Leave Afghanistan to the Afghans

The US is poised to send tens of thousands more soldiers to the country. The nature of the conflict is changing. What should be a war in which the Afghan government fights the Taliban has become one which is being fought primarily by the American and British armies. To more and more Afghans this looks like imperial occupation.     

In disputes in Washington and London about sending more troops it is seldom mentioned that Afghans are against the deployment. Contrary to western plans, just 18 per cent of Afghans want more US and NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan according to an opinion poll carried out earlier this year by the BBC, ABC News and ARD. A much greater number of Afghans, 44 per cent, want a decrease in foreign forces in Afghanistan.    

In the light of these figures, it is hardly surprising that the Taliban have been able to win support. The cruelty of their rule before 2001 is becoming a distant memory. They are successfully portraying themselves as the defender of the country against foreign occupation. Matthew P. Hoh, the senior American civilian representative in Zabul province east of Kandahar, resigned last week because he had become convinced that the US military should not be in Afghanistan. A former US Marine officer who served in Iraq, he says in his resignation letter that the US has joined in one side in a 35-year-old civil war between the traditional Pashtun community and its enemies. “The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency,” he says. “In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.” He says that most of the insurgents fight again the presence of foreign soldiers and not for the Taliban.    

What is true for the Americans in Zabul is true for the British in Helmand. It may seem to military commanders on the ground that, with more troops, they could hold more ground and send out more patrols. This is hardly surprising. Throughout history generals have believed that they are a few thousand troops short of victory. But Afghans, who have long experience of war, think that more foreign troops means greater violence and more dead and wounded Afghans. Support for the Taliban is highest in those areas where there have been US or NATO shelling or air strikes inflicting civilian casualties. In other words the Taliban’s best recruiting sergeants are the American and British armies.

The future good of Afghanistan is not the first reason why Britain has an army of 9,000 troops in Afghanistan according to Gordon Brown. He said on Friday that they are there to protect people walking the streets of Britain: “our children will learn of the heroism of today’s men and women fighting in Afghanistan protecting our nation and the rest of the world from the threat of global terrorism.”  We are fighting there, he adds, so that we are safe in our homes and guarded against the atrocities carried out by al-Qa’ida not only in London, but in New York, Bali, Baghdad, Madrid, Mumbai and Rawalpindi.    

The problem with this argument is that al-Qa’ida is based in Pakistan not Afghanistan. There is no particular reason its leaders should return to Afghanistan since they have a measure of support in the Pakistani intelligence services and among fundamentalist Jihadi organizations.  If Britain has sent 9,000 troops abroad to fight al-Qa’ida then they are in the wrong country. Mr Brown slyly tries to evade this point by claiming that “three quarters of terrorists’ plots originate in the Pakistan-Afghan border regions.” His sudden geographic imprecision as to where these plots are concocted avoids having to admit that they originate in Pakistan and not in Afghanistan. The US military says there only 100 Al-Qa’ida militants in the whole of Afghanistan.    

In reality the presence of a large British military force in Afghanistan is making Britain a more dangerous and not a safer place to live in.  Interrogation of would be suicide bombers captured before they could blow themselves up, reveal that their prime motive since 9/11 has been opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was evidently the motive of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the US army psychiatrist, when he killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas.     In portraying Britain as being at war with al-Qa’ida, Mr Brown, like President Bush and Tony Blair, walks straight into the trap laid by al-Qa’ida at the time of 9/11. Its aim was not only show that the US was vulnerable to armed attack, but to provoke retaliation against Muslim countries. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa’ida’s chief strategist, stated soon after 9/11 that the purpose of the provocation was to tempt the US into reprisals which would open the way for “clear cut jihad against the infidels.”     

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and Britain have faced similar dilemmas. These wars were started by President Bush, with Tony Blair trotting along behind, in the expectation that they would be short and cheap. The initial military assaults were wholly successful but the American and British armies were then caught up in prolonged, bruising, guerrilla wars. By then too much prestige was at stake and too much blood had been spilt for a withdrawal. The very puniness of the armed insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, in each case probably a few thousands of fighters, makes the humiliation of retreat all the greater.     

The main reason for Britain’s original military commitment in Afghanistan was to maintain its position as America’s principal ally in the world. As recently as 2006, this seemed a sensible strategy, but any engagement in Afghanistan, as a brief look any history of the region will show, is always going to be dangerous. The Taliban had not really been defeated on the battlefield in 2001, but its militants had gone back to their villages or taken refuge over the border in Pakistan. It took time for the Pakistan government, on which they were highly reliant, to decide that it was safe to unleash them once more because the US was too bogged down in Iraq to do much about it.     

By this time also the government of President Hamid Karzai had gone far to discredit itself.  It is less of an administration than a racket. Its officials probably make more money out of opium and heroin than the Taliban. Corruption affects every aspect of life. Even the price of bread is higher in Kabul than in Pakistan because of official and unofficial levies. Some 12 million Afghans, 42 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line, trying to survive on 45 cents per day, according to the Afghan government and the UN. They are malnourished or starving. Unsurprisingly, they do not feel much loyalty to a government in which ministers live in their ‘poppy palaces’, built with the profits of the drugs trade, or foreign aid consultants earn $250,000 a year.

“Sadly, the government of Afghanistan has become a by-word for corruption,” said Mr Brown. “And I am not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm’s way for a government that does not stand up against corruption.” Taken at face value, this means that Britain will withdraw its troops since one certainty in Afghanistan is that a government so viscerally crooked is not going to reform. “Cronies and warlords should have no place in the future of Afghanistan,” continued the prime minister, but Mr Karzai prepared his election victory by allying himself with the most blood-stained warlords in the country. Presumably, Mr Brown’s pledge is no more than rhetoric.     

The US and Britain have tumbled into a second war in Afghanistan which they were not expecting. Justifying their own misjudgements, American and British leaders claim that Afghanistan is a war that has to be fought because it is the epicenter of the war against international terrorism. Failure to stand and fight means that the Taliban would soon be back in Kabul with al-Qa’ida in their baggage train. In Pakistan the local variant of the Taliban would seize control of nuclear weapons. These threats are all grossly exaggerated. The Afghan Taliban comes from the Pashtun community which is 42 per cent of the population. The majority of Afghans will always oppose them. Of course, present Afghan or Pakistani leaders have every interest in painting themselves to their foreign backers as the one alternative to the Taliban.

“The Pashtun insurgency,” says Mr Hoh, “is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies.” Britain should not be part of that assault which will not succeed in crushing a regional Pashtun rebellion on behalf a non-Pashtun state. Once this is accepted, then the need for a large combat force in southern Afghanistan disappears. What ultimately happens in Afghanistan should be left to the Afghans.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq."                                   

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).