Every war has a story line: World War I was “The war to end all wars.” World War II was “The war to defeat fascism.”
Iraq was sold as a war to halt weapons of mass destruction; then to overthrow Saddam Hussein, then to build democracy. In the end it was a fabrication. Built on a falsehood. Anchored in a fraud.
But Afghanistan is the “good war,” aimed at “those who attacked us,” in the words of columnist Frank Rich. It is “the war of necessity,” asserts the New York Times, to roll back the “power of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Barack Obama is making the distinction between the “bad war” in Iraq and the “good war” in Afghanistan a centerpiece of his run for the presidency. He proposes ending the war in Iraq and redeploying U.S. military forces in order “to finish the job in Afghanistan.” If elected, he says he would add 10,000 troops to the Afghan war. “This is a war we have to win,”
There is virtually no one in the U.S. nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) who calls for negotiating with the Taliban. Even the New York Times editorializes that those who want to talk “have deluded themselves.”
But the Taliban government did not attack the United States, our old ally, Osama bin Ladin, did. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not at all the same organization (if one can really call Al Qaeda an “organization”), and no one seems to be listening to what the Afghans themselves are saying.
We should be.
A recent poll of Afghan sentiment found that, while the majority dislike the Taliban, 74 percent of them want negotiations and 54 percent would support a coalition government that included the Taliban.
The Canadian Globe and Mail poll reflects a deeply divided country where the majority are sitting on the fence as to what they think the final outcome of the war will be—40 percent think the current government of Hamid Karzai, allied with the U.S. and NATO, will prevail, 19 percent say the Taliban, 40 percent say it is “too early to say.”
There is also strong ambivalence about the presence of foreign troops. Only 14 percent want them out now, but 38 percent want them out within three to five years. In short, 52 percent of the Afghans don’t want a war to the finish.
They also have a far more nuanced view of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While the majority oppose both groups—13 percent support the Taliban and 19 percent Al Qaeda—only 29 percent see the former organization as “a united political force.”
But that view doesn’t fit the West’s story line of the enemy as a tightly disciplined band of fanatics.
In fact, the Taliban appears to be evolving from a creation of the U.S. CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan intelligence during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union, to a polyglot collection of currents ranging from dedicated Islamists to nationalists. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar told the Agence France Presse early this year, “We’re fighting to free our country. We are not a threat to the world.”
Those are words that should give Obama, the New York Times and NATO pause.
The initial invasion in 2001 was easy because the Taliban had alienated itself from the vast majority of Afghans. But the weight of occupation, the rising number of civilian deaths, and the growing realization that the purpose of the invasion was to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban, not lift Afghanistan out of its crushing poverty, is shifting the resistance toward a war of national resistance.
No foreign power has ever won that battle in Afghanistan.
There is no mystery as to why things have gone increasingly badly for the U.S. and its allies.
As the U.S. steps up its air war, civilian casualties have climbed steadily over the past two years. Nearly 700 were killed in the first three months of 2008, a major increase over last year. In a recent incident, 47 members of a wedding party were killed in Helmand Province. In a society where clan, tribe and blood feuds are a part of daily life, that single act sowed a generation of enmity.
Anatol Lieven, a professor of war at King’s College London, says that a major impetus behind the growing resistance is anger over the death of family members and neighbors.
Civilian casualties appear to have played a role in the recent attack on a U.S. firebase near the Pakistan border that killed nine Americans and wounded 15. The former governor of the province told the New York Times that that local people probably joined the attackers because of their outrage over a July 4 U.S. air attack that killed up to 22 civilians.
Lieven says it is as if Afghanistan is “becoming a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the U.S. and NATO breed the very terrorists they then track down.”
According to Reto Stocken of the Red Cross, “large areas of the south, the southeast, the east and also growing parts of the west” are in an “emergency situation,” which means “continual insecurity and an absence of basic services.”
Once a population turns against an occupation (or just decides to stay neutral) there are few places in the world where an occupier is going to come out on the winning side. Afghanistan, with its enormous size and daunting geography, is certainly not one of them.
Writing in Der Spiegel, Ullrich Fichter says that glancing at a map in the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) headquarters outside Kandahar could give one the impression that Afghanistan is under control. “Colorful little flags identify the NATO’s troops presence throughout the country,” Germans in the northeast, Americans in the east, Italians in the West, British and Canadians in the south, with flags from Turkey, the Netherlands, Spain, Lithuania, Australia and Sweden scattered between.
“But the flags are an illusion,” he says, and underlines the point by recounting his visit to the governor of Helmand province at his residence in Lashkar Gah: two helicopters skim the ground at high speed to land at a soccer field; the journalists don body armor and board armored personal carriers. The governor’s residence is less than 300 yards from the landing zone.
“The governor reports that half the districts in his province are out of control. Alliances formed by the Taliban and the drug barons rule the villages, and none of the highways are safe against bomb attacks, roadside bandits, and kidnappers,” he says.
The UN considers one third of the country “inaccessible,” and almost half, “high risk.” The number of roadside bombs has increased fivefold over 2004, and the number of armed attacks have jumped by a factor of 10. In the first three months of 2008, attacks around Kabul have surged by 70 percent. The current national government has little presence outside its capital. President Karzai is routinely referred to as “the mayor of Kabul.”
According to Der Spiegel, the Taliban are moving north toward Kunduz, just as they did in 1994 when they broke out of their base in Kandahar and started their drive to take over the country. The Asia Times says the insurgents’ strategy is to cut NATO’s supply lines from Pakistan and establish a “strategic corridor” from the border to Kabul.
The Bush Administration recently sent 3,200 Marines into Helmand, and the U.S. moved an aircraft carrier group into the Gulf of Oman for additional air support. Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is calling for the additional deployment of some 10,000 more troops.
The U.S. and NATO currently have about 60,000 troops in Afghanistan. But many NATO troops are primarily concerned with rebuilding and development—the story that was sold to the European public to get them to support the war—and only secondarily with war fighting.
The Afghan Army adds about 70,000 to that, but only two brigades and one headquarters unit are considered capable of operating on their own.
According to U.S. counter insurgency doctrine, however, Afghanistan would require at least 400,000 troops to even have a chance of “winning” the war. Adding another 10,000 U.S. troops will have virtually no effect.
As the situation continues to deteriorate, there are voices, including those of the Karzai government and both U.S. presidential candidates, that advocate expanding the war into Pakistan in a redux of the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, when the Vietnam War began spinning out of control. Both those invasions were not only a disaster for the invaders, they led directly to the genocide in Cambodia.
By any measure, a military “victory” in Afghanistan is simply not possible. The only viable alternative is to begin direct negotiations with the Taliban, and to draw in regional powers with a stake in the outcome: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China and India.
But to do so will require abandoning our “story” about the Afghan conflict and recognize that war is increasingly a tactic that has no place in the new millennium.
Conn Hallinan is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.