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Afghanistan: The Najibullah Syndrome

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”)


Afghanistan and Underpants

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”)



Afghanistan Lies

15 April 2012

Afghanistan Lies

By Gwynne Dyer

In the midst of the Taliban attacks in central Kabul on Sunday, a journalist called the British embassy for a comment. “I really don’t know why they are doing this,” said the exasperated diplomat who answered the phone. “We’ll be out of here in two years’ time. All they have to do is wait.”

The official line is that by two years from now, when US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the regime they installed will be able to stay in power without foreign support. The British diplomat clearly didn’t believe that, and neither do most other foreign observers.

However, General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, predictably said that he was “enormously proud” of the response of the Afghan security forces, and various other senior commanders said that it showed that all the foreign training was paying off. You have to admire their cheek: multiple simultaneous attacks in Kabul and three other Afghan cities prove that the Western strategy is working.

The Taliban’s attacks in the Afghan capital on Sunday targeted the national parliament, NATO’s headquarters, and the German, British, Japanese and Russian embassies. About a hundred people were killed or wounded, and the fighting lasted for eighteen hours. There was a similar attack in the centre of the Afghan capital only last September. If this were the Vietnam war, we would now have reached about 1971.

The US government has already declared its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan in two years’ time, just as it did in Vietnam back in 1971. Richard Nixon wanted his second-term presidential election out of the way before he pulled the plug, just as Barack Obama does now.

The Taliban are obviously winning the war in Afghanistan now, just as North Vietnam’s troops were winning in South Vietnam then. The American strategy at that time was satirised as “declare a victory and leave,” and it hasn’t changed one whit in forty years. Neither have the lies that cover it up.

The US puppet government in South Vietnam only survived for two years after US forces left in 1973. The puppet government in Kabul may not even last that long after the last American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014. But no Western general will admit that the war is lost, even though their denial means that more of their soldiers must die pointlessly.

“It’s like I see in slow motion men dying for nothing and I can’t stop it,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Davis, a US Army officer who spent two tours in Afghanistan. He returned home last year consumed by outrage at the yawning gulf between the promises of success routinely issued by American senior commanders and the real situation on the ground.

To be fair, none of those generals was asked whether invading Afghanistan was a good idea. That was decided ten years ago, when most of them were just colonels. But if they read the intelligence reports, they know that they cannot win this war. If they go on making upbeat predictions anyway, they are responsible for the lives that are wasted.

“It is consuming me from inside,” explained Lt-Col Davis, and he wrote two reports on the situation in Afghanistan, one classified and one for public consumption. The unclassified one began: “Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and the American people as regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognisable.”

Col Davis gave his first interview to the New York Times in early February, and sent copies of the classified version to selected senators and representatives in Congress. But no member of Congress is going to touch the issue in an election year, for fear of being labelled “unpatriotic”. So American, British and other Western soldiers will continue to die, as will thousands of Afghans, in order to postpone the inevitable outcome for a few more years.

It’s not necessarily even an outcome that threatens American security, for there was always a big difference between the Taliban and their ungrateful guests, al-Qaeda. The Taliban were and are big local players in the Afghan political game, but they never showed any interest in attacking the United States. Al-Qaeda were pan-Islamist revolutionaries, mostly Arabs and Pakistanis, who abused their hosts’ hospitality by doing exactly that.

It was never necessary to invade Afghanistan at all. Senior Taliban commanders were furious that al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks had exposed them to the threat of invasion, and came close to evicting Osama bin Laden at the Kandahar jirga (tribal parliament) in October, 2001. Wait a little longer, spread a few million dollars around in bribes, and the United States could probably have had a victory over al-Qaeda without a war in Afghanistan.

It’s much too late for that now, but al-Qaeda survives more as an ideology than as an organisation, and most Afghans (including the Taliban) remain profoundly uninterested in affairs beyond their own borders. Whatever political system emerges in Afghanistan after the foreigners go home, it is unlikely to want to attack the United States. Pity about all the people who will be killed between now and then.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“The US…pointlessly”; and “It’s not…that”)


Leaving Afghanistan

20 June 2011

Leaving Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s beyond satire. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, telling the New York Times what he had learned during his long tenure under Presidents Bush and Obama, explained that “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.” Gosh, Bob, does that mean you wouldn’t invade Iraq next time?

Afghanistan, by contrast, was a “war of necessity” in Gates’s terms: official Washington believed that further bad things like 9/11 might happen to the United States if US troops didn’t go to Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaida terrorists (mostly Arabs) who had been given bases there by the country’s Taliban leadership. It wasn’t a very subtle strategy, but it was certainly driven by perceived US national interest.

Which was the point being made by President Hamid Karzai, the man whom the United States put in power after the 2001 invasion: “[The Americans] are here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.”

Well, of course. The only other possible explanation for their presence would be that Washington had sent half a million young Americans to Afghanistan over the past ten years in some quixotic quest to raise the Afghan standard of living and the status of Afghan women. That’s ridiculous. Obviously, the motive was perceived US national interest.

So how to explain the furiously emotional response of Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan? Speaking at Herat University, he raged: “When Americans…hear themselves described as occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest…they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”

“Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, spouses of soldiers who have lost arms and legs – they ask themselves about the meaning of their loved one’s sacrifice. When I hear some of your leaders call us occupiers, I cannot look these mourning parents, spouses and children in the eye and give them a comforting reply.”

Karl, they won’t be very comforted if you tell them that their loved ones died for Afghanistan. Tell them that they died defending America. Except, of course, that it may not have been a very useful way of defending America.

All the al-Qaeda camps were quickly smashed after 9/11, and by the end of 2001 Osama bin Laden had escaped across the border into Pakistan, where he remained until his death last month. Most of the surviving al-Qaeda cadres also fled to Pakistan, and US intelligence says that there are only a couple of hundred left in Afghanistan.

So why have American troops been in Afghanistan for almost ten years? To keep the Taliban from power, they say, but it’s unlikely that the Taliban leadership ever knew about al-Qaeda’s plans for 9/11. Why would they support an action that was bound to provoke a US invasion and drive them from power? Why would bin Laden risk letting them know about the attack in advance? The US has probably been barking up the wrong tree for a long time.

Now the Taliban are back in force, and the war is all but lost. The US may think it is about “terrorism” and al-Qaeda, but for Afghans it is just a continuation of the civil war that had already been raging for almost a decade before the US invasion. The Taliban, almost entirely drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group, captured Kabul in 1996, but they never managed to conquer the other, smaller ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan.

The United States stumbled into this civil war under the delusion that it was fighting Islamist terrorists, but in fact it has simply ended up on the side of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. That’s who mans the “Afghan National Army” that the Western powers have been trying to build up with so little success: only three percent of its soldiers are Pashtuns, although Pashtuns account for 42 percent of the population.

So long as the US forces remain, the Taliban can plausibly claim that they are fighting a jihad against the infidels, but once the Americans leave the war will probably return to its basic ethnic character. That means that the Pashtuns are just as unlikely to conquer the north after the US departure as they were before the invasion.

In the end, some deal that shares out the spoils among the various ethnic groups will be done: that is the Afghan political style. The Taliban will get a big share, but they won’t sweep the board. The American interlude will gradually fade from Afghan consciousness, and the Afghan experience will vanish from American memory a good deal faster.

But in the meantime, President Barack Obama has promised to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan next month, and that will be very tricky. Few Americans know much about Afghan realities, and they have been fed a steady diet of patriotic misinformation about the place for a decade.

If the US ambassador to Kabul can get so emotional about a plain statement of fact, imagine how the folks at home will respond when US troops leave Afghanistan without a “victory”. Obama will be lucky to pull this off without a serious backlash.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“Mothers…Afghanistan”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.