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The March of Folly

It will be a long and unnecessary war. President Obama is sending 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to prove that the US can impose its will on the country and crush by military means what is still a relatively small scale insurrection.     

The real reasons for escalating the conflict are very different from those declared by Mr Obama. He claims that al-Qa’ida might re-establish itself in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban and once again threaten the US and its allies with a repeat of 9/11. But there is no evidence that this is happening.    

The remnants of al-Qa’ida are in Pakistan not Afghanistan. If Osama bin Laden listened to Mr Obama’s speech it will have been with mounting pleasure and a sense of achievement. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa’ida’s chief strategist explained just after 9/11 that the aim of the attack was to lure the US into a ground war against Muslims which would enable them to wage “a clear cut jihad against the infidels.”    

The US escalation means that this wider war will now happen. The US Defense Secretary Robert Gates spelled out what the US intends to do soon after Mr Obama’s speech. He had to deal with the problem that US intelligence estimates that al-Qa’ida has only a few hundred fighters by re-labelling the Taliban as somehow being the same as al-Qa’ida. “The Taliban and al-Qa’ida have become symbiotic, each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other,” said Mr Gates. Yet US officials on the ground in Afghanistan say that the insurgents are members of the embattled Pashtun community, fighting the Americans as they once fought the Soviets. Their connection to the Taliban is often vague.     

By treating Pashtun villagers as if they were all Taliban, and Taliban as being the equivalent of al-Qa’ida, Mr Obama is increasing, not reducing, the threat of terrorist attack on the US or Britain. He is providing the battleground bin Laden hoped for and, like President Bush before him, has jumped willingly into the al-Qa’ida trap.    

The reality of Afghanistan is wholly different from the picture painted by Mr Obama in the US or Gordon Brown in the UK. The likelihood of the Taliban taking over the whole of Afghanistan has been systematically exaggerated. The insurgents have no support beyond the Pashtun community to which 42 per cent of Afghans belong. They are opposed by the 58 per cent who are Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara and many of their own Pashtun community. Even when backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before the US intervention of 2001, the Taliban failed to conquer all the country.

American and British exponents of a military escalation or ‘the surge’ in Afghanistan opportunistically expound two wholly contradictory views of Taliban strength. At one moment they are a movement of immense power on the verge of seizing power in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the possibility that they might soon have control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But the next moment Mr Brown is claiming that the Taliban has almost no support among Afghans. In the US Mr Obama and Mr Gates imply that the insurgents have such shallow roots that they can be largely defeated in 18 months so US troops can start to withdraw.    

All this is very reminiscent of the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when President Bush and Tony Blair proclaimed that Saddam Hussein’s WMD were a threat to the whole world, but he was simultaneously very weak and could be overthrown and his country occupied without trouble.     There are real parallels between the US and British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are not the ones which the White House and Downing Street are publicizing.

In both countries foreign forces were intervening in a potential or actual ethnic and sectarian civil war. In Afghanistan this is between the Pashtun on one side and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara on the other and has been going on for 30 years.  In Iraq it is between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. The Sunni were the predominant community under Saddam Hussein and were displaced by the Shia after a horrendous civil war which reached its peak in and around Baghdad in 2006-7. Sunni insurgents did surprisingly well again US troops, but lost the war against the Shia.     

The guerrilla war against the US in Iraq ceased because the Sunni community was being slaughtered by Shia death squads. “Judging by the body counts at the time in the Baghdad morgues, three Sunnis died for every Shia,” Dr Michael Izady, who conducted a survey of the sectarian make-up of Baghdad for Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, is quoted as saying. “Baghdad, basically a Sunni city into the 1940s, by the end of 2008, had only a few hundred thousand Sunni residents left in a population of over five million.” Defeated in this devastating sectarian civil war, the Sunni ended their attacks on US troops and instead sought their protection. The ‘surge’ of 28,000 extra US troops who arrived in the summer of 2007 had a marginal impact on the outcome of the fighting.    

Yet it is the mythical success of the US troop ‘surge’ in Iraq in 2007-8 which is being used as a template for US military policy in Afghanistan two years later. A strategy, which did not work in the way the Pentagon said it did in Iraq, is now to be applied in Afghanistan where conditions are, in any case, entirely different. A danger is that the new American strategy will provoke the same mass slaughter in Afghanistan as happened in Iraq.    

The Obama plan outlined last week envisages training 100,000 new Afghan soldiers and 100,000 new policemen over the next three years. But where are these recruits to come from? Given the high desertion rate, the combat strength of the Afghan army is reportedly only 46,000 troops in a country which is larger than France. These troops, and particularly the officer corps, are already disproportionately Tajik, the ethnic group to which a quarter of Afghans belong. The US can only increase the military strength of the Afghan state swiftly by skewing it towards the Tajiks, who were always the core of opposition to the Taliban. This will increase sectarian hatreds.    

Afghans in the areas where extra US and British troops will be sent, mostly in southern Pashtun provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar,  fear that more foreign troops will simply mean more violence and more dead Afghans according to opinion polls. Support for the Taliban is highest where civilians have been killed by shelling or bombing by foreign forces.    

One of the most foolish and misleading claims by US and British generals is that fighting a guerrilla war can be successfully combined with dispensing aid and building bridges and roads. But, as one commentator puts it, such a mixture of Wyatt Earp and Mother Theresa is not feasible. Soldiers are trained to get what they want by force and that is generally what they do. Afghans whose families have just been killed by a bomb will not be conciliated by a fine new drainage system.     

Other minefields face incoming American and British forces. The Afghan government is in many respects a criminal racket. Transparency International lists it as one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Foreign forces will either support this government, and suffer the odium of backing gangsters, or try to operate through provincial governors, police chiefs and local leaders, which will thereby confirm Taliban accusations that the Americans are seizing power in an occupied land.    

Mr Obama’s plan will deepen and spread the Afghan crisis. It is not going to end the 30-year-old Afghan civil war. It is likely to radicalize the 12 million Pashtun in Afghanistan and the 20 million in Pakistan by conflating them with al-Qa’ida. American and British aims in Afghanistan could be achieved by measured support for the Afghan government. What is now planned will amount to full military occupation and turn the country and the region into a battlefield.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘.                                       

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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