A Growing Threat in Afghanistan?
Aug 18, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


A fresh rash of attacks attributed to Taliban fighters and forces loyal to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has broken out in Afghanistan's Paktika province. So far, the U.S. military has not responded to these attacks. This might be tied to the United States' desire to push more combat responsibilities toward its NATO allies or a reflection of the dilemma U.S. forces are facing in Afghanistan, where they battle an enemy that can quickly retreat across the border into Pakistan, cutting off legal pursuit. In either case, the United States has yet to move to curtail activity by the Taliban or Hekmatyar in Paktika, and continued inaction could lead to a larger threat in the future.


Seven Afghan police officers were killed and four others were taken hostage on Aug. 17 in Paktika province, during two separate raids attributed to Taliban fighters and forces loyal to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Eyewitnesses estimated that around 200 Taliban fighters armed with rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were involved in the raids, which took place in scattered locations and hours apart. Authorities believe the fighters entered Afghanistan from Pakistani territory and fled back across the border with their hostages.

The United States so far has not responded militarily. The absence of a response could mean that Washington is trying to nudge its NATO allies into taking on a larger role in Paktika, particularly while U.S. forces have their hands full in other parts of the country and in Iraq. It also is possible, however, that Washington does not view the recent violence in Paktika -- which has not targeted U.S. forces -- as significant enough to warrant a military response, or -- because the military cannot chase its enemy into safe territory in Pakistan -- that roll-up operations in the Afghan-Pakistani border region are now considered moot.

Ultimately, however, the lack of action could come back to haunt the United States, whose credibility in Afghanistan is at stake. If U.S. forces do not respond accordingly to the raids, which killed more than 70 people in the first weeks of August alone, their credibility among the local populace will crumble. Troops loyal to Taliban ideals and to Hekmatyar could become emboldened and will strike repeatedly and more deeply into Afghanistan.

The Aug. 17 attacks are just the latest in a string of raids in the last 30 days that reportedly were launched from Pakistan's Waziristan agency and Northwest Frontier Province -- areas that have been safe havens for Taliban activity and planning. The Pashtun majority in these areas is frequently sympathetic to the Taliban ideology, which is closely aligned with Pashtun tribal customs and beliefs.

The United States is shifting its strategy in Afghanistan, due to the limited number of forces in country, NATO's expanded role in peacekeeping operations, a desire for Afghan authorities to step up to the plate in enforcing order and the lack of progress in attempts to strengthen security along the Pakistani border.

In light of these issues, the United States likely will shift away from its strategy of sweeping the southeastern regions to eliminate pockets of Taliban fighters, focusing instead on intelligence gathering in attempts to pre-empt attacking forces.

However, failure by the United States to act sooner rather than later might allow the Taliban and Hekmatyar's fighters to solidify their operations in the border region, ultimately necessitating a larger-scale U.S. response. Significant combat still could lie ahead -- whether as a show of force by the United States or provoked by the growing violence in southeastern Afghanistan.