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After seven long years in which it seemed a sideshow to the bigger conflict in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has reached a critical point. The US must now choose how far it will become further embroiled in a messy conflict which affects its relations with Pakistan, India and the wider Middle East including Iran. At a moment when the world is convulsed by the worst economic disaster since 1929, Washington will have to decide if it really wants to invest time, money, military and political resources in beating back the ragged bands of Taliban who increasingly control southern Afghanistan.
At the end of last year, the White House was talking about repeating what was deemed to have been the success of the "surge" in Iraq. Some 30,000 extra US troops were sent to Iraq pursuing more aggressive tactics and the Sunni Arab insurgency seemed to wind down soon after. But the real turning point in Iraq was probably the defeat of the Sunni Arabs by the Shia. Nothing of this sort is likely to undermine the Taliban in Afghanistan just as their guerrilla attacks are inflicting more casualties than ever.
For a long time, the Afghan war seemed confined to one country. But in the past year there has been cross-infection between a whole series of crises, from the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir to the Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the Swat valley west of Islamabad. The political temperature has been rising and the seriousness of what was happening was only slowly appreciated in Washington.
President Bush pretended that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the rest of the world. His successor has to deal with a crisis in which India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, are confronting each other. The dilemmas of Iraq seem to diminish by comparison.
The crisis in Afghanistan has been a slow-motion disaster. This was not the case in Iraq where guerrilla warfare against the US occupation erupted within weeks of the American occupation. In 2001 the Taliban appeared to have been swiftly and decisively defeated in a campaign in which the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance advanced with the support of the US air force directed by small teams of American special forces on the ground. The Taliban vanished from their frontline positions and fled Kabul and Kandahar without a fight.
Prior to the conflict, critics of American intervention had warned that Afghanistan was a notorious graveyard for foreign armies. They recalled that it was in the Kabul Gorge just east of the capital that an army of British and Indian soldiers were slaughtered by Afghan tribesmen in 1842. North of Kabul in the Panjshir valley there is visible evidence of the fate of another foreign invader. Local farmers have incorporated the rusty carcasses of old Soviet tanks, destroyed in ambushes in the 1980s and too heavy to move, into the stone walls which enclose their fields.
These dire warnings seemed to have been almost embarrassingly wrong-footed as the Taliban’s rule fell apart in 2001. The aim of closing down al-Qa’ida training camps was easily accomplished. In fact it was all too easy. The critics had not been wrong in saying that Afghanistan is a land full of nasty surprises though this only slowly became apparent. But the hubris generated by swift success in 2001 led the Americans and the British thoughtlessly to linger in Afghanistan without any coherent policy or military and political aims.
In the British case the very purpose of its forces being in Afghanistan changed by the year. At one time in 2006 they seemed to be there as reconstruction teams who were not expected to fire a shot. At other moments British soldiers were portrayed as frontline fighters in the war against Islamic fundamentalist terror. Fire-fights in the bleak villages of southern Afghanistan were directly linked to defending the streets of London.
There was a fecklessness about the whole venture on the American and British side. Not surprisingly other Nato allies wondered what exactly they were getting into in sending their troops to Afghanistan. Comparisons with Iraq can be misleading but intervention in both countries never had overwhelming or even majority political support at home. Casualties were not particularly heavy compared to many other wars, but Iraqi or Afghan guerrillas are able to inflict casualties which are politically unsustainable for the American or British governments.
It is astonishing that only now the US is finally producing a policy for Afghanistan which is in keeping with the real nature of the imbroglio into which Mr Bush plunged in 2001 and floundered for seven years afterwards. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was carried out by members of al-Qa’ida orchestrated from camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the Bush administration used the attacks to justify the neo-con agenda of war with Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and vocal hostility towards Iran and Syria as members of the "axis of evil".
The main US ally in its war on terror was going to be Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf, though it was an open secret that it was the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, which had fostered the Taliban and established it in power in Kabul. So long as it had the covert backing of the ISI, the Taliban was never going to be truly defeated. "A year after 9/11 it was clear to many Pakistanis," writes Ahmed Rashid in his book Descent Into Chaos, "that Musharraf’s support of the US-led war in Afghanistan was not the promised strategic U-turn that would end the army’s long-standing support for Islamic extremists but rather a short-term tactical move to appease the United States and off-set India’s hegemony." The reality on the ground was that the Taliban was the foster-child of the ISI. General Musharraf was prepared to join in an unenergetic pursuit of Arab members of al-Qa’ida in Pakistan. But the main objectives of the Pakistani army’s traditional policy were never abandoned. These were to resist India, support the Muslims of Kashmir, protect the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and seek to establish a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul.
From the beginning, the army saw Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government as an enemy of Pakistan. Once the US decided to invade Iraq in 2003 General Musharraf concluded Washington was none too serious about its war on terror and the Taliban could be quietly revived. By 2006 the insurgency was back in business.
The Bush administration was not alone in its misunderstanding of what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The media also played an important role in misleading the world about what had happened in Afghanistan in 2001. Television cameras had shown US missiles illuminating the night sky over Kabul as they exploded in government offices or among the frontline bunkers. In reality there was little fighting. The Taliban were experienced enough fighters not to wait to be bombed. Their trenches were mostly empty. Assisted on their way by large bribes to individual warlords by the CIA most Taliban units vanished. They had probably been told by their Pakistani advisers that they should wait to fight another day.
I followed the retreating Taliban from Kabul to Kandahar waiting for them to make a stand. They never did. In the ancient city of Ghazni the Taliban simply switched sides, the only serious disputes in which six Taliban were killed, were over whether or not they should hand over government cars to the incoming administration. The Taliban had an armored unit in Ghazni which had been heavily bombed but again there were almost no military casualties because Taliban fighters had sensibly abandoned their vehicles as soon as they realized they were going to come under air attack.
In Kandahar itself the Taliban had disappeared but they had not gone very far. Some were across the Pakistani border in Quetta and others had just returned to their villages. When I asked in one village if I could meet former Taliban commanders they said it might take as long as an hour to assemble them in the village guest house because some of them lived in outlying farms.
They were confident men who did not sound as if they expected to be out of power for ever. The villagers’ objection to the Taliban was primarily to their rigorously enforced ban on growing opium poppies. As soon as the first American bombs fell, local farmers explained they had ploughed up their fields and planted poppies "on the grounds that the Taliban would have other things on their minds to think about than enforcing the poppy ban". They said their crops had failed because of a series of droughts and this was the only way they could pay off the money-lenders.
The Taliban were unpopular all over Afghanistan. They had never had support outside the Pushtun, the community to which 40 per cent of Afghans belong. The Tajiks, who make up a quarter of the population, were the backbone of the opposition Northern Alliance together with the Uzbeks, who make up a further 6 per cent. The Hazaras of central Afghanistan constitute a further 18 per cent of Afghans and had been savagely persecuted as Shia Muslims by the fundamentalist-Sunni Taliban.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban there was hope all over Afghanistan that life might be about to get better. Reporting of the country usually dwells on violence rather than deprivation but it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The UNDP rates it as 174th out of 178 countries in the 2007-08 world poverty index. There were some positive developments after 2001 but by no means enough. "Even after almost seven years of reconstruction and development assistance, a large percentage of the population suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, and electricity, and cannot afford the rising price of food," according to a report by the Centre for the Study of Global Governance in London.
"Afghan women face the highest rates of illiteracy and maternal mortality in the world and unemployment still hovers around 40-70 per cent with few prospects available." Despite numerous pledges of international aid only $15bn of $39bn originally pledged has been disbursed according to an Oxfam/Acbar report last year. Out of this, 40 per cent goes back to the donor countries in the form of company profits and consultants’ salaries.
Afghanistan is an economic wreck ravaged by war since 1980. The problems are immense whoever is handling them, whether the US, the Afghan government or aid agencies. Aside from corruption and incompetence even the most efficient government would have difficulty satisfying these needs. Iraq, the victim of 30 years of war and sanctions, at least had a tradition of central government. But in Afghanistan the government of Hamid Karzai has limited authority outside Kabul. Instead power has remained in the hands of warlords and militia leaders, detested by ordinary Afghans, who batten on the population. The Taliban’s rise to power in the 1990s came about partly because they seemed an alternative to the warlords but in practice their success was often the result of co-opting them or buying their services. The US and the Karzai government pursued a similar policy after 2001 so the power of the warlords was never really broken.
The strength of the Taliban is in large part a reflection of the weakness of the government. This has enabled the Taliban to set up a parallel administration in many areas, meting out its own justice. The group also benefited from the ill-thought-out approach of the US-led foreign forces. For instance destruction of the opium poppy crop, which accounts for 52 per cent of the country’s GDP, has for long been an American policy. But Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, this week dismissed this scheme as "wasteful and inefficient" and said that the $800m spent on eradicating the poppies would have been better spent if it was given to Afghan farmers. "It has not hurt the Taliban one iota," declared Mr Holbrooke. Other sources say the Taliban had even welcomed the US eradication programme because it alienated farmers and drove up the price of their opium stocks.
The US troop surge in Afghanistan can probably prevent further erosion of the Afghan government’s position if enough troops are deployed and money spent. But there are limits to what the US can do. The Taliban is never going to be defeated so long as it has its bases in the Pushtun belt inside north-western Pakistan. Nor is it likely that the Pakistani military will act against the Taliban so long as it sees them as one of its few allies against India. American drone attacks on Taliban and al-Qa’ida within Pakistan may kill some leaders but further anger ordinary Pakistanis. The ISI may not directly control the insurgency in Afghanistan but it can determine its intensity. This in turn gives Pakistan leverage over the US to prevent the Americans going too far in supporting India.
One of the main achievements of the surge in Iraq was that it gave the US public the impression that a victory had been won which in turn allowed the Americans to agree to withdraw their forces. President Bush was able to sign a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government at the end of last year which included a timetable for a US pull-out which Washington had furiously rejected in the past.
The surge may play a similar role in Afghanistan. One of the main reasons for keeping American and British forces there is because it would be humiliating to withdraw. But the role of foreign military forces has always been ambivalent. They prop up the Karzai government but they also de-legitimize it as a puppet administration. Their use of firepower, originally designed for use against the Soviet army, against mud-brick compounds in Afghan villages means an inevitable flow of civilian casualties and builds support for the Taliban. And despite all these efforts Mr Obama says military victory is not feasible. The Americans are finding, as the British did in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th, that the effort of keeping an army in Afghanistan is not really worth it.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.