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Afghanistan: ‘A Decent Interval’

There is movement towards peace in Afghanistan – or at least towards an end to the American military ordeal there, which has lasted for almost eighteen years.

US officials and representatives of the Taliban insurgents have held seven rounds of direct talks in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar since last October, and they are getting close to a deal. During a visit to Afghanistan last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration hoped for “a peace deal before September 1st.”

This prospect is not getting much attention because everybody is worried that Trump is about to blunder his way into a new and much bigger war with next-door Iran, but it really could happen. American troops could all be gone from Afghanistan eighteen months from now.

The real question is: how long after that will it be before the Taliban are back in power?

When a great power loses a war with a much weaker enemy in a very much poorer country, it can’t actually admit defeat. That’s just too humiliating. So the local victors often have to let the great-power loser save face by giving it a “decent interval” (in Henry Kissinger’s deathless phrase) after the great power’s troops pull out before they collect their winnings.

How long is a ‘decent interval’? Generally around three years. That’s how long North Vietnam waited after US troops left South Vietnam (1972) before overrunning the South (1975). It’s how long it took after Russian troops left Afghanistan (1989) before their puppet government in Kabul was destroyed (1992) – although a civil war between rival Islamist groups prevented the Taliban from occupying the capital until four years later.

And it’s probably about how long the Taliban will have to wait after US troops leave Afghanistan this time (say late 2020, just before the US election), before they are formally back in power in Kabul (2023?).

There’s still a lot of killing going on in Afghanistan – around twenty civilians killed or wounded on the average day, at least twice that number of government troops, and large numbers of Taliban too – but the Taliban have won.

Even with huge US air support, the more-or-less elected government that the United States created in Kabul has lost control of one-third of Afghanistan since American and other Western troops pulled out of ground combat roles in 2014. Another third of the country is government-controlled by day, Taliban-run at night.

If the remaining 14,000 US troops and their associated air power leave, it’s game over for President Ashraf Ghani’s ‘puppet’ government (as the Taliban call it). The US implicity recognises this reality, because it’s only American diplomats, not official Afghan government representatives, who are negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar.

A few Afghan officials were allowed to be present at the last round of the Qatar peace talks ‘in a personal capacity’, but they weren’t negotiating anything. Ghani’s government will have to accept whatever deal the United States makes, knowing perfectly well that they are being abandoned. After that they will have no options left except to steal as much as they can, and then get out before the roof falls in.

And how will the White House justify selling out its Afghan allies and dependants to itself? Without any great difficulty, if the ‘Nixon Tapes’ are any guide.

The key conversation between President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, in August 1972, when they were deciding to rat on South Vietnam, was recorded on the White House system and subsequently made public during the ‘Watergate’ scandal.

Nixon: “Can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That’s the real question.”

Kissinger: “(Yes), if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed (them) over the brink…it won’t help us all that much.

“So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two… after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.”

It worked for Nixon and Kissinger, and it can work for Trump and Pompeo too. They may not be as clever or as cunning, but they are just as ruthless. The pull-out won’t come back to bite them politically, either, because the Taliban were never interested in attacking the United States. (That was al-Qaeda.)

The only losers in the settlement will be the Afghans, who have to live under Taliban rule again. But that was always going to happen in the end.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“This…now”; and “A few…falls in”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Burma: Rohingya Genocide

During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma, the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.

Only two-thirds of Burma’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all the other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military take-over in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1 million Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.

The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.

The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Burma. They were mostly poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies.

The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.

The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went relatively quiet until 2013.

The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in Burma’s cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after Burma was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century.

These urban Muslims, many of whom owned shops or other small businesses, attracted the envy and resentment of poorer Burmese, and have been the targets of sporadic rioting and looting throughout the past century. Since independence, the Burmese army has often supported these riots, or even incited them.

What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism in Burma as it has done in other once-Buddhist countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. It is a completely unfounded fear – Muslims are just four percent of Burma’s population – but many Buddhist Burmese are obsessed by it.

When the Taliban blew up the giant 6th-century statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Burmese army ‘retaliated’ by bulldozing the ancient Han Tha Mosque in the city of Taungoo. In the same year Burmese monks began distributing an anti-Muslim pamphlet called “The Fear of Losing One’s Race”, and since then Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of the attacks on Muslims – including in Rakhine.

The poor Rohingya farmers of Rakhine have little in common with the Muslim merchants of Burma’s big cities, but they are now the main target of the army’s wrath. This is probably because Rakhine is the only province of Burma where Muslims are – or more precisely were until recently – almost half the population.

The attacks on the Rohingya, initially explained as part of intercommunal rioting between them and the local Buddhist population, have escalated until this year they have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.

It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on 25 August, killing twelve people.

They were armed with home-made black powder muskets and swords, but the Burmese government has proclaimed that it is under “terrorist” attack and launched a “counter-offensive” that is the local version of a final solution.

About 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of weeks, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingyas in Burma, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.

And what about Burma’s secular saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practice the head of a democratically elected government (although one still subject to a military veto on security matters)? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. “These urban…them”; and “When…Rakhine”)

Afghanistan: Endless War

In 2010, Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, vowed that the United States would be “totally out” of Afghanistan “come hell or high water, by 2014.” In 2014 Obama said that he would leave about 8,000 US troops there after all, and made an agreement with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that extended their stay “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”

Donald Trump wasn’t having any of that. Back in 2013 he tweeted “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” But it looks like the generals have now got to him with what passes for military wisdom.

On Monday Trump announced that he would be sending more US troops to Afghanistan – probably around 4,000 – and that they would stay as long as necessary. He has a clever new strategy, too: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” (I bet George W. Bush and Barack Obama wish they had thought of that.)

There is a strong temptation at this point to haul out the hoary old line: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Trump is, indeed, proposing to do the same old things again, ostensibly in the hope of achieving different results.

Peak US troop strength in Afghanistan was 100,000 in 2010-11. If that did not deliver victory then, how likely is it that boosting US troop numbers from 8,500 to 12,500 will do it now?

Neither the Soviet Union nor the British empire at the height of its power were able to overcome Afghan resistance to a foreign military presence, and we now have sixteen years of evidence that the United States cannot do it either.

Both the British and the Russians were able to maintain a military presence in the country as long as they were willing to take the casualties that involved, but in neither case did the regimes they installed long survive their departure. Whatever their merits, those regimes were fatally tainted by their foreign sponsorship.

The United States now finds itself in precisely the same situation. Ashraf Ghani’s government is certainly not the worst that Afghanistan has had to endure, but it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan nationalists because it depends on foreign troops and foreign money.

Since those foreign troops dwindled from 140,000 in 2011 (including non-American troops from a dozen other Western countries) to only 13,400 now, the Afghan government has lost control of about 40 percent of the country. And the process is accelerating: one-third of that territory was lost in just the past year.

Helmand province, which Western troops took from from the Taliban in 2006-2010 at the cost of almost 600 deaths, is almost entirely back under Taliban control, and Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces are next. Even the capital, Kabul, for so long a bubble of safety, is now regularly targeted by suicide bombers: at least 150 killed in a massive blast in May, 20 more at a funeral in June, 35 more in a bus bombing in July.

So what would happen if the foreign troops all left and the Taliban became the government again, as they were in 1996-2001? Would the country become a breeding ground for terrorism? Would more plots like the 9/11 attacks be hatched there? Probably not.

The Taliban are essentially a nationalist group. Their extremely conservative take on Islam was not seen as a problem by Washington when they were fighting the Russians, and most rural Afghan males do not see it as a problem now. (Nobody asks the women.)

Most urban, educated Afghans are terrified of the Taliban’s return, of course, but they are a small fraction of the population. And many foreigners see the Taliban as the least bad alternative to the US-backed regime. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, said in early 2016: “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.”

What he meant was that the Taliban aren’t interested in foreign affairs at all. They do not dream of a world Islamic empire; they just want to run Afghanistan. Indeed, they are the main military rivals to the jihadis of Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are currently trying to establish a foothold in the country – and by and large they are winning those little private wars.

But what about 9/11? There is good reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden and his mostly Arab companions of al-Qaeda, then guests of the Taliban, did not warn their hosts before they carried out that atrocity, since it would clearly lead to a US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Obviously, few of these considerations will have occurred to Donald Trump, but does that mean he really thinks he can win in Afghanistan? Not necessarily.

Maybe, like Obama, Trump has simply decided that he doesn’t want the inevitable collapse of the Western-backed regime in Afghanistan to happen on his watch. He’s just committing enough American troops to the country to kick it down the road a bit.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“Helmand…July”; and “The Taliban…women”)

Islamist Terrorism: Who’s to Blame?

It happens after every major terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in a Western country: the familiar debate about who is really to blame for this phenomenon. One side trots out the weary old trope that the terrorists simply “hate our values”, and other side claims that it’s really the fault of Western governments for sending their troops into Muslim countries.

There’s a national election campaign underway in Britain, so the ghastly Manchester bombing last week has revived this argument. It started when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the seven-month bombing campaign that overthrew Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011) made a speech in London on Friday.

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home,” he said.

In a later clarification, Corbyn added: “A number of people since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including (British foreign secretary) Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5 (the Security Service), and of course the (parliamentary) Foreign Affairs Select Committee.”

With Labour catching up with the Conservatives in the polls, Prime Minister Teresa May leapt at the chance to twist Corbyn’s words and all but accused him of treason. “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault….and I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”

Boris Johnson chimed in: “Whatever we do, we can’t follow the logic of the terrorists and start blaming ourselves or our society or our foreign policy. This has been caused not by us – as Jeremy Corbyn would have us believe – it’s been caused by a sick ideology, a perverted version of Islam that hates us and hates our way of life.” It’s the old political trick of deliberately mistaking explanation for justification.

But both sides in this argument are wrong. The“Salafi” extremists who are called “Islamists” in the West (all of them Sunnis, and most of them Arabs) do hate Western values, but that’s not why they go to the trouble of making terrorist attacks on the West. And it’s not because of Western foreign policies either: there were no major Western attacks on the Arab world in the years before the 9/11 atrocity in 2001.

There had been plenty of attacks in the past: the Western conquest of almost all the Arab countries between 1830 and 1918, Western military support for carving a Zionist state out of the Arab world as the European imperial powers were pulling out after 1945, Western military backing for Arab dictators and absolute monarchs ever since.

The West turned against one of those dictators, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait, but it had the support of most Arab countries when it drove him out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. And between then and 9/11 the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world. Indeed, it was even backing the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, which looked quite promising at that time.

But there was violence in many Arab countries as Islamist revolutionaries, using terrorist tactics, tried to overthrow the local kings and dictators. Up to 200,000 Arabs were killed in these bloody struggles between 1979 and 2000, but not one of the repressive regimes was overthrown. By the turn of the century it was clear that terrorism against Arab regimes was not working. To win power, the Islamists needed a new strategy.

The man who supplied it was Osama bin Laden. He had missed out on the long terrorist war in the Arab countries because he went to Afghanistan to fight a Soviet invasion in 1979. But in Afghanistan he fought in a war that Islamists actually won: having lost 14,000 dead, the Russians gave up and went home in 1989. The Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) came to power as a result.

Bin Laden realised that this could be a route to power for the Islamists of the Arab world as well: provoke the West to invade Muslim countries, lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.

That was why he founded al-Qaeda, and 9/11 was intended to sucker the United States into playing the role of infidel invader. Western governments have never recognised this obvious fact because they are too arrogant ever to see themelves as simply the dupes in somebody else’s strategy. Their foreign policy error was to fall for bin Laden’s provocation hook, line and sinker – and they are still falling for it sixteen years later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs .

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.