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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.

Last Exit from Afghanistan

2 November 2009

Last Exit from Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

There must be a better way to rig an election.

First the Western powers occupying Afghanistan let President Hamid Karzai stay in the job for months after his term actually expired, on the grounds that an election in the late summer would be easier to arrange. They finally held the election in August and declared it a shining success: Karzai, Washington’s man in Kabul, had been re-elected, even though turnout nationally was only 30 percent. (In the Taliban-dominated south, it was only 5 percent.)

President Barack Obama, who was already under great pressure to send more US troops to Afghanistan, declared that “This was an important step forward in the Afghan people’s effort to take control of their future.” And then it all fell apart.

As the evidence emerged that up to a third of the votes allegedly cast for Karzai had been fraudulent, the United States backed away from celebrating his “re-election.” Indeed, the fraud was so blatant and massive that even the Afghans began to choke on it, and various American emissaries threatened and bullied Karzai into accepting a run-off vote against his closest rival in the first round of voting, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

That vote would have been held this Saturday (7 November), but Abdullah knew that he would lose again. He belongs to the Tajik ethnic group, and there are twice as many Pashtuns (Karzai’s ethnic group) in Afghanistan as there are Tajiks. So Abdullah complained that the election officials conducting this run-off would be exactly the same men who had rigged the first round – which was quite true – and demanded their resignation.

Karzai refused to remove them, Abdullah used that as an excuse to withdraw from the election, and last Sunday the run-off was cancelled. Karzai was proclaimed president once again on the basis of the discredited first-round vote, and the whole sorry mess was abandoned. But there is a silver lining: if Obama wants to bail out of Afghanistan, he now has an excellent excuse for doing so.

The pathetic shambles of the past few months has had relatively little impact on public opinion in Afghanistan, where Karzai’s democratic “legitimacy” was never much of an issue. His power, such as it is, has always depended on US military support and access to Western aid, not on votes. But the fiasco has had a significant impact on public opinion in the Western countries whose troops are fighting in Afghanistan.

Actual Western military casualties in Afghanistan have not been very high: just over 900 American soldiers have been killed there, together with 200 British, 140 Canadians, and much smaller numbers from other NATO countries. But the loss rate has been mounting steadily, as has the sense of futility back home: a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll late last month found only 47 percent of Americans supporting a further build-up of American troops in Afghanistan, while 49 percent opposed it.

The declining support for the war is driven largely by a growing perception that it is unwinnable. If the US army is losing ground in Afghanistan after eight years in the country, and four previous invading armies from the industrialised world (three British and one Russian) have been forced to withdraw, why should we believe that this time is going to be any different? But the constantly repeated assertion that withdrawal from Afghanistan would lead to a surge in terrorist attacks on the West is also losing credibility.

It was always nonsense: terrorists don’t need “bases” to plan their attacks. Regular armies need bases, but all terrorists need is a couple of safe houses somewhere. Controlling Afghanistan is almost entirely irrelevant to Western security, and that reality is also beginning to seep out into the public discussion in the United States.

A dramatic recent example of this was the resignation late last month of Matthew Hoh, a former Marine captain and Iraq veteran who had joined the State Department and was working as the top American official in Zabul province in eastern Afghanistan. “My resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing the war, but why and to what end?” he wrote in his resignation letter, which got considerable exposure in the US media. “I fail to see the value or worth in continued US casualties.”

If Obama can extricate himself from the tactical minutiae about whether to send 40,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, or 20,000, or none, and focus on the larger question of why the United States is occupying the country at all, he can still save himself. And now is his best-ever chance to pull out, because the political train-wreck in Kabul gives him an ideal opportunity to renege on his foolish promises to pursue the war in Afghanistan until victory.

If he misses this opportunity, he may never get another, for it will inevitably, inexorably become “his” war, and the Americans who are killed there from now on will have died on his orders. Once that kind of burden descends on a politician, it becomes almost impossible for him to change course and admit that those deaths were futile. In that case, the Afghanistan war will eventually destroy him.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“The pathetic…Afghanistan”; and “A dramatic…casualties”)

“Election” in Afghanistan

13 August 2009

“Election” in Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

“They have the watches, but we have the time,” say the Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, and it’s perfectly true. The election on 20 August is not going to change that.

The foreign forces, US, Canadian and European, are well-trained, well-equipped troops who can inflict casualties on amateur Taliban fighters at a ratio of ten-to-one or worse. But the Taliban have an endless flow of fresh fighters, and much popular support among the Pashtuns of the south and south-east. Not to mention all the time in the world.

The Taliban were and are almost exclusively Pashtuns, so it was really the Pashtuns, forty percent of the population and traditionally Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, who were driven from power by the US invasion in 2001. They are fighting foreign, non-Muslim invaders, and the government the foreigners put in is corrupt, incompetent and mostly non-Pashtun. Why wouldn’t the Taliban have support among the Pashtuns?

Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is a Pashtun, because the United States understood that it needed a Pashtun figurehead. The regime’s most powerful people, however, are non-Pashtun warlords from the various ethnic minorities of the north and centre: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

Now we are asked to believe that an election will restore confidence in the government. It is nonsense: this election has no more relevance than the ones that the United States used to stage in Vietnam. Colonel David Haight, commanding the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the US 10th Mountain Division in Logar and Wardak provinces near Kabul, was helpfully indiscreet about it in a recent interview.

“I think that apathy is going to turn into some anger when the administration doesn’t change, and I don’t think that anybody believes that Karzai is going to lose,” Haight told an embedded reporter from the Guardian. “There is going to be frustration from people who realise there is not going to be a change. The bottom line is they are going to be thinking: ‘Four more years of this crap’?”

Unless bribery, blackmail and threats no longer work in Afghanistan, Karzai is going to win. He isn’t even bothering to run a conventional campaign: he bailed out of a televised debate with the other presidential candidates at the last moment, and leaves it to them to hold election rallies in provincial towns. He has made his deals with the warlords and the traditional ethnic and tribal power-brokers, and is counting on them to deliver victory.

Karzai and the United States are shackled to the warlords because those were the allies that the US recruited to fight the Talib an on the ground when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban, being exclusively Pashtun, never controlled all of the country; Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek militias continued to hold out all across the north. So the US made deals with their leaders, showered them with weapons and money, and helped them into power instead.

It made good sense militarily, but it meant that the non-Pashtun warlords would dominate the post-Taliban government. They don’t live in the hills any more, but in the wealthy Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpar. Two of them, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a key Tajik warlord, and Karim Khalili, a Hazara warlord, are Karzai’s choices as vice-presidents.

The West’s government in Kabul is not going to get any better. It cannot, given its origins. There will be “four more years of crap,” and by the end of that the American, Canadian and European voters whose governments sent their troops to Afghanistan will be ready to bring them home. What will happen then?

Nothing particularly dramatic. Afghanistan was invaded in revenge for 9/11, but the US could have been played it differently from the start. Right after 9/11, a thousand-strong shura (congress) of Muslim clerics in Kabul declared its sympathy with the dead Americans and voted to expel Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from the country.

The Taliban regime had just made a lucrative deal with the United States to eradicate poppy-growing in the country, and most younger Taliban commanders wanted to maintain the deal and expel the Arab crazies. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, barely managed to overrule them, and if the United States had spread some serious money around it could easily have gone the other way.

Washington wasn’t interested in that outcome because after 9/11 the American public wanted blood. Understandable enough, but invading Afghanistan is ALWAYS a bad idea (although it is always temptingly easy). Once the invaders have left, however, the Afghans never follow them home. It won’t happen this time either.

Western rhetoric insists that the hills of Afghanistan are directly connected to the streets of Manhattan, London and Toronto. But no Afghan, not even any member of the Taliban, was involved in the planning or execution of 9/11, nor in the later, lesser attacks elsewhere in the West. Nor would the Taliban sweep back into power if all Western troops left Afghanistan tomorrow; the other players are still in the game.

Everybody who dies in this conflict is dying for nothing, because it will not change what happens when the foreign troops finally go home. As they eventually will.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12, 13 and 14. (“The Taliban…either”)

Unwinnable Afghanistan

7 October 2008

Unwinnable Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

The main purpose of British generals, it sometimes seems, is to say aloud the things that American generals (and British diplomats) think privately but dare not say in public. Things like: “We’re not going to win this war.”

That was what Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, said last week at the end of his six-month tour in command of 16 Air Assault Brigade. His force saw a great deal of combat and lost 32 killed, but it didn’t lose any battles. Regular troops rarely lose battles against guerillas. But there were no lasting successes either – which is also typical of wars where foreign troops are fighting local guerillas.

Carleton-Smith did not say that the foreign forces in Afghanistan will lose the war. He said that they could not deliver a “decisive military victory.” The best they might do, over a period of years, would be to reduce the Taleban insurgency “to a manageable level…that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

This will not be news to any professional soldier who knows the conditions in Afghanistan. The question is whether it comes as a surprise to American and British politicians (including Barack Obama) who still promise “victory” in the Afghan war. Because if victory is not possible, then in the end the Afghan government will have to talk to the Taleban and negotiate a peace settlement.

“If the Taleban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement,” Carleton-Smith continued, ” then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.” For the truth is that the foreign forces are backing one side in an Afghan civil war. If the war cannot end in a decisive victory for one side or the other, then it must end in a negotiated peace that is acceptable to both sides.

The reason neither side can win is that they are too evenly balanced, and each can hold its own territory indefinitely. The United States allied itself with the main northern ethnic groups, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, who together account for about 60 percent of the population, in order to drive the Taleban from power in 2001. But the Taleban were and still are the major political vehicle for the Pashtuns, who are about 40 percent of the population.

The Pashtuns were traditionally the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, but in 2001 they were effectively driven from power by the other ethnic groups and their Western allies. That is why they are in revolt: the area where Western troops are fighting “the Taleban” are all the areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan where Pashtuns are in the majority, and nowhere else. In practice, the foreigners are fighting Pashtun nationalism. That is why they cannot win.

On the other hand, and for the same reason, the Taleban cannot win a decisive victory either. They never established control over northern Afghanistan even when they ruled in Kabul in 1996-2001, mainly because the other ethnic minorities saw them as an exclusively Pashtun group. Moreover, most non-Pashtuns who did fall under their rule were alienated by their intolerance and brutality, and would certainly not welcome them back in sole power.

But a negotiated peace deal must give the Pashtuns a fair share of power at the centre, and that means giving the Taleban a share of the power. This is still seen as unthinkable in most Western capitals, but it is a thoroughly traditional Afghan way of ending the periodic ethnic bust-ups that have always plagued the country, and it will happen sooner or later.

Does this mean that Afghanistan will re-emerge as a base for international terrorism? Unlikely, since it would not be to the advantage of any Afghan government, even one that included Taleban elements, to attract that kind of international opprobrium. Besides, international terrorists don’t need “bases” to prepare their attacks; a few rooms will do.

Brigadier Carleton-Smith did suggest that the foreign troops need to stay longer: “If we reduce our expectations then I think realistically in the next three to five years we will be handing over tactical military responsibility to the Afghan army and in the next 10 years the bulk of responsibility for combating insurgency will be with them.” There are two things wrong with this argument.

One is the notion that Western countries are willing to take casualties in Afghanistan for another three, five or ten years. The other is that the Afghan government is not getting stronger.

In a recently leaked diplomatic cable the deputy French ambassador in Kabul, François Fitou, reported that the British ambassador there, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, told him that the strategy for Afghanistan was “doomed to failure. In Sir Sherard’s view “the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption and the Government has lost all trust”. The usual denials followed, but that is exactly what British officials there say in private.

So it would make sense to announce a deadline for pulling out the foreign troops and start negotiating for a final peace settlement in Afghanistan now. Waiting is unlikely to produce a better deal. Which is probably why President Mahmud Karzai said last week that he had asked the king of Saudi Arabia to mediate in negotiations with the Taleban.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 11 and 12. (“This will…settlement”; and “Brigadier…stronger”