Why Is The ''Right War'' Taking A Wrong Turn?
01 November 2015
By Amir Taheri
Only a few months ago US Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to promote
Afghanistan as a foreign policy success for the Obama administration. Barack
Obama's plan to complete US military withdrawal was near completion and there
was even talk of establishing ''dialogue'' with the Taliban with Qatari
Earlier this month, however, a mini-wave of panic hit the White House with
news of Taliban capturing Kunduz, Afghanistan's sixth largest city as the
US-trained Afghan army fled without a fight. It was a humiliating defeat for
the 7,000-man Kunduz garrison who left behind their shiny new American
weapons for the 1,000-man Taliban force.
The US-led NATO force still in Afghanistan had to scrape the bottom of the
barrel to collect a few thousand men and a dozen or so warplanes to launch a
counter attack in Kunduz, managing to regain control of parts of the city
after a week of fighting.
However, the Taliban had made the points they had meant to make.
They showed that, thanks to the Obama-led retreat, President Ashraf Ghani and
his NATO allies are in no position to defend every bit of Afghan territory.
To counterattack in Kunduz they had to withdraw forces in Mazar-i-Sharif and
Badakhshan where the Taliban seized the opportunity to capture the
governorate of Vardouj and 13 other strategic villages close to the border
The Taliban are already strongly present in several provinces notably Farah,
Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar, Paktita and Uruzgan where the central government
is present only in major cities. But even then, the Taliban make a point of
entering the cities every now and then, even if only for a few days, to show
the flag, terrorize the pro-government elements and do a bit of looting
Last summer they did just that in Musa Qala, on the Pakistani border, and
Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand. They also carried out a
spectacular, though ultimately fruitless, attack on Achin, a major Afghan
army base in Nangarhar.
Another major looting operation was conducted in the northern district of
Tirgaran, with Taliban looting stocks of food and modern US-supplied weapons.
So, why are the Taliban back on the offensive at this time?
The attack on Kunduz may have been planned to coincide with the 90th
anniversary of the creation of Afghanistan as an independent nation.
The Taliban do not recognize nation-states; for them the Islamic ummah is a
single reality, and it is faith, not nationality, which establishes a
The founder and first leader of the Taliban Mullah Muhammad Omar designated
himself as Amir Al-Mu'minin (Commander of the Faithful). His successor Mullah
Muhammad Akhtar Mansour, who took over last spring, has not yet adopted that
He calls himself Amir Al-Jihad (Commander of the Jihad), thus emphasizing the
military rather than the political aspect of Taliban's new bid for power.
The second reason for heightened activism by the Taliban is the perceived
weakness of the United States, a sentiment massively strengthened since
President Obama made his ''nuclear deal'' with the mullahs of Tehran.
One immediate casualty of that perception was the promised power-sharing
talks between President Ghani and the Taliban with the US as
Last month, however, Mullah Mansour pulled the plug with a bland statement to
the new Taliban leadership: ''The Americans are leaving and are no longer
relevant. Why share power when we can soon have all of it in Kabul?''
A third reason may be due to Mullah Mansour's desire to establish himself as
a strong leader.
News of Mullah Omar's death had been kept a secret because Taliban leaders
could not agree on a successor. Iran was promoting Muhammad, a son of Mullah
Omar, as new leader while Pakistan was behind Mullah Mansour. The pro-Iran
and pro-Pakistan Taliban even did a bit of fighting among themselves, mostly
in the western province of Herat, until it became clear that Iran would not
be able to seize control of a Sunni Muslim movement like the Taliban.
Yet another reason may be the appearance of pro-Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria (ISIS) groups trying to set up shop in competition with Taliban.
According to the Iranian government over 80 such groups are already present
in Afghanistan or in Pakistani areas close to the borders of Iran and
These are still small groups and unable to claim a slot in the big league of
armed struggle. Some are cooperating with Taliban while others are helping
Baluch rebels in Pakistan and Iran. However, ISIS-like groups could grow
quickly, largely thanks to arrival of volunteers from all over the world and
substantial financial support from rich individuals in Muslim countries.
By moving on the offensive now, Mullah Mansour may be signaling to his
constituency that there is no need for ISIS type groups and that Islamic rule
could return to Kabul through Taliban.
Finally, despite routine denials, there is no doubt that Pakistan also plays
a part in reactivating the Taliban. With the US scripting itself out of the
equation, Afghanistan could fall under the influence of an
Iranian-Russo-Indian coalition, isolating Pakistan which, to a majority of
Afghans who unlike Taliban are not ethnic Pashtuns, remains a hostile power.
(Pashtuns are the largest community in Afghanistan, accounting for 38 to 40
per cent of the population.) Pakistan needs Afghanistan as hinterland
providing strategic depth and a channel to Muslim Central Asia. No Pakistan
government could allow Afghanistan to fall under control of a coalition of
President Obama has always labelled Afghanistan as ''the right war'' as
opposed to the ''wrong war'' in Iraq. Even if we accept that weird dialectic,
it would not be hard to see that he is imposing the ''wrong peace'' on the''
right war.'' His premature withdrawal from Afghanistan could revive the
smoldering fires of a war that has ravaged that nation since 1979.
A strong US presence has been a guarantor of peace and democratization in
However, the task of building a new and better Afghanistan is not yet
To withdraw now would be seen as a desperate cut-and-run ploy, another
example of Obama snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Ironically, Obama
has now more troops in Iraq, the land of the ''wrong war'' than in
Afghanistan with its ''right war.''
The Taliban are already preparing attacks on Baghlan, Samangan and
Mazar-i-Sharif. Their aim is to transform the country into another base for
exporting terrorism to Central Asia and China to start with and, sooner
rather than later, to the rest of the world.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.