Reconnaissance Flights against the "Neo-Taliban"

A Step in the Wrong Direction

The provision of Tornado reconnaissance planes by the Bundeswehr is a meagre contribution to the major Nato offensive. But this is in any case the wrong way to achieve a comprehensive political stabilization for Afghanistan, Citha D. Maaß believes

Tornardo reconnaissance planes (photo: AP)
The German Tornado contribution seems inadequate, says Citha D. Maaß, "because it only indirectly increases the military strength of the Nato offensive"

​​With the announcement of two major military offensives in southern Afghanistan for the spring of 2007, the pressure on Germany and the other Nato allies has been increased. The two offensives in question are the military operation against rebel groups being prepared with US support by Nato, and the anticipated spring offensive from the Neo-Taliban.

The re-organized Neo-Taliban can be distinguished from the Taliban, which controlled Kabul in the 1990s and constituted its government, in that it operates de-centrally and covertly.

In describing both the Nato and Neo-Taliban operations as offensives it is assumed that the Neo-Taliban have now become so strong that they could carry out an "offensive military attack", and that Nato must therefore strengthen itself.

This assumption is further reinforced by the recent decisions on the part of the US and UK to provide more troops and weapons, and is forcing the hands of their other allies.

The tacticts of the Neo-Taliban

But is it likely that the Neo-Taliban will abandon the guerrilla tactics they have used till now in favour of an open attack? In a rare interview in January 2007, Mullah Omar, still their leader, announced that the war would continue to intensify until the foreign troops – principally American – left Afghanistan, and the institutions created by the foreigners were dissolved.

Afghan poppy seed farmer (photo: AP)
A bitter crop - The Neo-Taliban are profiting from the collaboration with drug barons

​​Shortly after this a Taliban commander threatened the deployment of suicide attacks. Further potential suicide bombers are being trained across the border in Pakistan.

Recent clashes with ISAF troops show that the Neo-Taliban now possess more effective weapons. There are no suggestions however that they already possess anti-aircraft rockets, which were used in the late 1980s by the Mujahideen against Soviet forces, neither is there evidence of preparations which might imply that the Neo-Taliban will advance with regular fighting units after the snow has thawed in the spring.

Instead, the threat of increased suicide attacks suggests that while the Neo-Taliban will continue to step up its militancy, it will stick to its guerrilla methods in order to reach its long term goal of reinstating an "Islamic emirate".

The three goals of the Neo-Taliban

For them, just as for the opposition commanders and drug barons who belong to the heterogeneous alliance of interests known as the "militant opposition forces", three goals take equal precedence.

Firstly, the inefficient government led by President Hamid Karzai must be further weakened; secondly the foreign troops and international organizations must be driven out of the country; and thirdly, their informal control of broad districts in the south, the central mountain region, the north-west and areas close to Kabul must be extended.

Implicit here – particularly in the latter goal – is the retention of the guerrilla tactics used up till now, as the Neo-Taliban's sphere of influence is clearly not to be expanded through an open military seizure of provincial cities or the capital Kabul.

Instead power is largely wielded underground – using the threat of violence, demanding protection money from full and part-time opium-poppy growers, paying money to unemployed young men, low-paid administrative officials and policemen, and by exploiting the fact that, due to the high number of civilian victims of international military assault, the population feels increasingly alienated from the Kabul government.

The Neo-Taliban are profiting not least from the collaboration with drug barons and influential militant opposition commanders, who do not in any sense share the Neo-Taliban's ideological visions as they are concerned solely with retaining their own power.

A third reason for the threat of an escalation of violence in the south is that given the current record production of raw opium, a major elimination campaign is to be started. The widespread destruction of crops is likely to drive poppy growers and newly unemployed labourers straight into the arms of the Neo-Taliban and strengthen the influential drug barons.

Tornado Missions: An effective contribution?

In view of the escalation in southern Afghanistan observed in February, it is being debated whether Tornados can make an appropriate contribution to political stabilization. The debate is taking place in the context of the dispute within Nato over the correct approach, which has been going on since the Nato summit in Riga in November 2006.

German ISAF soldier explaining the use of the Tornado reconnaissance planes (photo: AP)
Questionable mission - During his recent visit to Germany, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said the Tornado deployment would have a positive and important "psychological effect" on Afghans

​​At the summit a new "comprehensive" strategy was called for, which would complement the military campaign against the Neo-Taliban and their backers with a political initiative. Using economic development projects, the population's trust was to be won back – particularly in the southern provinces – and their strong dependence on the drug economy reduced.

Since the beginning of 2007 however the message has been "more of the same": unwavering faith in a military solution. Whether at the Nato conference of foreign ministers in Brussels in January or at other meetings, the US has been putting pressure on its Nato allies to provide even more weapons systems and units of troops.

In the light of this the German Tornado contribution seems inadequate, because it only indirectly increases the military strength of the Nato offensive.

The discrepancy between the intended revision of the stabilization strategy and the actual intensification of a primarily military campaign against the rebel groups is reflected in the German Tornado debate; the Tornado advocates base their argument on Germany's Nato obligations and warn that a rejection of the Tornado mission would undermine Germany's credibility as an ally. The sceptics believe however that participating in the mission constitutes support for tactics which are inappropriate.

US and Nato strategists on the other hand are campaigning for an increase to the national ISAF contributions, using the argument that a massive military offensive in the next few months could weaken the rebel movement decisively.

A strategy for political stabilization

The debate has been intensified by the German government's ad hoc tactics. If the government's priority was to comply with its Nato obligations, then it would not be limiting itself to the provision of reconnaissance equipment. Instead it would immediately have to set the political course for a substantial German military contribution, for instance through extending the area covered by German forces to the turbulent south, and providing ground troops for this region in order to support the planned Nato military offensive effectively.

An argument against this course of action is provided however by the change of strategy announced at the Riga summit. If the German government wishes to support this, the Tornados would be the wrong contribution as they are unsuitable for achieving political stability.

Given the Taliban's guerrilla tactics, and the risk that the population will become increasingly alienated following further opium-crop destruction, it is doubtful whether high-powered military operations and air assaults can weaken the rebel movement permanently. The German government is thus confronted with the question as to what contribution, other than the Tornado missions, it can make to the stabilization of Afghanistan.

As the rebels must still be fought using military means, Berlin can reckon with further requests from its allies. Critical however is that the demands for a complementary political element made in Riga are finally being taken seriously. Thus Germany could be active on two levels: through national involvement in Afghanistan and in the multinational context on the EU level.

Citha D. Maaß

© Citha D. Maaß/ 2007

Dr. Citha D. Maaß is a political scientist and academic member of the Asia Research Unit at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs or Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).

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