Former British Army officer Col Tim Collins on how the Afghan Taliban is morphing into Islamic State, and what to do to defeat them.
As 2014 passed and 2015 dawned NATO’s mission in Afghanistan ended and Operation Resolute Support – the NATO mission to support the independent Afghan effort, began. NATO’s handover did not see an orderly handover to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA)of a stable tranquil nation; rather it saw a transformed and capable Afghanistan, better in every way than before 2001, handed to a new Afghan government and still at war.
And that is right and proper. The Afghans are not children whom we have to treat as orphans. It is a sovereign nation with the complexities of history bearing down on it and a huge resolve to survive. The peoples of Afghanistan look to a self-determined future in harmony with its neighbours for mutual prosperity. But first the enemy must be beaten and that means war.
I visited Afghanistan last week and had privileged access to senior officials including HM Ambassador and Lieutenant General Alizai, the head of The Department of Police Intelligence – the Afghan Special Branch and the head of Army Intelligence Major General Farahi. The message from the senior Afghans is clear; the war is not over. We have not won yet, but we can – but only with the support of our allies. General Alizai was more specific. He said that three types of help were vital – Financial support because Afghanistan’s economy is not yet ready to fund a war, economic support to make room for Afghan goods and exports so that they can pay their own way as soon as possible and moral support in the face of the huge task ahead.
Both wished to tell the people of the world that NATO did make a difference. The old threat – the multitude of groups known collectively as the Taliban was badly damaged. So much so in fact it is dying. But as it does so it is transforming and like a phoenix rising is transforming into the Islamic State (IS). Once again it is all our fight
As the black flags of IS appear in Kunduz, Logar and Nangahar and even in Helmand the problem compounds. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have not just taken over the battle – they have taken it to the enemy. The war will step up. Where NATO saw areas where it was best to give space the ANSF will fight for every inch of the country. It is no longer a counterinsurgency. It is war. Expect casualties. The enemy will have plenty too. But this is not a fight to be judged by the count of the dead – it will be judged by the belief and loyalty and security of the living. That is why there can be no ground conceded.
The dip in fortunes that the Afghans experienced post NATO ending ground operations was the same as the South Vietnamese Army experienced after the US withdrawal. They could not call for support from the waiting artillery because, up to the last moment, a foreigner was there to do it, same for air support. But as General Farahi told me in perfect English, ‘We have leaned to do it ourselves already – because unlike the Vietnamese our morale is strong.’ They don’t need all of the NATO assets and capabilities but they do need some help especially in Logistics and Intelligence and training – always more training.
For that reason their plea was – where possible – keep your media reporting balanced. ‘Don’t judge us by your standards.’ Said Farahi ‘We are not afraid of casualties. We expect them. This is a war. In our culture it is more important to get the dead back to their villages in 24 hours for burial than it is to get the wounded out. That is our call. A dead soldier buried properly wins the respect of his village. It generates more volunteers. Our wounded can expect conditions more like D Day than NATO. This is our existential war. But if we are defeated so too are you.’
The critical nature of these recent developments has caused a severe focus of minds. One Afghan General who must remain anonymous even suggested arming the Taliban to counter IS – so great is the threat. General Farahi scoffed at that. ‘We’re going to beat all of the men of evil. We need none of them as allies – providing we still have your support.’ And there is the rub. Will the West lose interest as events closer to home in Syria and the Ukraine draw attention and resources?
In Particular both Alizai and Farahi appealed to the UK to remain close. “Afghans want the UK to be a persuader to help normalise relations with Pakistan. The UK has stood alone in a War. Help others to believe in us”. They were especially concerned that the counter-narcotics effort was sustained. A fear shared by HM Ambassador. One senior official told me ‘if IS can get control of the narcotics trade they are not just self –financing here; they will be able to finance a world war’
So as winter turns to spring and the snows of the Hindu Kush turn to rivers so the new fighting season begins. The difference is that this season heralds a shooting war. Not hit and run and scoped operations of the NATO era. A war, with frontlines, casualties and heart-break. The Taliban, as they are degraded, face a transformation to IS that worries China, Iran and India as much as it does the West. General Farahi told me ‘ for young people with no job the IS offer excitement. They point to a movement that is mysterious and alluring. It is in fact early death. We need to offer youth a better alternative. That means jobs and hope. We need to counter the lies with hope and a coherent narrative of our own.’ I reflected that the same words may have been spoken by a youth worker in Bradford or Tower hamlets.
The war has begun in earnest. On the frontline is Afghanistan. Let us wish them luck and more – lets give them the tools to finish the job.
Tim Collins is CEO and co founder of intelligence-based security services company New Century.