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The US presidential candidates are warbling about what strategies will best suit Afghanistan in a post-Bush world. Both Barack Obama and John McCain promise that the interminable conflict will be of “top priority” come 2009. Neither has provided clear guidelines, largely because such guidelines are essentially useless. The Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue to lose the ground to Taliban. Planners are scratching their heads in desperation.
Obama has at stages advocated the deployment of two more army brigades. McCain has also called for a surge in troop levels. The military solution, that only solution doomed to failure, continues to attract followers. Empires with supposedly power, notably ones teetering on collapse, often revert to force when all else has failed.
In recent times, two allies of the US – the UK and Australia – have expressed reservations as to how such a conflict can be ever won on the ground. The warnings have been simmering for some time. The war, most of these parties concede, might yield tactical victories, short-term gains in skirmishes. But it can do nothing else. The Taliban, it would seem, are either winning the war, or at least fighting the coalition forces to a bloody stalemate. They have finances, time, and soldiers, to kill.
All this points to a depressing scenario for the NATO forces, and their allies, only a portion of which are actually engaged in combat. It goes to the British to put a dampener on undue optimism (not that there was much to begin with) in the conflict. For British Brigadier General Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan, the best one could hope for was “reducing [the conflict] to a manageable level of insurgency.” An adequate number of troops were needed to “contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected Government” (October 7).
Nothing new there: Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, when chief of the defense staff, warned Prime Minister Tony Blair that Britain risked having its “hand caught in the mangle of Afghanistan.” The key now is merely to redress the level of mangling. Some have advocated firm measures at the local level. Britain’s ambassador to Kabul Sherard Cowper-Coles has ventured that an “acceptable dictator” might be the best solution. The current strategy was “doomed to failure.”
The Australians, whose forces are stationed in the Oruzgan province, were quick to add to the pessimistic Brits, taking a similar line through defense minister Joel Fitzgibbon. The only difference was one of degree – the Aussies had somehow negated the negative sting. “The progress of the global partners in Afghanistan is at best very, very slow. It will remain slow while ever we lack properly coordinated and resourced political, civil and military plans” (October 21).
Of course, Fitzgibbon still insists that the soldiers from Australia still continue to do “meaningful” work for the local populace. Australian troops have been “embedded” with an Afghan National Army Battalion as part of the mentoring program. Towards that end, the Reconstruction Task Force has received a new appellation: the Mentoring Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF). Seeing as there was little reconstruction in the first place, the mentoring side may be doomed to failure as well. The mantra for success on the ground remains coordination between authorities and resources.
Such jittery opinion should not be dismissed lightly. The British views are particularly important. Having already shed the blood of its soldiers in the Afghan wars of the 19th century, the reluctance to persevere on the current course is understandable. Instead, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has huffed, indignantly claiming that there was “no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunities to be successful in the long run.” Then, drawing the longest of bows, Gates could say with confidence that what applied in Iraq also applied in Afghanistan. Conflating wars and strategic dilemmas continues to be a bad habit at the Pentagon.
In the meantime, the Taliban, beset as they are by rifts, will continue being resilient under pressure. They await the new American president with sanguinary anticipation.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org