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Afghanistan: Going Down

If the Taliban were not so busy fighting the rival Islamic State jihadis who began operating in Afghanistan early this year, they might now be within reach of overthrowing the Afghan government that the Western powers left behind when they pulled out most of their troops last year. Even with that distraction, the Taliban are doing pretty well.

On Monday, a Taliban suicide-bomber on a motorcycle managed to kill six American soldiers who were patrolling the perimeter of Bagram air base near Kabul. On the same day Taliban fighters took almost complete control of Sangin in Helmand province, a town that over 100 British troops died to defend in 2006-10.

As Major Richard Streatfield, a British officer who fought at Sangin, told the BBC: “I won’t deny, on a personal level, it does make you wonder – was it worth it? Because if the people we were trying to free Afghanistan from are now able to just take it back within two years, that shows that something went badly wrong at the operational and strategic level.”

It was probably a mistake to invade Afghanistan in the first place. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists could have been dealt with without invading an entire country, and there was never any evidence that the Taliban government of the day knew about his 9/11 attacks on the United States in advance.

Having invaded the country, it was a mistake not to hand it over to a tough regime made up of warlords from the major ethnic groups and get out before the presence of over a hundred thousand foreign troops gave the Taliban a second wind. Trying to create a Western-style liberal democracy in Afghanistan was even more naive than the previous Soviet project to build a modern, secular, “socialist” one-party state in the country.

The 19th-century British army and the 20th-century Russian army could both have told them: it has always been easy to invade Afghanistan, but it has always been hard for foreign troops to stay there more than a couple of years.

And having made those mistakes, it was another mistake to pull almost all the foreign troops out before the Afghan government’s army was up to holding the Taliban off. If, indeed, it can ever be brought up to that level.

The parlous state of the Afghan National Army and the sheer fecklessness of President Ashraf Ghani’s government was highlighted by last weekend’s desperate plea by Helmand’s deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar for supplies and reinforcements for the troops holding Sangin.

It’s not just that the army had neglected the plight of those soldiers. It’s the fact that Rasulyar had to resort to posting his plea on Facebook to get the government’s attention.

Part of the problem is that the government and the army high command are profoundly corrupt. For example, up to a quarter of the army’s troops are “ghost soldiers” who only exist on paper, so that officers can draw their pay.

The worse problem is that President Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, only won last year’s election by massive fraud. Conflicts with the aggrieved losers have left the government paralysed: twenty months after the election, there is still not even a permanent defence minister.

Morever, Ghani believes that a decisive military victory over the Taliban is impossible. This is probably correct – but he is therefore committed to cultivating close ties with Pakistan in the hope that Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, will deliver the Taliban to the table for peace talks. (Most Afghans believe that ISI controls the Taliban.) But Ghani is wrong on two counts.

The Taliban have no reason to agree to a power-sharing peace settlement, since they can still hope for an outright military victory. And Pakistan doesn’t really control the Taliban, although it gives them a safe haven and can manipulate them to a limited extent. There were preliminary peace talks early this year, but there has been nothing since July.

The Afghan army would be collapsing a good deal faster if so much of the Taliban’s attention were not focused on fighting off the challenge from Islamic State. (It has killed at least a thousand IS fighters this year.) But the Taliban still managed to seize the city of Kunduz in the north for a week in September, and now Sangin in the southwest is going.

We are seeing the usual short-term responses in the West. President Obama has halted the withdrawal of most of the remaining 9,800 US troops in the country (which was scheduled for the end of this year), and Britain has ordered ten of the 450 troops it still has in Afghanistan back to Sangin.

But that won’t make much difference, and there is no chance whatever that the NATO countries will build their troop strength in Afghanistan back up to the level – around 140,000 – where it was five years ago. The Afghans are on their own now, and they will be lucky if they end up back under the rule of the Taliban rather than in the clutches of Islamic State.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“The 19th…years”; and “Moreover…July”)

Mullah Omar: More Trouble Dead Than Alive

Islamist fanatics, as you would expect, are very earnest about their beliefs. They accept that secrecy and deceit are necessary to mislead the enemy, but they do not expect their leaders to be lying to them. When they find out that they have been lied to, consistently and over a long period of time, they get very cross – and this has repercussions in the real world.

From the time that the Taliban conquered Kabul and took over most of Afghanistan in 1996, Mullah Muhammad Omar Mansoor was the man who ran the show and was effectively the head of state. He was the man who allowed Osama bin Laden to set up camp in Afghanistan. And although the Taliban lost power after the US invasion in 2001, Mullah Omar remained in control of the organisation until his death in 2013.

The trouble is that nobody told his faithful followers that he died more than two years ago in Pakistan. Until last week the Taliban was still issuing statements in his name – most recently, on 15 July, a message endorsing the Taliban’s recent peace talks with the current Afghan government. Now all Mullah Omar’s statements since April 2013 are in question, and so are the men who made them in his name.

This matters a lot, because Mullah Omar was not just the leader of the Taliban. He was also the most important figure in the broader alliance of Islamist groups known as al Qaeda. Indeed, he had as much right to claim to be its founder as the man who actually gets the credit, Osama bin Laden.

With his long record as a real fighter, Mullah Omar was much more respected than the man who formally inherited al Qaeda’s leadership after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the reclusive Egyptian theorist Ayman al Zawahiri. Indeed, Zawahiri felt compelled to renew his pledge of allegiance (“baya”) to Mullah Omar when the rival jihadi group, Islamic State, declared its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, to be the “caliph of all the Muslims” in 2014.

This is not just internal politics in a local jihadi group. Al Qaeda and Islamic State are in a frequently violent competition for the loyalty of all the scattered Islamist groups in the Muslim countries. It was therefore very important for al Qaeda that Mullah Omar rejected Baghdadi’s claim to be the caliph – and it is very important to the rest of the world that the two jihadi organisations remain divided and hostile to each other.

Al Qaeda has been losing ground in this competition for some years now. Indeed, Islamic State recently set up its own rival franchises in the two countries where al Qaeda still dominates the struggle against the local regime, Afghanistan and Yemen. The two groups are currently at war with each other in both countries, but that could change fast if al Qaeda’s leadership is discredited by the lies it has been telling.

If Mullah Omar actually died in 2013, he could not have denounced Baghdadi’s claim to be the legitimate caliph in 2014. Similarly, Zawahiri’s pledge of allegiance to him in 2014 was either a deliberate lie, or a demonstration that he is hopelessly out of touch with what is actually happening beyond his hide-out, presumably somewhere in Pakistan. Either way, al Qaeda loses credibility.

So do the Taliban, of course. When the self-declared new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Akhtar Mansoor, acknowledged that Mullah Omar is dead at the beginning of this month, he carefully omitted any reference to WHEN Omar died. But the Taliban fighting groups are in chaos, because Akhtar Mansoor, then officially Omar’s deputy, issued statements in Omar’s name condemning Islamic State as recently as last month.

Many Taliban groups are now questioning Akhtar Mansoor’s claim to the leadership. His response has been to break off peace talks with the Afghan government and launch some particularly vicious attacks against the Afghan police and army, but it may not be enough to secure his position. As for Ayman al Zawahiri, he hasn’t been heard from since last September.

There would be no reason to mourn the decline of al Qaeda except that the main beneficiary will be Islamic State. There is no strong reason to prefer one organisation to the other, either – except that the last thing the world needs is for Islamic State to take over all of al Qaeda’s franchises and create a single, much more powerful and attractive Islamist fighting front.

The current state of division of the extreme Islamist movement is deplored by almost everybody in both organisations. There is little ideological difference between them, although Islamic State is more apocalyptic in its vision. If al Qaeda’s claim to leadership is seriously undermined by its lies about Mullah Omar, the unification of most or all the Islamist groups under Baghdadi’s authority is a real possibility.

The first victim of that would be the Assad regime in Syria, which is already tottering, and an Islamist takeover of the whole country. But much more might follow, and none of it would be good news.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“So…September”)

“Global” Terrorism

“We will not be cowed by these sick terrorists,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron after ISIS produced a grisly video of the mass beheading of Syrian captives by foreign jihadis who allegedly included British fighters. “We will not be intimidated,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the recent attacks in Montreal and Ottawa. As if the purpose of terrorist attacks in Western countries was to cow and intimidate them.

You hear this sort of rhetoric from Western leaders all the time, but Harper went further, and demonstrated exactly how they get it wrong. “(This) will lead us to…redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organisations who brutalise those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores. They will have no safe haven.” Sound familiar?

Sure enough, there are now half a dozen Canadian planes bombing ISIS jihadis in Iraq (although it’s unlikely that either of the Canadian attackers, both converts to radical Islam, had any contact with foreign terrorist organisations). But Harper has got the logic completely backwards.

The purpose of major terrorist activities directed at the West, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS videos, is not to “cow” or “intimidate” Western countries. It is to get those countries to bomb Muslim countries or, better yet, invade them. The terrorists want to come to power in Muslim countries, not in Canada or Britain or the US. And the best way to establish your revolutionary credentials and recruit local supporters is to get the West to attack you.

That’s what Osama bin Laden wanted in 2001. (He hoped for an American invasion of Afghanistan, but he got an unexpected bonus in the US invasion of Iraq.) The ISIS videos of Western hostages being beheaded are intended to get Western countries involved in the fight against them, because that’s how you build local support. So far, the strategy is working just fine.

The “Global Terrorism Index”, published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reported last week that fatalities due to terrorism have risen fivefold in the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, despite the US-led “war on terror” that has spent $4.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-terrorist operations elsewhere. But it’s not really “despite” those wars. It’s largely because of them.

The invasions, the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa, the whole lumbering apparatus of the “global war on terrorism” have not killed the terrorist beast. They have fed it, and the beast has grown very large. 3,361 people were killed by terrorism in 2000; 17,958 were killed by it last year.

At least 80 percent of these people were Muslims, and the vast majority of those who killed them were also Muslims: the terrorists of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Qaeda and its offspring in other parts of the world (like al-Shebab in north-east Africa).

That is not to say that terrorism is a particularly Muslim technique. Its historical roots lie in European struggles against oppressive regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it gained huge currency in liberation struggles against the European colonial empires after the Second World War. Even the Stern Gang in Israel and the Irish Republican Army can be seen as part of this wave.

Later waves of fashion in terrorism included the European, Latin American and Japanese “urban terrorist” movements of the 1970s and 80s – Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, Montoneros in Argentina, Japanese Red Army and so on – none of which has any political success at all. Specifically “Islamic” terrorism really begins only in the 1990s, with the rise of radical, anachronistic forms of Sunni Islam.

Only about 5 percent of the victims of this latest wave of terrorism lived in developed countries, but it was their deaths, and their governments’ ignorant responses to them, that provided the fuel for the spectacular growth of jihadi extremism. So what can be done about it?

The Global Terrorism Index has some useful observations to offer about that, too. It points out that a great many terrorist organisations have actually gone out of business in the past 45 years. Only 10 percent of them actually won, took power, and disbanded their terrorist wings. And only 7 percent were eliminated by the direct application of military force.

EIGHTY percent of them were ended by a combination of better policing and the creation of a political process that addressed the grievances of those who supported the terrorism. You don’t fix the problem by fighting poverty or raising educational levels; that kind of thing has almost nothing to do with the rise of terrorism. You have to deal with the particular grievances that obsess specific ethnic, religious or political groups.

And above all, keep foreigners out of the process. Their interventions ALWAYS make matters worse. Which is why the terrorists love them so much.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Islam”)

Imperfect Afghanistan

“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one,” said President Barack Obama last May. No, it isn’t, and Afghanistan is a strikingly imperfect society in almost every respect: politics, economy, security and human rights. But it isn’t entirely a lost cause, either.

President Hamid Karzai, who was given the job of running Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001 and subsequently won two deeply suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, finally left office on Monday, although he didn’t move very far. (His newly built private home backs onto the presidential palace.) On the way out, he took one last opportunity to bite the hand that fed him for so long.

“The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners,” he said. “Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.” The US ambassador, James Cunningham, said that “his remarks, which were uncalled for,…dishonour the huge sacrifices Americans have made here,” but they were, of course, true.

Karzai’s remarks, though undiplomatic, are just common sense. The United States did not invade the country to bring democracy, prosperity and feminism to the long-suffering Afghan people. It did so because some of the senior planners of the 9/11 attacks had been allowed to set up camps there by members of the Taliban regime who shared their religious ideology.

You could argue (and I would) that luring the US military into the quagmire of a long guerilla war in Afghanistan that would drive millions of Muslims into the arms of al-Qaeda was precisely what Osama bin Laden was hoping to achieve with the 9/11 attacks. The United States simply fell into the strategic trap that he laid.

Even so, and despite all the rapidly changing reasons for “staying the course” in Afghanistan that Washington deployed in later years, the original and abiding motive in Washington was the perception, accurate or not, that who rules Afghanistan is a matter of great importance for the national security of the United States.

Over 1,400 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (together with 400 British soldiers, 150 Canadians, and sundry others), and they all basically died for a particular US official vision of how American security might be best be assured. How else could the 13-year US military commitment in Afghanistan possibly be justified to the American people?

As to whether the long occupation was also in Afghanistan’s interest, that depends very much on the stability and success of the two-headed potential monster of a government that is now being created in Kabul.

Karzai has handed over the reins of power to two very different men, after five months of bitter disagreement over which one of them had really won last April’s presidential election. It was not as blatantly rigged as either of the two elections that maintained Karzai in the presidency, but it was still pretty dodgy.

In the first round of voting, when there were eleven candidates, the leader was Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent of the vote, and the runner-up was Ashraf Ghani, with only 31 percent. In the second round, Abdullah Abdullah’s vote actually dropped two points to 43 percent, while Ashraf Ghani’s almost doubled to 56 percent. The age of miracles truly is not past.

Even more suspiciously, the number of people voting in some of the districts that supported Ashraf Ghani tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. So Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, and the inauguration of a new president was endlessly postponed while the ballots cast were “audited” by an electoral commission that had been chosen by Hamid Karzai.

There was never going to be a clear answer to the question of who really won the election, and so after months of drift and delay a deal was struck. Ashraf Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, will be president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later foreign minister under Karzai, will nominate a “chief executive officer” who will act more or less as prime minister.

It is, in other words, a traditional Afghan carve-up, with a proportional slice of power for every one of the country’s ethnic groups. Ghani will ensure that Pashtuns get the biggest share of the good jobs, and look after the Uzbeks as well. Abdullah will take care of the Tajiks and Hazaras. But compared to your average Afghan warlord or Taliban fanatic, both men look pretty good.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s government and nascent democratic system might actually survive and prove to be fit for purpose. After three decades of Russian and American occupation, a significant minority of Afghans (certainly several millions) have been exposed to many examples of how post-tribal societies run their affairs.

Afghanistan is still a tribal society, so this carve-up of power on an ethnic basis may be a better option for the country than winner-takes-all politics. And if the United States and its allies do not abruptly cut off the foreign aid that keeps the whole show on the road, post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the sudden ending of Soviet subsidies in 1992.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Karzai’s…States”)