Detainees Turn to Courts to Stop Force-Feeding

Despite prior rulings that federal courts have no jurisdiction over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, attorneys for detainees at the detention center have now turned to the court system for help in putting a stop to force-feeding at the GTMO Detention Camp.  Over the weekend, defense attorneys filed a motion with a federal district court in Washington DC requesting an immediate hearing on the legality of tactics used by military personnel at Guantanamo to keep hunger-striking prisoners alive.  In the 30-page motion, defense attorney Jon B. Eisenberg stated, “There cannot be a legitimate penological interest in force-feeding petitioners (detainees) to prolong their indefinite detention.”

The military continues to defend the use of force-feeding as a necessary step to maintain order at Guantanamo, but the defense attorneys and detainees argue that it is a direct violation of human rights.  Detainee Nabil Hadjarab claims that he is taking part in the hunger strikes to protest his detention despite the fact that no formal charges have been lodged against him.  Hadjarab stated, “I am doing this because I want to know my destiny.  I cannot abide not knowing anymore.”  Force-feeding at Guantanamo has been criticized for months now but this is one of the first instances where the detainee’s defense counsel has turned to the courts for relief.

The motion specifically names four detainees, and there might be a reason for its timing.  The Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts next week, and any force-feeding that might occur during daytime hours could violate detainees’ religious beliefs.  Even if the motion is not presented to the court by next week, the detainees are seeking a temporary order that would prohibit guards from force-feeding them from sunup to sundown.  This would probably be granted as guards at Guantanamo have agreed in the past to only force-feed detainees after sundown in observance with Ramadan.

Even so, guards at Guantanamo are unlikely to change their ways without a specific court order.  Army Colonel Greg Julian stated, “Until we are told to do differently the practice will not change.”  I can understand that guards at Guantanamo are simply following orders.  They aren’t exactly in the best position.  They don’t get to make the call on whether or not the detainees are charged or released.  As for the overarching policy, I agree that it isn’t a good look to have detainees dying from malnutrition at Guantanamo.  But it isn’t much better to shove tubes into detainees’ stomachs in response to a protest that has a perfectly legitimate aim.

We aren’t talking about detainees with high intelligence value or detainees that have been charged with crimes.  I can see a better argument for force-feeding detainees in that category, even if it might still be a human rights violation.  We could at least justify it since keeping them alive might save more lives if they have information on any impending attacks.  Instead, we’re talking about men who have been told by the government that there are no charges against them due to lack of evidence, but they are still not allowed to leave Guantanamo Bay.  These are men who have made a conscious decision to protest a policy that many Americans don’t even like.  And if the courts put a stop to force-feeding it might force the government’s hand into making a decision as to their fate.

Either way, this has turned into an issue that the courts will now have to address.  And with the total number of hunger-strikers at 106 and the number of detainees being force-fed at 45, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next week or so.

Chris Whitten
Center for Policy and Research

World-Wide Military Concerns: From Drones to Damsels

Scraps of world-wide military transformations litter the news, leaving a careful observer with one uneasy and exciting implication: CHANGE. News of ground warfare has been largely replaced by flashy articles about “cyber warfare.” The Army slashed 12 combat brigades across the country, begrudgingly announcing the plan to reduce the number of active duty soldiers by 80,000 in four years (long enough a wait to pray for a Republican president to rescue their budget).

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, their infant Air Force is gleaning every drop of information they can from their Western trainers. NATO will end their training aid in 18 short months. Gen. Shir-Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan National Army chief of staff told 13 flight school grads, “Having all these U.S., coalition forces, advisers, instructors and contractors around us is a golden opportunity for all of us… Make sure you do not [squander] learning enough skills from them…”

Meanwhile in Asia, a collection of countries (including China, India, and Indonesia) sit poised to become the leading coalition of military spending. The US has been permitting (resentfully) the attrition of the budget to a mere $707.5 billion (not including FBI counter-terrorism (who do earn their budget!!! …a little prejudiced.), International Affairs, defense-related Energy Dept., Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, satellites, veteran pensions, and interest on debt from past wars). However, Asian countries are prepared to meet US military spending by 2021, anticipating an increase in spending of 35%.

Meanwhile in Israel, they stand prepared to surpass the US as the largest exporter in the world of unmanned drones this year.

So where is the victorious “meanwhile in the US” blurb? What are we overtaking? More importantly, WHAT ARE WE WINNING? Well, folks, once more we are winning the make-the-same-arguments-we’ve-been-making-for-a-decade award. Huge trophies will be delivered to the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Force and Green Berets as soon as they can fit it in the budget. A two-year study is to be conducted. Although we hear the typical regurgitated physical-requirements argument against the inclusion of women (not surprised face), I was sickened to learn we’re still talking about the “cohesion and morality” of the group (Army Maj. Gen. Sacolick’s words). Trust me, the declarations are ripe with phrases fretting over “social implications” and “distractions.” I kid you not: “Distractions.” Once more women are to be confined from a respected and desired combat position because of men. Well, you can keep your worries because like it or not gender equality is coming for you, special ops. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow! It may not even be in the year 2015 after your comprehensive and oh-so-fair study. But it will be soon. And for the rest of the military’s life!

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

More Government Secrecy in Detainee Trials at Guantanamo Bay

Later this week, the trial of an alleged al-Qaeda bomber and current Guantanamo Bay detainee suspected of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole will continue, and one of the first items on the docket is a top secret motion from the government.  Classified motions are not exactly rare in military trials against detainees, but this one is particularly interesting.  Those who know the contents of the motion are barred from discussing any of its contents, and even the defendant, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and his defense team are not allowed to obtain declassified information regarding the motion unless the Army judge presiding over the trial compels it.  In fact, al-Nashiri’s lead attorney told reporters that his defense team had to fly to Washington, D.C. just to read it.

Army Brig. General Mark Martins, the government’s lead prosecutor on war crimes, insisted that his office was not using classification to cover up any embarrassing episodes, stating that there are “important narrow occasions” where the government may classify information “to protect national security interests.”  Still, the motion has already attracted negative attention from critics of the Pentagon court, which uses the motto “Fairness – Transparency – Justice.”  Yale law professor Eugene Fidell likened the motion to playing charades in the dark.  Even before news of the classified motion was released, a defense attorney filed a motion in May opposing any closure of future motions against al-Nashiri.

Military hearings at Guantanamo have been criticized for some time due to concerns over secrecy and the legitimacy of hearings against detainees, and this news will only add fuel to the fire.  The government is seeking the death penalty against al-Nashiri, and anything less than full disclosure of the government’s case against him leads to serious questions regarding the fairness of military trials against detainees.  In fact, Professor Fidell was quoted as saying,

“We’re supposed to be talking about the rule of law. You can have an all-star team of justices – Cardozo, Brandeis, Holmes, John Marshall, Stevens, Brennan, take your pick – and if they’re working in a closet you can forget about it in terms of public confidence in the administration of justice.”

The timing of this news was poor for the government in light of the recent leak of information regarding the NSA’s surveillance scandal.  With public concern regarding government secrecy rapidly growing, we should expect a great deal of criticism regarding the use of classified motions against detainees at Guantanamo.  And when the stakes are so high, we should be calling for more transparency and legitimacy in trials against detainees.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Some thoughts on GTMO hunger strike strategy

A friend of mine recently wrote me to about the hunger strikes taking place at Guantanamo. He made a very interesting comparison between the hunger striking  strategy employed by the Guantanamo detainees and those used by Irish separatists jailed by the British. He noted that the Irish were unsuccessful in their efforts to gain concessions from the British until they struck upon the strategy of a serial hunger strike. One detainee would stop eating, eventually starving himself to death, only to have his hunger strike taken up by another. This sustainable tactic created a relentless tension that eventually caused the British to cave.

Conversely, the Guantanamo detainees have typically used parallel hunger strikes. The resulting large number of hunger strikers is generally assumed to be an attempt to garner media attention. My friend is definitely correct in his assessment that this is not a sustainable tactic, which he took to mean that the Irish strategy would be more effective. However, as I pointed out to him, there is a key difference between the two cases: in Guantanamo, detainees are not allowed to starve themselves to death, only into infirmity. Once their bodyweight drops too much, they get a tube up the nose and food down their gullet. From which I concluded that media attention the sheer number of hunger strikers was the only effective civil disobedience strategy available to Guantanamo detainees.

However, it has since occurred to me that another strategy may be at play here. By increasing the number of hunger strikers, the detainees increase the workload on the medical personnel conducting their forced feeding. As has recently been reported, the situation has gotten to the point where they are having to conduct forced feeding around the clock in order to keep up. If the detainees are able to continue to grow this hunger strike much more, and sustain it just long enough, they may be able to completely overwhelm the guard force medics. If this happens, we could see several deaths in relatively short succession.

The media coverage of such an eventuality would be substantial, the political left would be mobilized, and pressure to finally close the prison would mount.

Or… maybe they’re just pissed off.

In either event, such as strategy will not work. In response to the increased hunger striking by the Guantanamo detainees, the US Navy has sent an additional 40 medical personnel to support the over-burdened force-feeding operations. This capacity and willingness to scale the response to hunger strikes will negate any high-volume strategy, at least in terms of impact on operations.

Interestingly, according to the Navy at least, the term “force feeding” may be a bit of a stretch. Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, in a statement issued on Monday, claimed that “currently only a handful of detainees are being tube-fed.” The rest of those designated for “force-feeding” are actually just isolated from their peers, sat in front of a meal, and eat voluntarily. If this is the case, then the primary driver of the hunger strike is peer pressure rather than solidarity of opposition. If that is the case, this hunger strike is just as doomed as the previous ones.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

The 9/11 Five’s Defense Counsel Granted Limited Visitation Privileges to “Camp 7″

Judge James Pohl has granted the defense counsel in the 9/11 military commission limited access to Camp 7, the top secret prison home of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants.

The defense counsel teams initially requested a 48-hour access stint, which included the ability to sleepover with their clients once per month. The Prosecution proposed a cursory two-hour tour of Camp 7.

On Tuesday, Judge Pohl ruled that, for one time only, up to three members of each defense team could visit their respective clients in Camp 7 for no longer than 12 continuous hours. The visitation privilege was limited to the hours between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

No doubt about it: this is a big deal. Camp 7 is one of the most top-secret facilities on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Even its very location is classified. Not to mention, this ruling comes one week after Camp 7 military police ransacked some of the defendants’ legal bins and seized already screened and approved personal items. The defense was in uproar last week, interpreting this as another attempt by the government to intrude on attorney-client privileged communications.

While the defense teams will be permitted to take notes, make sketches, and pictures during their visit, it is no surprise that those materials will be subject to inspection.

Commander Ruiz Angers Admiral MacDonald

Recapping the fourth and last day of last week’s 9/11 military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay, presiding Judge James Pohl promised to address “the bin issue” after lunch.

But first, the court heard testimony from Admiral Bruce MacDonald, the Director of the Office of the Convening Authority and the presiding Convening Authority for the Office of Military Commissions. Commander Walter Ruiz, defense Counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s co-defendant Mr. al-Hawsawi, argued that MacDonald inappropriately approved the 9/11 five’s eligibility for death sentences before each had been provided with an appropriate amount of informed legal advice.

A veritable screaming match erupted when Ruiz rhetorically asked, “Admiral, can a capital defense lawyer—who doesn’t have a translator that speaks the defendant’s language, who doesn’t have a mitigation expert, and who cannot communicate in writing with his client—present adequate mitigation evidence?”

Ruiz explained that he was without the help of a mitigation specialist—a defense team’s psychologist of sorts, who possesses clinical information-gathering skills enabling him or her to extract from the defendant sensitive, sometimes embarrassing and often humiliating evidence that will shape a defense attorney’s themes and theories of the case. Ruiz argued that while it is true that MacDonald had approved a particular mitigation specialist, he was of no beneficial use because MacDonald refused to approve his security clearance. So, although Ruiz’s mitigation specialist could speak to Mr. al-Hawsawi, he could not speak with him about any of the pressing classified issues—like his experience with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Also, Ruiz was without an approved personal translator, and was instead relegated to use a cadre of government-provided translators that had independent contracts with JTF-GTMO (Ruiz disputes having rejected eight translators).

Approaching lunch break, Judge Pohl asked MacDonald if he would agree to be interviewed by the defense. No, he answered. But then objected to interviews without a government official present.

Ruiz turned to sit down from the podium, but quickly returned as if he had forgotten something, and added with some sarcasm, “Judge, I will simply indicate as an officer of the United States Navy, I am a member of the government.”

“Commander, I’m more than aware of that,” Judge Pohl said, while nodding and smirking.

Admiral MacDonald will be recalled later in the hearings.

“The Bin Issue”

Ms. Cheryl Bormann, Learned Counsel for co-defendant Mr. bin ‘Attash, announced at the end of Wednesday’s hearing that when her client, Mr. bin ‘Attash, lead defendant Mr. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and another co-defendant returned to their cells after Tuesday’s session, their legal bins containing attorney-client privileged mail had been ransacked and some items were seized. Bormann summoned Navy Lieutenant Commander George Massucco, Assistant Staff Judge Advocate for JTF-GTMO, to take the stand.

Massucco, whose name was laughably butchered a dozen times before he was forced to spell it out for counsel, confirmed that there had been a routine inspection and items were seized, but the SJA Office has since determined that the items would be returned to the three co-defendants. He informed the court that the seized documents, mostly photos (one of the Grand Mosque in Mecca), were seized because they were improperly stamped and without initials.

Bormann alleged that the inspection protocol and stamping system was flawed in its practice. The guard staff conducting inspections, she explained, were re-screening documents that had already been approved by J2—documents that had been in the defendants’ cells, in some cases, for over a year and half. Having passed thousands of inspections since 2011, it is strange, she said, that they are being seized now. Her concern heightened when she learned that  a turnover in the guard force—what Massucco called an Army-Navy “rip”—was taking place.

“But as I see it, it’s not going to really matter who does the inspection if the inspection keeps happening. The seizure of the same mail, the same materials over and over and over, whether that seizure is done by a PRT person or whether that’s done by the guard force— it boarders on harassment,” Bormann pleaded.

“I got it,” Judge Pohl said.

Chief Prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins tried to cool the tension radiating from the defense’s side of the room. He explained that the inspection was routine, and the defense counsel teams unanimously agreed that such a procedure is reasonable and necessary in order to protect against a legitimate national security risk. The seizure, he explained, was a competent response to the same protocol that has been used by the “old hands” and is currently being taught to the “new hands.”

Bormann demanded the need for some common sense legislation. Yet Judge Pohl responded, “And I think, as you recognize, you said you can’t legislate common sense or order common sense; all you can do is the best you can with what you’ve got…. And you’ve got to balance [the legitimate need for security] obviously and minimize the intrusion to privileged materials.”

The defense proffered an off-the-cuff proposal for “common sense legislation”: that all documents be stamped properly in accordance with JTF-GTMO SOP and all inspections be performed under the same accord; and that the defendants’ legal bins only be inspected for illegal contraband (i.e. weapons), not for the content of the items contained therein; and if items are seized, the Assistant SJA should refer to defense counsel for reasonable clarification.

Moving forward, the defense has been given 7 days from last Thursday to submit a formal proposal, and the prosecution will be given 7 days to respond, although they have already made it clear that a motion to grant AE 018 would be their position.

In the meantime, the prosecution agreed to have all sixteen “smoke detector” microphones removed from Echo II.

Josh Wirtshafter is a fellow at the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law student. He is a member of the Class of 2014 and is a 2011 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, where he majored in Religious Studies.

Redefining Victory in Afghanistan

Sometime in the last twelve years, someone moved the goalposts. We’ve gone from wanting to crush the Taliban like the backwater illiterates they are, to wanting to abide their trouble while we slowly secure the country.

And according to then-outgoing commander of our troops in Afghanistan, General John Allen, “This is winning, this is what victory looks like.”

What he did not add was that winning would look like this for years to come. 2014 has come to be seen as what one Afghan official has called a “magical date”, a make-or-break date by which the conflict will effectively be determined one way or the other. But the truth is that there is little reason to believe that it will all be sorted out by then.

This is a sad result for the most powerful military the world has ever seen, but realizing the limits of our ability to drive the outcome is an appropriate and helpful adjustment to the factual situation.

The time in which a decisive battlefield victory over Taliban was possible ended sometime in late 2001 or very early 2002, and was given up when we decided not to press Pakistan to seal off its border (or allow us to do so). Since then, the US and the Afghan government it helped into being have been engaged in a cross-border insurgency, and it is by the fundamental laws of insurgency that the conflict will be won or lost.

We need to abandon the naïve idea that we can crush the Taliban on the field of battle, and realize the truth that has been recognized by the Taliban since the beginning: winning will be determined by which side can be relied upon to provide basic governmental services like security and justice.

Chart-Afghan Issues

And while some may have read my earlier post as entirely pessimistic, there is reason to hope that Afghanistan is at least generally headed in the right direction. First, Afghans themselves are making the investment, in very real terms. According to General John Allen:

“[E]very Sunday when we’ve read the names of our Coalition dead, the Afghan National Army steps up to recognize the sons of Afghanistan, also who have sacrificed in this conflict.  And every week there are 25 or 35 or 45 killed in action and 50 or 60 or 70 wounded.  There can be no doubt that Afghanistan is investing in its own future.  The cost is paid in the blood of their finest young warriors.”

A report by CSIS indicates the total ANSF deaths are now well over 4,000, and it seems likely they are growing faster than those of ISAF.

In addition, the Afghan Army have been largely successful in keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, despite the increased combat pressure they are bearing and the fact that are not yet as professional as their mentors. According to the CSIS report:

“Between 1 January and 30 June, UNAMA documented 20 civilian deaths and 12 injured from search and seizure operations by Pro-Government Forces, a decrease of 27 percent compared with the same period in 2011. This is consistent with the downward trends documented in the same periods in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Civilian casualties as a result of ANSF and ISAF escalation of force incidents continued to decrease in 2012.”

The Afghan Government is also working to reduce its reputation for brutal interrogation and detention. For example, in response to recent reports detailing the prevalence of torture in Afghan detention centers, President Karzai has ordered that all interrogations be video recorded to ensure that the detainees are properly treated.

Such hard-fought successes can be short-lived, as can be seen in Karzai’s ban on ANSF calls for close air support in residential areas in response to an incident that caused severe collateral damage. However, this may be a good development in the long run. Remember that the Taliban cannot be defeated on the field of battle: the flip-side of that coin is that the Government can lose the population’s support by a too-aggressive approach. The French learned this same lesson in Algeria, where their brutal tactics won them a very shallow and self-defeating victory over their insurgent foes. Reducing civilian casualties is an important component of providing civilians a sense of security.

The other major good that the government must provide to the people in order to bolster its legitimacy and weaken the Taliban’s appeal is in the area of governance, justice and civil conflict resolution. Here, the vast majority of the damage done to its reputation has been entirely self-inflicted: endemic corruption in the courts and police has caused many in the south to turn to the Taliban to help them resolve their disputes with one another. While the Taliban verdicts are swift and harsh, they are also perceived as untainted by biased and corruption.

Unfortunately, there is little indication that the highest levels of the US or Afghanistan governments are very interested in tackling the corruption issue. Few official statements by either government ever mention the issue as more than a passing reference. Furthermore, little progress has been made in the past decade. Indeed, a recent report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime found that while the number of Afghans who have to pay bribes has been dropping since 2009 (from 59% of Afghans to a mere 50%), the total cost of the corruption has risen 40%. And those who find themselves in the position where they must pay a bribe are subjected to higher bribes more often.

While there is good news in that there has been a 10% drop in the incidence of police bribery, this is counterbalanced by the fact that there has been no improvement in the judicial branch. Indeed, while the reporting rate of bribery appears to high by international standards, only one fifth of these reports lead to any investigation.

Since it’s speedy and reliable night courts are the one of the Taliban’s greatest selling points, it is imperative to Afghanistan’s long term stability that the epidemic of corruption be brought to heel. While it would be pie in the sky to think that success ending corruption could be quickly and easily be achieved by any means, the Afghan government and the US as its partner must secure steady and visible progress in reducing the corruption that impacts the day-to-day lives of Afghan citizens. This is perhaps especially important in the sectors that are mandated to combat corruption, such as the police and courts.

Thankfully, the lower levels of the US government have begun to take some steps in this direction. In the last few years, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has quietly begun to tackle the US military’s enormous contribution to the climate of corruption (as well as some of its absurdly wasteful practices), while USAID’s Assistance for Afghanistan’s Anti-Corruption Authority program has helped Afghanistan develop its High Office of Oversight and supported civil watch-dog groups. Clearly, much more must be done, but it is precisely these sorts of quiet efforts that will prove most effective in the long run.

Pakistan’s Cooperation

Even if the Afghan government is able to reduce the corruption that encourages support for the Taliban, the insurgency will continue to drag on for years so long as they have a sanctuary in which to rest, recover, and prepare for the next operation. This is even more true if they may continue to rely on a state sponsor for support. Because of this, Pakistan plays a pivotal role in determining the longevity of the Taliban movement.

Thankfully, here too there is some reason for hope. With its increased internal instability, Pakistan has recently changed its strategic goal, limiting their references to “strategic depth” (read proxy government in Afghanistan) and calling instead for “power sharing” between the Afghan government and the Taliban. With its interest in stability along its border, the more Pakistan can be convinced that the Afghan state will not crumble in the wake of the US withdrawal, the less support it will provide to the opposition.

As with governance and security, progress in this regard will likely come in small and barely-noticeable form. It will not come as an announcement of a new policy or realignment on the part of Pakistan, but as changes in the attitudes of Pakistani leadership, declines in public support for the Taliban or in opposition to the US, or incremental reduction of support from the military.

This is What Victory Looks Like

Afghanistan has not been a stunning success by any metric. It was badly bungled, then pushed onto the back burner for years. By the time Americans noticed that it was still going on, the Taliban had regained much of their previous strength and had plenty of opportunity to hone their skills.

Yet it may yet be true that, from our current vantage point, this is what success looks like. Securing Afghanistan will require the long and tiring process of building state legitimacy while wearing down, coopting, and waiting out the insurgency.

“[O]ur victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared.  This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring.  Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens.  This is victory.  This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”

General John Allen

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

This week’s military commission hearing…

The military commission hearing, United States of America v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al., resumes on Monday, January 28, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. 2L student and Center fellow Adam Kirchner will be attending the hearing this coming week. 

As with other military commission hearings held in the past, Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research will be present at the hearings to observe and to report on the parties’ arguments and the commission’s decisions in collaboration with The Public Record

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants face seven distinct charges under the Military Commission Act of 2006: conspiracy, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, murder in violation of the law of war, destruction of property in violation of the law of war, hijacking or hazarding a vessel or aircraft, and terrorism. The United States brings these charges against the accused parties, alleging their roles in the conception and preparation of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia.

Army Colonel James Pohl, the presiding military commission judge, is scheduled to address twenty-three motions during the week’s hearings. The motions raise issues including privileged communications; unauthorized disclosure of protected information; preservation of evidence of existing detention facilities; the accused parties’ conditions of confinement; force-feeding procedures; the CIA rendition, detention, and interrogation program, and the production of witnesses. Hearings are scheduled to be held on Monday through Thursday of this coming week.

Adam Kirchner, Research Fellow

Seton Hall Center for Policy & Research

Planning for the Taliban’s Return

Recently, most public debate about the course of the war in
Afghanistan has centered on the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Distinctly lacking from the discourse is discussion of what happens
afterwards. In those few cases in which this is considered, it is
always couched in terms of how much or what kind of support we can
give to President Karzai or his successor.

Such medium-term considerations are of course very important. However,
in order to properly determine our best medium-term course of action,
we must have a clear an understanding of the longer-term range of
outcomes. For instance, support to Karzai or any other successor
assumes that the government will survive the U.S. withdrawal.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons to question whether the
government will in fact survive.

First, there are the centrifugal forces that constantly pull at the
pieces of the Afghan National Security Forces, the centerpiece of the
U.S. withdrawal strategy. The U.S. plans to “stand down as they stand
up,” but this will only work if they also stand together. It is
important to remember who the ANSF are, and how they are organized.
The majority of these forces are commanded by former mujahideen from
the 1990’s. These are the same men who, after the defeat of the
soviets, created a new government, only to tear it and the rest of the
country to pieces shortly thereafter. This should matter greatly to
our strategic planning: what are we doing to ensure that their
factionalism does not again rip the new state apart? This is
especially concerning since the U.S. has encouraged the creation of
local militias in addition to the ANSF.

Second, there is the Taliban to contend with. Last time a major power
withdrew from Afghanistan, it did so under pressure from the
Mujahideen, not the Taliban. And as noted, the Mujahideen were a
fractious conglomeration of various different groups, unused to
heeding central authority. The Taliban, by contrast, are a political
movement as much as an Army. They therefore have a political ideology
binding them together and giving them common purpose. After all, the
Taliban was formed in reaction to the rampant factionalism of the
1990’s. They thus have a great advantage in surviving challenges and
repelling attempts to buy off pieces of their armed forces (a common
tactic in Afghanistan).

Third, the Taliban have a distinct legitimacy advantage. Not only are
they are a Pashtun group seeking to rule a Pashtun-majority country,
they also provide real governance at the ground level (even in areas
they do not currently hold). The Taliban, interested more than
anything in law and order of the strictest nature, brooks no
corruption within its ranks. The Afghan people know this, and respect
it. The national government, by contrast, is mainly seen as a pool of
corrupt leeches, for very good reason. The U.S. has done little or
nothing to confront the rampant corruption of the government, police,
and militias.

Lastly, and of no little import, the Taliban have a geographic
advantage. They can enter almost any area of Afghanistan, as they have
shown through several high-profile attacks on Kabul. Meanwhile, the
Afghan government cannot follow them back to their redoubt in the
tribal areas of Pakistan. Until Pakistan reverses its policy of active
support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups, the Taliban will
have a large and secure area to rest, rearm, and plan. It has been
shown that insurgencies with such cross-border safe havens are much
more likely to survive and thus succeed in toppling the government.
Indeed, this is how the Taliban got started.

Given these factors, it seems highly likely that the Taliban will
succeed in driving the Karzai government from power within a
relatively short time. Some very respectable analysts estimate that
the government would not be able to keep Kabul more than two years
after the U.S. withdrawal is effective. Whether or not this is the
case, the plausibility of the scenario warrants study and discussion.
The U.S. needs to be prepared to deal with whoever is in charge of
Afghanistan. As yet, there has been no discussion of how the U.S.
should prepare for, or handle, a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Can
anything consequential be done prior to complete withdrawal? If the
Taliban take power, should the U.S. accommodate them, and interface
with the new regime, as it has done with other popularly supported
insurgencies? Should we plan for a partitioned Afghanistan?

With the troop withdrawal around the corner, we need to start planning
for every eventuality. And if we expect that the Taliban will return,
we must start laying the groundwork now for whatever form our
relations with them will take.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research