Editor's Note: Candace Rondeaux is Crisis Group’s senior analyst based in Kabul, focusing on the ongoing conflict and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Before joining Crisis Group in 2009 she was the Islamabad/Kabul bureau chief for The Washington Post.
What is the current security situation in Afghanistan? Has it improved as top U.S. officials have claimed in recent weeks?
Candace Rondeaux: Since Osama bin Laden’s death in Pakistan, not very much has changed. The tempo of operations, as far as the Taliban and others associated with them is concerned, continues on. As it happens, when Osama was killed, the Taliban had just announced the opening of its spring offensive, so we all expect in Kabul and across Afghanistan that the tempo, the aggressiveness, will pick up as the summer months push on here.
I think that there is some anticipation that in the east, and also in the areas around Kabul, we’ll see a lot more insurgent activity in large part because some of those associated with al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network in particular, are moving across the border — in large part because they are being forced out by the drones, along with some other political reasons. We now expect that these fighters will enter the center of the country, which could cause real problems for security.
How do all of these groups tie into al-Qaeda?
The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda has always been quite fraught. The relationship has been tense in large part because the decision to protect Osama bin Laden was a pretty controversial one among political elites inside the Taliban structure.
Not everybody agreed that it was worth it to sacrifice the country’s security — or nominal stability — just for one man.
I think that that argument went on for a good decade, and it still continues today. I also think that the question about global jihad has more or less been settled in many of the Taliban leaders’ minds. There is no real sense that the Taliban are looking to wage a jihad beyond their borders. I think that, universally, they are coming around to this position that, actually, what we really want is just a piece of the pie in the Afghanistan.
But there are other active groups that associate with al-Qaeda, yes?
There are others, of course — insurgent groups that have relationships with al-Qaeda, and one of them is the Haqqani network. A lot has been written about them, but it is hard to know a lot about how they actually work, what their political structure is. They have said over and over again in their own statements that they are not separate from the Taliban, that they are simply representative of a different network of the Taliban.They take their orders from Mullah Omar and so forth and so on.
One would hope that means that, if a decision were made to renounce ties to al-Qaeda in Quetta by Mullah Omar, then Haqqani would follow, but I think many analysts would agree that it is very unlikely — in large part because the Haqqani network has a deep dependency and interrelationship with the Pakistani intelligence services.
They have always been thought of as a unique and almost separate wing that acts independently of everybody else. It tends to be more aggressive and more extremist in its rhetoric and in the targets that it chooses. For the Haqqanis, their survival in large part depends on their relationship with al-Qaeda. They view al-Qaeda as an important part of their strategic resourcing.
You’ve also spoken about the infiltration of some of the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police, the very troops that the U.S. and NATO have been trying to train over the past few years. What has this done to national security?
This is one of the most disturbing trends to take place in the last two months or so. We’ve seen a number of incidents—interestingly, not always in Kandahar but in other places like Nuristan and Laghman — in places in the east where Taliban have infiltrated Afghan national police units, Afghan national army units, and then have kind of gone wild, shooting their colleagues, shooting their trainers, turning their guns on the very people they are supposed to be working with to get the security situation under control.
The concern is, of course, that the Afghan national security forces are supposed to be the anchor of this security change in the transition. If they are not up to snuff, or if they are being infiltrated, this raises big concerns about whether or not Afghanistan is ready for the U.S. and NATO to pull out.
It obviously raises concerns, but what option is NATO left with?
The number of options for NATO has, I think, been shrinking for the last couple of years now, in large part because they don’t have the kind of partner they need in Kabul.
The government of Hamid Karzai is still struggling to get its footing and confront corruption, which is one of the big drivers of the insurgency. It’s also struggling with how to orchestrate this transition. I think there are emerging signs of tensions inside and outside the government among political elites in Afghanistan over the issue of making deals with the Taliban.
As the U.S. becomes more attracted to this idea of negotiating with the Taliban, I think it really raises the possibility that you’re going to have a violent reaction from non-Pashtuns who feel threatened by the idea of the Taliban returning to Kabul.
And on top of all that is this layer of corruption that’s really all pervasive. Can you talk about that and what we are seeing today and what the environment is like today?
This is really the most interesting development of the war. I would say that, in this last year or two, it’s becoming clear that Afghanistan is really beginning to resemble Columbia. The insurgency has connections with corrupt government officials - depends on government officials to do things like drug trafficking, to move money, to launder money.
This interrelationship between government officials and members of the insurgency has created kind of cartel-like structure — several cartel-like structures — and more and more you’re starting to see a situation where the insurgency is much more criminalized than it is ideological.
Is there any sort of advice or policy prescription that you can offer?
One of the best policy prescriptions I can offer is to really start following the money. Really try to understand the relationships, the corporate structure, if you will, of the insurgency and the emerging organized crime wave that has now basically washed over the country and confront it by cutting off funding where you see it becoming problematic. Where you see government officials co-opting or using international aid to their own advantage, you’ve got to find a way to either condition the aid or cut it off all together