliban using Al Qaeda to destabilize Western countries.
Right now, I think a deal is possible. It may not happen. But it's possible. In 2001, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, wanted to send Al Qaeda leaders to a third country, a Muslim country, to get rid of them. There were two weeks after Sept. 11 when the Taliban was ready to negotiate something. But they didn't want to give bin Laden directly to the Americans. They wanted to give him to a Muslim country. So there is not this total support. It is more subtle than that.
Now, just a few weeks ago, the Taliban were dealt a pretty serious setback. Mullah Omar's deputy, Cmdr. Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar, was captured in Karachi. How significant a development was that?
First it is surprising. I mean, a few days before the capture of Baradar, I was asking my colleagues working in Pakistan if they thought something was going to move. And they said, "No, it is business as usual; the Pakistani generals are supporting the Taliban." And then we see the arrest of the number two of the Taliban. And actually, in operational terms, he is the number one -- the guy who knows everything about the organization.
So, yes, it's a huge development. But we don't know exactly what it means. ... Does this mean the start of a huge shift in Pakistani strategy? In that case, you're going to see all the major Taliban commanders being killed or captured in 2010, let's say. And then the Americans will give something to Pakistan. There must be a deal somewhere. Or the second hypothesis is, there is no deal, and that this was more of a random operation. In that case, it's not going to change things at all.
It is widely believed that Mullah Omar, and the shura, the leadership council, are in Quetta inside Pakistan.
It seems like it is in Karachi and Quetta. But I wasn't surprised by the fact that Baradar was arrested in Karachi since the Americans more and more are seen as [likely] to strike in Quetta. The big surprise is that they arrested the second-in-command. It could be that the CIA had very precise information because they have arrested Al Qaeda or people linked to the network in the Middle East. They received good information, and they put pressure on the Pakistanis, saying, "Come on, Baradar is in this house in Karachi; we know exactly where. And you are obliged to arrest him. Otherwise, this is a huge problem." That's one hypothesis.
If we were to see some activity in, say, Quetta, and it appeared there was a pattern going on, then is it fair to say there's a deal going on behind the scenes?
The real test will be the Haqqani network [controlled by Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani from Pakistan's tribal area in North Waziristan. U.S. commanders say the group has been the most effective in attacking coalition forces in Afghanistan.] If the Pakistanis are striking the Haqqani network -- Jalaluddin Haqqani and his major players in east of Afghanistan -- if these guys are out, then we can say that Islamabad has changed its mind about the war in Afghanistan. Until then, we have to be extremely careful.
We've seen in recent weeks that a deal was made with the Shinwari tribe in Jalalabad [Eastern Afghanistan] going over the top level of the central government. Buying them out, essentially, for however long, to fight the Taliban. That's not a vote of confidence for the government. What, if anything, can be done to make the government in Kabul more viable?
It's interesting. Last August, there was the so-called re-election of Karzai. It was a huge fraud and Karzai basically lost all his legitimacy. Then, instead of reinforcing Karzai, the U.S. government began working more directly with local powers. And remember that there's more than $1 billion in emergency aid, and the U.S. command can spend it as they want. They can pay local strongmen, heads of militia, whatever. That's what we're going to see more and more of in Afghanistan: local deals between the Americans and the guys the Americans think are OK. And it probably is going to work in terms of fighting the Taliban. But what is that? It's the end of the Afghan state, basically.
It is like we're rewinding the clock back to the circumstances that set the Taliban up.
Exactly, we're back to the '80s. And there are things that we are seeing that are much more to do with Karzai himself, not the coalition. He has made a lot of deals with people who are very strong locally but with no national perspective. Gen. [Abdul Rashid] Dostum [the Uzbek warlord], for example, supported Karzai in the 2009 election. He was offered return to Afghanistan from Turkey where he has been living for the past few years because he had been accused of kidnapping one of his rivals. He was accused of raping a woman. He was accused of war crimes in 2001, killing probably 2,000 or 3,000 Taliban prisoners. And Karzai is working with these kinds of people. So is this a reform of the state? I don't think so.
There's an understanding that things are not about to be turned around anytime soon. But calls for a negotiated settlement are getting louder. Do you see anything like that materializing in the next year or two?
I think that now is the military push. I would say that the autumn of 2010 and 2011 is going to be more about military strategy. And Gen. Stanley McChrystal [commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan] -- I don't think he's going to win. But he wants to put the Taliban on the defensive. And if we see some negotiations, the earliest would be autumn 2010. This doesn't mean people won't speak. People speak all the time. Pakistani intelligence is speaking with the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence is speaking with the Americans. The Americans are speaking with Karzai. Karzai is speaking with the Taliban. And everybody is talking with Hezb-i-Islami.
But it's not going to happen right now. Obama said that the summer of 2011 was the beginning of the withdrawal. I don't think it will be a withdrawal; it's more likely that there will be no reinforcements after the summer of 2011. So if the coalition has not made some huge progress, something you can show to the U.S. Congress and the U.S. public, then negotiation becomes the only way.
The Taliban have harbored Al Qaeda in the past to devastating effect. Were we to enter into negotiations, and were required that they never do such a thing again and use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks abroad. How can we really trust them? How can they be trusted?
Well, you trust, but you check. I mean, not a blind trust thing. The idea is that first the Taliban accept the principle [that] negotiation would be [with a] coalition government with other political forces. Negotiation doesn't mean you give all the power to the Taliban. That's one point.
Second point is that regional states have a stake in that -- India, Pakistan also in a way, and so they would like some kind of guarantee. And further is that NATO could have some kind of guarantee in the form of a right of intervention. For example, if the CIA or NSA [National Security Agency] spotted Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, they could strike directly.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about how to co-opt low-level fighters from the insurgency and bring them on to the side of the government and, in turn, gradually marginalize the hardcore fighters, the ideologues. Does this policy make sense? Is it feasible?
First, the Taliban are not fighting for money. Let's be clear. The idea that you have core Taliban fighting for ideology and 80 percent fighting for money is wrong. People are fighting for social status, for values, for their worldview. They think that Western countries are occupying Afghanistan. Because they think that, they feel that their values and their religion are under attack. That's why they are fighting. So, no, you're not going to make peace in Afghanistan by giving people jobs. It doesn't work like that.
On the other hand, if the leadership of the Taliban is destroyed or not able to stay in Pakistan anymore, it is possible to have local deals with military pressure. But I don't think it could change the whole momentum. Having said that, the story in Afghanistan since 2001 is that all the tentative efforts to do local deals with the Taliban have failed.
Are you seeing the same conditions now that were a prelude to the civil war and the Taliban taking power? Is this just part of a cycle we're seeing the latest phase of?
In Afghanistan, you have just one political party that is still relatively strong, and that is the Taliban. All the rest are weak, with no organization at the national level. Their networks are about drugs, about power. So who's going to rebuild the Afghan state? And without an Afghan state, there's no end to the war. That's why I think we need to put the Taliban into the equation now, because I think Karzai is basically not going to do something.
You have been involved with Afghanistan for more than two decades, through good and bad. What keeps you coming back?
It is a trap, you know. My first trip in 1988 was just one trip. I just wanted to see that the Soviets were there. And then I came back because the wall was about to come down and the Soviets were leaving. But it did not finish there. After '92, I thought there was going to be peace because the so-called communist regime was no longer there, but it was the start of the civil war.
Then I saw the Taliban arriving after 1994 and I thought: "OK, now it's going to be the Taliban. It's not nice, but it's the end of the war, so it will stop there." And then 2001 came. [Laughs.] I'm still here. So basically, I like the Afghan people. The people are waiting for some kind of stability and peace. I guess I'm waiting for the same thing.
You are going back to Afghanistan in March. What are you going to be looking for on this trip?
I'm trying to get more information about the militia. This is very local, and it's difficult information to get from Washington. So I am looking at the militias. Plus, in March, it will be a little easier to understand what's going on in Helmand and Kandahar. Those are the two things I really want to understand better. And for the rest, I'll improvise as usual in Afghanistan.