In the debate over how to plan for the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, a new argument has surfaced about who, exactly, American forces should be fighting. Last week on this site, the RAND scholar Seth Jones made a case that NATO's focus on the Haqqani network -- the criminal terrorist syndicate based in western Pakistan -- diverts attention from what he contends is a far more menacing and long-term threat, the Quetta Shura, as the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is known.
But Jones' analysis does not reflect the evolving nature of the insurgency. During a recent week-long tour of southern and eastern Afghanistan I took at the invitation of General John Allen, the senior American and NATO commander there, I saw first-hand how the enemy has changed in recent years. Since the summer of 2009, NATO's battle against the Quetta Shura in the south of Afghanistan has reduced the Taliban to a shell of its former self, a fact that alters Jones' estimation of the group's relative strength. The Haqqani network, by contrast, is on the rise, perhaps at its most capable and lethal level since its reconstitution in 2002. Although the Haqqanis are nominally part of the Quetta Shura, they are poised, with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services, to become the most significant long-term strategic threat to stability in Afghanistan.
Start with the waning Quetta Shura. Since the summer of 2009, U.S. Marines, with assistance from coalition and Afghan forces, have forced the Taliban from its stronghold in Helmand province by fighting, and beating, the Taliban on its own turf, which opened up the space for local, representative government to take root. Without its territory, the Quetta Shura lost access to its foremost revenue stream: the local narcotics trade. Successive defeats have taken a psychological toll, too; rank and file fighters are demoralized. As a result, there is tremendous discord between the senior leadership hiding out in Pakistan and the low- and mid-level commanders still in the fight.
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