After 10 years in Afghanistan, new fears of a possible resumption of Afghan civil war are surfacing as the United States and its allies begin to edge their troops toward the exit by 2014.
Analysts point to a worrisome trend: Increased boldness of Taliban attacks in urban areas and targeted assassinations, the most notable being the recent killing of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
U.S. Army War College professor Larry Goodson says the conflict's lack of a clear-cut outcome increases the likelihood of a return to the kind of bloody chaos that gripped the country in the early 1990s.
"I fear another civil war is coming," said Gordon. "I hear Afghans who say, 'No, it won’t come because we’re just tired of war.' And that’s my great hope, that war-weariness will get us there. But my fear is that we haven’t seen a decisive war in Afghanistan. We haven’t seen a crushing of the Taliban, for example, or a crushing of the current regime and the Taliban taking back over."
In recent congressional testimony, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, warned of possible civil war if President Hamid Karzai could not aggressively tackle the rampant corruption in his government.
"If we continue to draw down forces at pace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked, I believe we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect the Afghans to have faith," said Adm. Mullen. "At best, this would lead to localized conflicts inside the country. At worst, it could lead to government collapse and civil war."
The current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is to degrade the Taliban to the point that they will be forced to the negotiating table, while building up the central government’s ability to provide for its own security by training the army and police.
Central to the strategy is to give space for a process of reconciliation between the government and at least some elements of the Taliban. But the recent wave of attacks has convinced many that the Taliban is not interested in talking. After the assassination of former president Rabbani, who headed the High Peace Council, even President Karzai said he was no longer open to talks.
Francesc Vendrell, former European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan, said reconciliation is not dead, but is, as he put it, comatose. "Rabbani’s assassination has only confirmed in the minds of the northerners, whether they liked Rabbani or not, that the Taliban are against them, and therefore [his death] only strengthens their opposition to any idea of compromise," he said.
Vendrell said he would not be at all surprised if the Taliban are simply awaiting U.S. and NATO departure before making a move.
U.S. calls Taliban significantly weakened
U.S. officials, however, have publicly maintained that things are going in their favor. In recent congressional testimony, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta played down the importance of recent attacks, including one on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
"Overall, we judge this change in tactics to be a result in a shift in momentum in our favor and a sign of weakness of the insurgency," he said. "While overall violence in Afghanistan is trending down, and down substantially in areas where we concentrated the surge, we must be more effective in stopping these attacks and limiting the ability of insurgents to create perceptions of decreasing security."
But Professor Goodson, emphasizing that he is voicing purely personal views, says numbers used to measure success of counterinsurgency don’t tell the entire story.
“It's a misreading of the situation that begins with the notion that we have made combat inroads in the south and southwest, [which] is based on a number of metrics," he said, explaining that simply calculating the number of deaths and attacks, for example, isn't an appropriate way to profile an insurgency or counterinsurgency. "[The numbers] don’t really tell us the strategic mindset of the Taliban or the Taliban supporters."
Battle to balance regional interests
Meanwhile, U.S. has accused Pakistan’s controversial intelligence service of backing Taliban or Taliban-related groups that have carried out recent attacks. Karzai, refusing to talk to the Taliban has said he will deal with Pakistan, which he termed the "other side." The Afghan leader then flew to New Delhi to sign a strategic partnership with Islamabad’s archrival, India.
Vendrell has expressed concern that Karzai’s moves may cause Pakistan not to pull back from Afghanistan, but to become more adventurous there.
"I think the [New Delhi visit] only feeds Pakistan’s paranoia that India and Afghanistan are going to get together and leave Pakistan sandwiched in between," he said. "If it’s true that Afghanistan is going to accept Indian trainers for the army or the police, this would be very bad because this will obviously drive Pakistan up the wall."
But Vendrell suggests conciliatory tactics could defuse tensions. He says that if the U.S. were to pressure India to be more forthcoming on bilateral India-Pakistan issues - especially on the matter of the disputed area of Kashmir - it could mollify disenfranchised Pakistan officials. But Kashmir remains a deeply contentious issue that is a source of great friction between the two nations.