10 March 2013
Afghanistan: The Najibullah Syndrome
By Gwynne Dyer
“Yesterday’s bombings (in Afghanistan) in the name of the Taliban were aimed at serving the foreigners and supporting the presence of the foreigners in Afghanistan and keeping them in Afghanistan by intimidating us,” said Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai on Sunday. What on Earth could he have meant by that?
The “foreigners” he is talking about are the troops from the United States and various NATO countries in Europe that have been in Afghanistan for the past dozen years. They will almost all be gone by the end of next year. Can Karzai seriously think that the Taliban bombs in Kabul and Khost last Saturday, which killed 19 people, were meant to get the Americans, British, Germans et. al. to keep their soldiers in Afghanistan longer?
If he were the leader of al-Qaeda, you can imagine him saying that. It was always al-Qaeda’s goal to get Western military forces entangled in military occupations in the Muslim world, in the belief that that would nurture popular hostility both to the West and to the local leaders who collaborated with it. But Karzai IS a collaborator, parachuted into Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001.
He may have won the first presidential election in 2005 legitimately, but by the second election in 2009 he has so unpopular that he was only re-elected thanks to massive vote-rigging, tacitly condoned by the United States. And when the Americans leave, he had better leave with them.
So what is all this nonsense about the Taliban bombs being an attempt to persuade the “foreigners” that they have to stay, and to “intimidate” Karzai and his cronies into letting them stay? It can best be explained as a manifestation of the “Najibullah syndrome”.
Najibullah was the Communist leader who ruled Afghanistan during the latter stages of the Soviet occupation and immediately after the Russians left. When the Taliban finally took Kabul in 1996, he was tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets behind a truck, and then hanged from a traffic light. It can be safely assumed that Karzai and his cronies, when they contemplate the forthcoming American departure, are acutely aware of this precedent.
This leads to various flailing attempts by members of the regime to distance themselves from the American occupation forces who originally boosted them into power. Karzai has been increasingly vocal in criticising the NATO forces in Afghanistan, as if he had nothing to do with their presence in the country, and didn’t owe his presidency to them.
Let’s deconstruct that remarkable statement of Karzai’s. The message is that he is an Afghan patriot who is trying to make the “foreigners” go home, whereas the Taliban are trying to keep the Americans and their NATO allies in the country to further their own nefarious purposes. It makes no sense whatever, but what else can he say? That the Taliban are winning, the Americans are getting out, and he is doomed?
He’s not really doomed. Since the constitution does not allow him to run for the presidency again, he can easily leave the country for “health reasons” or whatever before the foreign troops depart. He must have salted away enough money abroad to live quite well in exile, as have almost all the other members of the regime. So why does he act as though he might have a future in post-occupation Afghanistan?
The Najibullah precedent is instructive here, too. The former collaborator with the Soviet occupiers stubbornly believed that the Taliban would understand that his motives had been pure, and after all he was a Pashtun like them. He refused to leave Kabul before the Taliban took over, even though numerous friends implored him to. Karzai apparently suffers from the same delusions, and may eventually suffer the same fate.
This is not to say that the Taliban will overrun all of Afghanistan after the NATO forces leave. They will undoubtedly gain control of the Pashtun-majority south and east, and they will probably take Kabul. They didn’t gain control of the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minority regions in the north of the country last time, and they may not do so after this bunch of foreigners leave either.
The likeliest post-occupation outcome in Afghanistan, therefore, is a reversion to the situation that prevailed there before 2001. Karzai will either leave or be tortured and killed, as will most of his senior collaborators. Pakistan will be the dominant influence in Taliban-controlled parts of the country, and the minorities will have to fend for themselves.
If this is the final outcome, what have the “foreigners” been doing in the country for the past twelve years? Several thousand of their soldiers have been killed, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, and things will be about the same after they leave as they were before they arrived – apart from the al-Qaeda terrorist training camps, which were dealt with before the end of 2001.
For the NATO alliance, which has been searching for a new role ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Afghan operation at least helped to justify its enormous budget. For the United States, it never made sense from any point of view. And for Afghanistan, it was merely the continuation of a disaster now more than thirty years old.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He’s not…fate”)
14 January 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
“Those days are over,” said Frances President Francois Hollande last month, when asked if French forces would intervene in the war between Islamist insurgents who have seized the northern half of Mali and the government in Bamako. But the days in question weren’t over for very long. Last Friday France sent a squadron of fighter-bombers to the West African country to stop the Islamist fighters from taking the capital.
“We are making air raids the whole time,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will go on tomorrow.” Some 550 French combat troops are on the ground already, with up to 2,500 more to follow. Contingents of soldiers from the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo are scheduled to arrive as early as next week. It has turned into a real war.
It has also turned into a Western-run war in a Muslim country, despite the discouraging precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq. The government of Mali has asked for French help, and on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported France’s military intervention. The army of Mali, such as it is, will theoretically be in charge of the war – but everybody knows that the Malian army is useless.
In fact, the presence of Mali’s army at the front is usually counter-productive, as it is brutal, militarily incompetent, and prone to panic flight. The other African armies are of variable quality, but it is obviously French troops, and especially French air power, that will decide the outcome of the war. So has France bitten off more than it can chew? Is this going to end up like Afghanistan and Iraq?
The supporters of the war prefer to compare it with last year’s Western military intervention in Libya, another French initiative that was decided over one weekend. They like that analogy better because the Libyan intervention ended tolerably well, with the overthrow of the dictator, a democratically elected government, and no Western casualties. But the differences between Libya and Mali are greater than the similarities.
In Libya the rebels were trying to rid the country of Muammar Gaddafi, a loony, friendless dictator, and create a democratic future. The decision to intervene was made in Paris in only two hectic days, when it appeared that Gaddafi’s mercenary troops were about to overrun Benghazi and massacre the rebels. NATO served as the rebel air force, but no Western troops fought on the ground. And it worked.
With Mali, once again it was decided in a couple of days, and once again France has taken the lead. Once again Britain is sending some help as well (transport aircraft, but no troops or combat aircraft), and the United States is providing discreet logistical support. (US Air Force tankers refuelled the French fighters on their way to Mali.) But that’s where the similarities end.
The West is supporting the government, not the rebels, in Mali. That government, behind a flimsy civilian facade, is controlled by the same thugs in uniform whose military coup last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic election, created the chaos that let the Islamist rebels conquer the northern half of the country. The young officers who now run the country are ignorant and violent, and having them on your side is not an asset.
The Islamist rebels are fanatical, intolerant, and violent, but they are well armed (a lot of advanced infantry weapons came on the market when Gaddafi’s regime collapsed) and they appear to be well trained. They have almost no popular support in 90-percent-Muslim Mali, whose version of Islam is much more moderate, but they have terrified the population of the north into submission or flight.
The insurgents are not short of money, either, as they receive secret subsidies from several Arab monarchies in the Gulf that have persuaded themselves, strangely, that subsidising radical Islamist movements in the far-flung fringes of the Muslim world is a good way to avoid being overthrown by radical Islamists at home. They are formidable opponents, and the war to free northern Mali may be long and hard.
Until recently the rebels seemed to be confined to Mali’s desert north, but last week they began to advance into southern Mali, where nine-tenths of the country’s 14 million people live. The Malian army collapsed, and Western intelligence sources estimated that the Islamists would capture the capital, Bamako, within two days. That would effectively give them control of the entire country.
Mali has long, unguarded borders with seven other African countries, and it is only 3,000 km. (2,000 mi.) from France. So President Hollande ordered immediate military intervention to stop the Islamist advance, and we’ll all worry about the long-term consequences later. The next Western war against Islamist extremists has already started, and the question is whether it will end up like Afghanistan.
Nobody would like to know the answer to that more than the French. Except, of course, the Malians.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“With…end”; and “The insurgents…hard”)
29 August 2012
Afghanistan: The Underpants Option
By Gwynne Dyer
“A defeatist position (in Afghanistan) is not possible for us. We cannot leave in our underpants…or without any.” That was Mikhail Gorbachev addressing senior Soviet officers in 1987, two years before the Soviets pulled out. Two years before NATO pulls out, the same frantic search is underway for something that could be called a victory, or at least “peace with honour”. Meanwhile, NATO soldiers die, together with many more Afghans.
The French are smart: all their troops will be gone from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The Canadians were even smarter: almost all their troops left last year. But the rest of the NATO countries dumbly soldier on towards the scheduled departure date of 2014, even though the situation is clearly spinning out of control: one-quarter of the 48 Western troops killed in Afghanistan this August were murdered by Afghan government soldiers.
The most striking thing about these so-called “green-on-blue” killings, according to a 2011 Pentagon analysis reported by Bloomberg, is that only 11 percent of them are the result of infiltration by the Taleban. Most of them are due to grudges or disputes between coalition and Afghan army troops, which suggests that NATO’s current focus on training Afghan forces to “stand up” on their own is just as futile as all its previous strategies.
Last year a team of US Army psychologists investigated the nature of these grudges and quarrels, conducting interviews with dozens of American and Afghan focus groups. Their report, “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility”, concluded that the Afghan troops see the American soldiers as “a bunch of violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane infidel bullies hiding behind high technology.”
The US troops, in return, generally view their Afghan allies as “a bunch of cowardly, incompetent, obtuse, thieving, complacent, lazy, pot-smoking, treacherous and murderous radicals.” This does not constitute the foundation for a successful collaboration.
The view of the Afghan soldiers is more positive, despite all that, than the civilian population’s attitude towards the foreign forces. A poll conducted in late 2010 by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic Research reported that nearly sixty percent of civilians wanted all the foreign soldiers gone within a year. Forty percent would still want the foreigners out even if their departure meant that the violence got worse.
In the main conflict areas, forty percent of the population believed that roadside bombings and other attacks aimed at killing US and other foreign forces were justified. And almost everybody hates and despises the gang of warlords and racketeers who make up the US-backed government of Afghanistan.
Yet less than ten percent of Afghans, according to the same poll, actually want to see the Taleban back in power. They are not being inconsistent. They just don’t buy the standard Western line that only the foreign occupation has kept the Taleban and their alleged al-Qaeda allies from returning to power.
There is some evidence that the Taleban themselves don’t really believe that either. They remember that even when a Taleban government ruled in Kabul in 1996-2001, they never succeeded in extending their authority to the northern parts of the country where the non-Pashtun minorities live – and taken together, those minorities account for sixty percent of the population.
In an interview published in the “New Statesman” last month, a senior Taleban commander known as “Mawlvi” told Michael Semple, a former United Nations envoy to Kabul during the period of Taleban rule, that “the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taleban to win this war.”
The foreigners have lost their war, but the Taleban, still overwhelmingly Pashtun, will not be able to defeat all the other ethnic groups in the civil war that follows NATO’s departure. In fact, they won’t even do as well as they did in the similar civil war after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989: “The Taleban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect,” Mawlvi said.
He may be wrong about that. His assumption is that after the foreigners leave the Afghan army, which is overwhelmingly recruited from the non-Pashtun groups, will break apart into the same Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias that thwarted the Taleban’s drive to control all of Afghanistan after the Soviets left.
But those ethnic militias no longer exist, and their former commanders have grown fat and corrupt in the service of the foreigners. It might prove impossible to rebuild them fast enough to thwart a post-occupation drive by the Taleban to seize the whole country – although they would probably be unable to hold the non-Pashtun areas in the long run.
The Taleban have won their war against the foreign occupiers, but they probably won’t win a decisive victory in the civil war that follows. And the only remaining way that the foreigners could still influence the outcome would be to dump their puppet president, Hamid Karzai, and start rebuilding the ethnic militias now.
They won’t do that, so their continued military presence over the next two years is irrelevant to the ultimate outcome. And public opinion in Afghanistan is turning against them so fast that they might still end up leaving without their underpants.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“In the main…Afghanistan”; and “In an interview…Mawlvi said”)
23 May 2012
How the Afghan War Ends
By Gwynne Dyer
Last weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago was mostly about how to get NATO troops out of Afghanistan without causing too much embarrassment to the Western governments that sent them, and a little bit about how to ensure that the Taliban don’t take over again once the Western troops leave.
The timetable for NATO’s withdrawal is now graven in stone: all Western troops will be withdrawn from actual combat by the end of 2013, and they will all be out of the country by the end of 2014 (except the French, who will all leave by December of this year). This timetable will be adhered to no matter how the situation on the ground develops – or more likely, degrades – in the next two years. After that, it’s entirely in the Afghans’ hands.
There was some pretty rhetoric to soften this harsh fact: “As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone,” declared President Barack Obama. But alone is exactly where they will be, although NATO is promising to send the Afghan government $4 billion a year to enable its army to stand up to the Taliban. The Western alliance has finally accepted that if the foreign troops cannot defeat the Taliban in 11 years, they are most unlikely to do so in 13 or 15 years.
The Russians could have told them that. “Our soldiers are not to blame,” General Sergei Akhromeyev told the Soviet Politburo in 1986. “They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.”
According to the Pentagon’s own numbers, each American soldier in Afghanistan costs about $1 million a year. Pashtun teenagers, eager to show their worth fighting against the foreigners, can be had for about $200 a month each – and there is an almost inexhaustible supply of young Pashtun males. The war was unwinnable from the start.
It may also have been unnecessary. If the Taliban regime in Kabul was not told beforehand about al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States, then Osama bin Laden betrayed his hosts. Maybe they could have been persuaded to hand him and his men over by a judicious mixture of threats and bribes. But if the war that the US launched instead was really unwinnable, then the question of whether it was “necessary” or not is irrelevant.
So if NATO is now conceding that the Taliban cannot be crushed by military force, then why is it going to keep its troops in Afghanistan for another two-and-a-half years before acting on that conclusion? Some of them will die as a result of that decision, and quite a few Afghans will be killed because of it, too. Apart from temporarily saving the face of various Western governments, what purpose will their deaths serve?
NATO’s argument is that another two years will leave the Afghan army in a better position to defend the US-installed government of Hamid Karzai after Western troops leave, but there is absolutely no evidence that it is true. Indeed, of the 150-odd Western troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year, twenty were killed by the Afghan troops that NATO is supposed to be training for this role.
The “Afghan National Army” is not fit for purpose, and the outcome after NATO troops leave will probably be the same whether they all go home this year or stay until 2014. So what is that probable outcome?
Karzai may not fall immediately: the $4 billion a year that NATO is promising to pay for the maintenance of his army will probably preserve the status quo for two or three years. But no more: it is most unlikely that the subsidy will be extended when it comes up for review in 2018.
That’s the way the Vietnam war ended. The last US troops left South Vietnam in 1973, but the regime they left behind survived until Congress cut off the flow of military aid in 1975. It happened exactly the same way when the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989: the regime they had supported lasted three more years, until the flow of funds was cut off after the old Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991.
The same thing will almost certainly happen this time. Even the $4 billion that NATO is now pledging will only pay for an Afghan army two-thirds of its currently planned size. When that external funding ends, the roof will probably fall in on Karzai’s regime.
The Taliban will doubtless keep control of the Pashtun-speaking provinces where they recruit most of their fighters. (For all NATO’s efforts, they never really lost it.) The Afghan National Army will probably disintegrate and be replaced by the separate but allied Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek ethnic militias that held the north of the country before 9/11. They may be able to hold it again.
In other words, the likeliest outcome is a reversion to the pre-9/11 distribution of power in Afghanistan, perhaps with the Taliban in control of Kabul, perhaps not. That’s not a wonderful outcome, but it’s not such a terrible one either.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“The Russians…irrelevant”)