New strategy could weaken Taliban in Afghanistan
Early last week, the Taliban carried out a stunning raid and successful mass prison break in the northwest Pakistan town of Bannu, near North Waziristan, a tribal area where sympathy for Islamic radicalism is strong. Highly visible Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have distracted attention from this event. A lengthy gun battle climaxed with approximately 400 prisoners freed.
Speculation about inside assistance continues. The Pakistan military has been extensively engaged in counterinsurgency operations in the area but did not arrive in time to prevent the mass escape. The U.S. has been actively pressuring Pakistani forces to be more aggressive.
The latest mass prison breakout dramatically demonstrates that the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies maintain virulent capacity to create chaos in South Asia. Just a year ago, an estimated 475 inmates fled a sizable prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, through an underground tunnel.
Shortly thereafter, several individuals were arrested, including the director of the incarceration facility, Ghulam Dastagher Mayar. Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol, criticized Afghanistan officials for inattention to record keeping, including fingerprints, photographs and DNA. Afghanistan and Pakistan are notorious for lax security.
Over the years, the Taliban has made spectacular devastating events a top priority. In mid-June 2008, another dramatic prison break in Kandahar freed approximately 1,000 people, including an estimated 400 hard-core insurgents. On New Year's Eve of that year, the Taliban scored a major tactical military as well as political victory through killing members of the security force of Abdul Salaam, the governor of Musa Qala, a long-contested area in southern Afghanistan.
During that same time period, the Group of Eight foreign ministers decided to devote massive financial resources to combating the narcotics traffic and poverty in Afghanistan, focused on areas where these problems are most severe. A G-8 coordinating body was created to oversee some $4 billion in aid, concentrated in tribal areas bordering Pakistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban are strong. Assistance has included police and military training as well as expanded anti-drug efforts. The thrust, however, is economic, not military.
In seeking effective policies, history as usual is instructive. The experience and initiatives of the Nixon administration regarding Turkey, a principal source of world heroin production, are particularly useful. President Richard Nixon used product licensing to encourage Turkish farmers to sell crops to pharmaceutical companies for legal medicinal purposes.
Drug lords moved some production to Afghanistan, but the mammoth established drug route from Turkey to Marseilles France, and then the U.S. ― dramatized in the film "The French Connection" ― was disrupted. Our important ally Turkey was strengthened. Why not apply this practical approach to Afghanistan?
Simply introducing troops and firepower without other measures will ultimately only further strengthen the insurgency. This is a fundamental lesson of the Vietnam War. The Soviets learned the same in hard terms during occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The British also had costly experiences in Afghanistan throughout the 19th century. Eventually, however, astute diplomacy achieved reasonable cooperation with warlords.
Washington should emulate Britain's combination of carrots, sticks _ and patience. A military presence, along with much better training of law enforcement personnel, is important. However, long-term success will depend on education and economic modernization, and positive incentives to abandon the lucrative drug trade.
By all accounts, the Taliban remains unpopular with the population at large. That remains our crucial advantage.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of "After the Cold War."