Today’s leaked NATO report on ‘the state of the Taliban’ has generated
the predictable responses: excessive attempts by the media to hype it up, and excessive attempts by NATO and the Pakistani government to play it down.
What is its true significance? It’s a good scoop, but there is little or nothing in it which really counts as ‘news’ to anyone who has been following the debate. The report is the
latest in a series going back several years (I remember reading earlier versions during my time in government), which summarises thousands of interviews with captured insurgents and others, in an
attempt to build up a picture of the state of the insurgency to inform strategic and operational decision-making. The BBC, which has the report, "http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16832359">tells us that it ‘exposes for the first time the close relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, and the
Taliban’; that it shows ‘widespread collaboration between the insurgents and Afghan police and military’, ‘widespread support for the insurgency among the Afghan
population’; and indicates that ‘Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government, usually as a result of government corruption.’ All of these
points are common currency not just inside the US and UK administrations, but also in specialist media coverage of Afghanistan, and many of them have received tacit endorsement by government
spokespersons, on and off the record. The Pentagon spokesman Capt John Kirby reminded reporters today that ‘We have long been concerned about ties between elements of the ISI and some
extremist networks’; and back in September Admiral Mike Mullen, about to retire as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, famously told a
Senate hearing that a different part of the insurgency, the Haqqani network, ‘acts as a veritable arm of the ISI’.
Rather than being outraged at the behaviour of the Pakistani state, or suffering a crisis of confidence in the Afghan campaign, people should arguably feel reassured that those who are running the
campaign are not in denial about the challenges they face and the prospects of success.
The report highlights two areas in particular where greater realism is essential. First, as I argued
"http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6995638/where-we-are-in-afghanistan.thtml">here last summer, our strategy in Afghanistan needs to be based on a more hard-headed assessment of how likely
it is that Pakistan’s behaviour will change. While much of this behaviour looks simply unacceptable in an ally (and a recipient of development and other assistance), it is very unlikely to
change rapidly — given that it is based in a view of Pakistan’s strategic interests which has been deeply entrenched in their national security community for many decades — and
the West’s attempts to effect change in this area must also be weighed against other priorities in our relationship with Pakistan, including counter-terrorism and stability inside Pakistan
itself, as well as nuclear security and other issues. If our strategy in Afghanistan requires anything more than incremental improvements in Pakistan’s attitude, it is the wrong
Second, as I argued in November, our strategy needs to be based on a more realistic assessment of the strengths
and weaknesses of the insurgency.
There is a tendency inside the NATO, US, and UK systems (see for example
"http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/8886095/Philip-Hammond-I-shook-hands-with-Sinn-Fein-we-must-talk-to-the-Taliban-too.html">this interview with the new Defence Secretary Philip
Hammond) to dismiss the trends correctly highlighted in the leaked report — assassinations of Afghan security and local government leaders, infiltration of Afghan security forces, Taliban
shadow governance competing effectively with the seemingly corrupt and ineffective Kabul regime — as either irrelevant, or signs of weakness or even ‘desperation’ on the part of
an insurgency who are supposed to be frustrated by their inability to ‘defeat us on the battlefield’ and demoralised by the success of our special forces in targeting their mid-level
This suggests a total inability to see the conflict from the insurgency’s point of view. At the same time as Western leaders, looking to their domestic constituencies, are talking about
accelerating the process of ‘transition’ to Afghan control, today’s report tells us that ‘the Taliban are deliberately hastening NATO’s withdrawal by reducing their
attacks in some areas and then initiating a comprehensive hearts-and-minds campaign’. We shouldn’t ascribe too much strategic sophistication, and in particular too much strategic
co-ordination, to what is undeniably a fragmented insurgency under a degree of pressure; but the trends identified in the report are plausible components of a deliberate strategic shift by the
insurgency, in response to NATO’s own strategic shift towards ‘transition’. Dismissing them as ‘desperation’ is itself rather desperate.
Leaks are always damaging, but however difficult this is to handle in the short term, we must hope that UK officials and others use it as an opportunity to move towards a more honest and realistic
debate about the Afghan campaign and its prospects of success, in public as well as private. Clearly, they are under no obligation to talk up our enemies, but complacency can be just as damaging as
Matt Cavanagh is an associate director at IPPR.