The Changing Game in Afghanistan

Two remarkable events took place in recent days involving the war against the Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and al Qaeda. Neither event augurs well for US/NATO efforts in Afghanistan, though important opportunities may arise. In any case, recent events signal a new phase in the war in Afghanistan.

First, the Pakistani government negotiated a pact with the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley of the country’s turbulent and increasingly independent North-West Frontier Province. The agreement allows for the imposition of Islamic Law in the region, which the Pakistani Taliban had been imposing on its own through threats and violence. Second, on the heels of the Swat agreement came the announcement that a few previously antagonistic Islamist groups had put aside differences, forged an alliance – the Council of United Holy Warriors – and proclaimed common cause with and allegiance to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban.

The agreement in Swat and the formation of the Council of United Holy Warriors come after the collapse of the Pakistani government’s strategy of overtly supporting the US/NATO war in Afghanistan and covertly supporting the militant groups it trained and used against India. Those groups turned on the government of Pakistan for its support of the US, and fought intermittent violent skirmishes, which the government could not continue while it faced political crises with the Muslim League, an economic downturn, and possible retaliation from India over the Mumbai attacks of last fall. The agreement was, from the perspective of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, unavoidable.

The full meaning and implications of these events cannot be immediately judged, but US/NATO forces are unlikely to see much to warrant optimism. It is probable that the Council of United Holy Warriors will demand and receive (or take) more control along the border with Afghanistan. Militants will hold larger areas of the North-West Frontier Province from which they will supply and direct the war in Afghanistan without fear of attacks from the Pakistani military, which will observe the war, issue periodic declamations, but launch little if any substantive response. An underlying principle of the agreement may be this: fight the West, not fellow Pakistanis. Militants will be able to further reduce US/NATO supplies coming through Pakistan and launch a stronger offensive than expected in a few weeks after the regular winter lull, though command and control of the various groups might prove elusive.

Pakistan’s agreement with militants and the formation of the Council of United Holy Warriors may be transient matters that will be forgotten in a few months. Such agreements and proclamations of unity have come and gone along the frontier since the days of Tamerlane and Babur, Elphinstone and Kipling. Indeed, even during the war with the Soviet Union, nominally allied mujahadin groups (eg, Hizb-i Islami and Jamiat-i Islami) periodically fought each other, allowing the Soviet Union to win over local tribes who found the feuding mujahadin more threatening than the Kabul government and its foreign backers. Accordingly, recent events, grim as they appear, present opportunities that a skillful player might recognize and exploit.

The US will be able to continue and even expand its use of Predator drones, which have reportedly inflicted serious casualties on Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, as protestations from Islamabad become less relevant. Of course the Predators may have to fly from Afghan bases, now that an American senator has accidentally divulged they were doing so from Pakistani bases – undoubtedly with government knowledge.

Events in the North-West Frontier Province will affect the US effort to conduct tribal diplomacy with the various Pashtun tribes of southern and eastern Afghanistan, which is central to the US’s new, political strategy. It is uncertain whether the tribes will regard the coalescing Islamist militants as a legitimate new order to ally with or as inevitable winner with whom they should come to terms.

Alternately, they may see the militants as an ominous force, dominated by firebrands and outsiders, that will overwhelm local custom and self-governance and perpetuate war. As self-serving as the latter view is to the West, it will find at least some resonance in tribes with governing structures intact after decades of war, which look warily upon the unpredictable outcome of the Islamist whirlwind to their south.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing)