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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)’.

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.

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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.

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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.

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