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Sitrep Afghanistan: Bad, Getting Worse


The news from Afghanistan is very bad. No one says that, of course. President Ghani has a “national unity government” that “supports a strong partnership with the United States”, according to Barack Obama two months ago. Sure, Kunduz was captured by the Taliban – but then the Afghans got it back (though minus one American-bombed hospital, along with most of its patients and doctors). Sure, Sangin was captured by the Taliban – but now the Afghan army is fighting to get it back. But didn’t more than a hundred British soldiers die to hold Sangin? Sure, but American troops in Iraq died to hold and keep Mosul – and Mosul is now the home of the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And US troops in Iraq died to capture Fallujah, then lost it, and died all over again to recapture it – and Fallujah is now in the hands of Isis.

We don’t do “bad news” from Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s like a movie, replayed over and over again each Christmas. Just two weeks ago, General John F Campbell, the US commander of American and Nato forces in the country, admitted that Isis has surfaced in Afghanistan. There could be 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 Isis men who are now trying to consolidate links to their “mothership” in Iraq and Syria; note the Hollywood language here. Isis wants to establish its pre-Afghan “Khorasan Province” in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

But Obama assures us that America’s “commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures” and Afghan forces are “fighting for their country bravely and tenaciously” and “continue to hold most [sic] urban areas”. Taliban successes were “predictable”, the US president says, but almost 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan – even though the war is over – and 14 months ago, David Cameron told our own chaps that their achievements in Afghanistan “will live for ever”. Not any more.

As Britain’s very own ex-chief of the general staff, General Dannatt, said last week, he was “not surprised” by the fall of Sangin. Not at all. After all, “we always knew that the situation once we left Sangin would be difficult. We left Afghanistan in a situation where the Afghans were in control and the future was in their hands. It is not a great surprise that the Taliban have continued to push in southern Afghanistan, it’s their heartland.”

So Isis men are now fighting in their thousands in the country we arrived to “liberate” 14 years ago, quite apart from tens of thousands of Taliban “pushing” in to their “heartland” around Sangin (so much for Cameron’s stuff about achievements living for ever). And yet Obama tells Americans that in the corrupt Afghan government, the US has “a serious partner”, a “stable and committed ally” to prevent “future threats”.

It was in 1940, when German soldiers were swarming into France – a rather more dangerous swarm than the one Cameron obsesses about in exactly the same area today – that Churchill decided to tell Britons the truth. “The news from France is very bad…” he began. And British soldiers, in their thousands, were dying to stem the invasion. Their “achievement” was not victory, but Dunkirk.

Yet we are not permitted to use this same expression – “very bad” – about Afghanistan. No, Cameron had to talk about an “achievement”, and now the mother of a terribly wounded soldier speaks of her “desperate sense of waste”. For Gen Dannatt, the future’s up to those Afghan army chappies now. No big deal; we always knew the Taliban would fight on.

You only have to read Afghan journalists’ reports from the country to know that even the old Churchillian “very bad” is a bit on the optimistic side. Take the case of the Shia Muslim Hazara Afghans taken from a bus on the way to Kabul this year. The lads from Isis stopped the bus, abducted 30 Shias and wanted to exchange them for family prisoners – Uzbeks, it seems – in Afghan government hands. The captives were subjected to the usual Isis treatment: at least one beheading, days of beatings, more videos of the Shias wearing suicide belts. Only after nine months were they freed, after an armed assault on their Isis captors by the Taliban. Yes, the bad guys suddenly turned into the good guys, the same bad guys who have captured Sangin, but are now fighting the even-more horrid bad guys. If this wasn’t tragic, it would be farce.

And, just for good measure, take the recent local story in Afghanistan about poor Qais Rahmani who, along with his family and four-month-old baby, set off among the refugee army to Europe and in Turkey boarded a boat to Greece which almost immediately sank. Qais’s baby died in his arms. Just another Alan Kurdi, you may say, but what struck Afghans was that Qais was a well-known television presenter, his wife and family university-educated. The Rahmanis were not from the poor and huddled masses. They were middle class, the very people who should have wanted to stay and build the new Afghanistan and to work for their government, which is – I quote Obama again – “working to combat corruption, strengthen institutions, and uphold the rule of law”.

So just stand back and look at the script. The Taliban ended the lawless regime of the Afghan militias and controlled almost all of Afghanistan by 1996. But it also sheltered al-Qaeda post 9/11. So we invaded Afghanistan to destroy both al-Qaeda and the vile misogynist, murderous and undemocratic Taliban. But the Taliban was not conquered. And now it is winning. And today, we surely want it to fight against the even more vile, misogynist and murderous Isis. Which is why, tucked away at the end of his peroration to the American people, Obama said that everyone should “press the Taliban… to do their part in the pursuit of the peace the Afghans deserve”. So the horrid Taliban can become the good, brave Taliban again. Truly, the news from Afghanistan must be very bad.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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