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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”

Afghanistan: A War Won and Lost

5 October 2007

Afghanistan: A War Won and Lost

By Gwynne Dyer

This week is the sixth anniversary of the start of US air strikes against al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. It was a very clever politico-military operation, and by December of 2001 all of Afghanistan was under the control of the United States and its local allies for a total cost of twelve American dead. Then, for no good reason, it fell apart, and now the war is lost.

In the days just after 9/11 George Tenet, the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief, came up with a bold proposal. Why invade Afghanistan with a large American army, deploying massive firepower that kills large numbers of locals and alienates the population? Why give Osama bin Laden the long anti-American guerilla war that he was undoubtedly counting on?

Instead, Tenet proposed sending teams of CIA agents and special forces into the country to win the support of the various militias, loosely linked as the Northern Alliance, that still dominated the northern regions of the country. Although the Taliban had controlled most of the country since 1996, they had never decisively won the civil war. So why not intervene in that war, shower their opponents with money and weapons, and tip the balance against the Taliban?

It worked like a charm. Pakistan, whose intelligence services had originally created the Taliban, withdrew its support, the regime fled Kabul, and most of the Taliban troops melted back into their villages. The government of a country of 27 million people was taken down for a death toll that probably did not exceed 4,000 on all sides.

By mid-December 2001 the United States effectively controlled Afghanistan through its local allies, all drawn from the northern minority groups: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. There had not been the mass killing of innocent bystanders that would inevitably have accompanied a conventional US invasion, so there was no guerilla war. The traditional ruling group and biggest minority, the Pashtun, who had put their money on the Taliban and lost, would have to be brought back into the game somehow, but the usual Afghan deal-making would suffice.

Washington had the wit to make Mahmoud Karzai, a Pashtun from a clan that never had much to do with the Taliban, its puppet president in Kabut, but it didn’t carry through. It froze out all the prominent Pashtun political and religious leaders who had had dealings with the Taliban — which was, of course, almost all of them.

The Taliban had been the government of Afghanistan for almost five years, and were at the time the political vehicle of the Pashtun ascendancy in the country. If you were a traditional Pashtun leader, how could you not have had dealings with them? An amnesty that turned a blind eye to the past, plus pressure by the United States on its recent allies to grant the Pashtuns a fair share of the national pie, would have created a regime in Kabul to which Pashtuns could give their loyalty, even if they were less dominant at the centre than usual. But that never happened.

The United States had so closely identified the Taliban with al-Qaeda (although bin Laden probably never told the Taliban leadership what he was planning) that it would not talk to Pashtun leaders who had been linked to the Taliban. Six years after the invasion that wasn’t, the Pashtuns are still largely frozen out. That is why the Taliban are coming back.

Afghanistan has usually been run by regional and tribal warlords with little central control: nothing new there. But now it is also a country where the biggest minority has been largely excluded from power by foreign invaders who sided with the smaller minorities, and then blocked the process of accommodation by which the various Afghan ethnic groups normally make power-sharing deals.

The Taliban are still the main political vehicle of the Pashtuns, because there has been no time to build another. It doesn’t mean that all Pashtuns are fanatics or terrorists. Indeed, not all the Taliban are fanatics (though many of them are), and hardly any of them nurse the desire to carry out terrorist acts in other countries. That was the specialty of their (rather ungrateful) Arab guests, who fled across the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan almost six years ago.

The current fighting in the south, the Pashtun heartland, which is causing a steady dribble of American, British and Canadian casualties, will continue until the Western countries pull out. (Most other NATO members sent their troops to various parts of northern Afghanistan, where non-Pashtun warlords rule non-Pashtun populations and nobody dares attack the foreigners.) Then, after the foreigners are gone, the Afghans will make the traditional inter-ethnic deals and something like peace will return.

Will Karzai still be the president after that? Yes, if he can convince the Pashtuns that he is open to such a deal once the foreigners leave.

Will the Taliban come back to power? No, only to a share of power, and only to the extent that they can still command the loyalty of the Pashtuns once it is no longer a question of resistance to foreigners.

Will Osama bin Laden return and recreate a “nest of terrorists” in Afghanistan. Very unlikely. The Afghans paid too high a price for their hospitality the first time round.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 10. “It worked…sides”;”The United…back”; and “The Taliban…ago”