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Afghanistan: Mission not Accomplished

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron rambled a bit on his visit to Afghanistan last December, but ended up sounding just as deluded as U.S. president George W. Bush had been when he proclaimed “Mission accomplished” six weeks after the invasion of Iraq. British troops were sent to Afghanistan, Cameron said, “so it doesn’t become a haven for terror. That is the mission…and I think we will have accomplished that mission.”

 Prime Minister Stephen Harper was equally upbeat when addressing Canadian troops just before they pulled out in 2011. Afghanistan no longer represents a “geostrategic risk to the world (and) is no longer a source of global terrorism,” he said. Both men are technically correct, since Afghanistan never was a “geostrategic risk to the world” or “a haven for terror”, but they must both know that the whole war was really a pointless waste of lives.

Obviously, neither man can afford to say that the soldiers who died in obedience to the orders of their government (448 British troops, 158 Canadians) died in vain, but Barack Obama has found a better way to address the dilemma: he just doesn’t offer any assessment of the campaign’s success. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” wrote former defence secretary Robert Gates, and he was right.

So was Obama, in the sense that he realized the mission, whatever its purpose (the definitions kept changing), was neither doable nor worth doing. But in fact he did support it, at least to the extent of not pulling the plug on it—and 1,685 of the 2,315 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan died on his watch. Could do better.

Now there’s another “election” coming up in Afghanistan (on April 5); at least three-quarters of the remaining foreign troops (perhaps all of them) will be gone from the country by the end of this year, and the whole thing is getting ready to fall apart. This will pose no threat to the rest of the world, but it’s going to be deeply embarrassing for the Western leaders who nailed their flags to this particular mast.

The election is to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has served two full terms and cannot run again. It will be at least as crooked as the last one in 2009: 20.7 million voters’ cards have already been distributed in a country where there are only 13.5 million people over the age of 18. Karzai is so confident of remaining the power behind the throne that he is building his “retirement” residence next to the presidential palace, but he’s probably wrong.

His confidence is based on his skill as a manipulator of tribal politics. Indeed, his insistence that the U.S. hand over control of Bagram jail, and his subsequent release of 72 hardcore Taliban prisoners, was designed to rebuild ties with the prisoners’ families and clans before the election. But it is that same Taliban organization that will probably make all Karzai’s plans and plots irrelevant.

It’s not that the Taliban will sweep back to power all over Afghanistan once Western troops leave. They really only controlled the Pashtun-majority areas of the east and south and the area around the capital even when they were “in power” in 1996-2001, while the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras of the “Northern Alliance” ruled the rest.

That pattern is likely to reappear, with the Taliban and the northern warlords pushing politicians like Karzai aside—probably not at once, when most or all of the Western troops go home at the end of this year, but a while later, when the flow of aid (which accounts for 97 percent of Afghan government spending) finally stops.

The U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not collapse when American troops went home in 1973, but two years later, when Congress cut the aid to Saigon. The Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan did not collapse when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, but three years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia cut the aid. It will happen that way again.

The new part-Taliban Afghanistan that emerges will be no more a source of international terrorism than the old part-Taliban Afghanistan was. It was Osama bin Laden and his merry men, mostly Arabs and a few Pakistanis, who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks, not the Taliban.

True, bin Laden et al. were guests on Afghan soil at the time, but it is highly unlikely that they told the Taliban about the attacks in advance. After all, they were probably going to get their hosts’ country invaded by the United States; best not to bring it up. And there have been no international terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan in the past eight years, although the Taliban already control a fair chunk of the country.

The election will unfold as Karzai wishes, and his preferred candidate (exactly who is still not clear) will probably emerge as the new president, but this truly is a case of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic. The second long foreign occupation of Afghanistan in half a century is drawing to a close, and Afghanistan’s own politics and history are about to resume.

Afghanistan Decent Interval

1 July 2013

Afghanistan: The Quest for a “Decent Interval”

By Gwynne Dyer

History does not exactly repeat itself: the final outcome of the American intervention in Afghanistan will not be the same as the end result in Vietnam. But the negotiations between the United States and its Taliban enemy that are lurching into motion in Qatar as the US prepares to pull out of Afghanstan next year are eerily similar to the “Paris peace talks” that paved the way for the US military withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973.

In his Briefing Notes for a secret 1971 meeting in Beijing with Chinese government officials, Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to US president Richard Nixon, wrote in the margin: “We are ready to withdraw all of our forces [from South Vietnam] by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future….We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.”

The phrase got out, and it stuck: the whole point of the exercise by 1971, from the US point of view, was to get out of the Vietnamese war without admitting defeat. North Vietnam could collect its victory in the end, but it must allow a “decent interval” to pass so that Washington could distance itself from blame for the ultimate collapse of its local Vietnamese allies.

Direct American-Taliban peace talks are now on the menu for much the same reason. The Obama administration realises that the intervention in Afghanistan has been a ghastly failure, but it needs some semblance of success, however transitory, to console the families of the 4,000 American dead in the war, and to save America’s face internationally.

Just as in the Vietnam case, the fighting will continue while the diplomats are talking. Just as in Vietnam, American generals and diplomats must go on claiming in the meantime that victory is in sight.

When General John Allen, the last US commander in Afghanistan, handed over to his successor in February, he said what he had to say: “This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well trained Afghan forces that are emerging today….This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.” But privately, he must know better: American generals are rarely stupid.

And just as in Vietnam, the puppet regime in Afghanistan is now panicking as its master prepares to abandon it. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, rightly sensing that he was about to be sold down the river, revealed the details of the secret American-North Vietnamese agreement in 1972, hoping to mobilise US Congressional and public opinion against it. Fat chance. Both members of Congress and the public wanted out at any price.

So, too, with Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to send representatives to the American-organised talks in Qatar until he has a promise that the Taliban will not be given a share of power. He is also refusing to agree to a continuing US military presence in the country after 2014 until he gets his way. But he will not get his way, and the US will do whatever it wants.

Maybe the Taliban will be patient enough to give the US the “decent interval” it wants, believing that they can collect their victory a few years after the American troops have gone home. Or perhaps they will reject anything short of immediate and total victory, knowing that the American troops will leave anyway. However, the war in Afghanistan is actually a civil war, and they can never win a decisive victory.

The Afghan civil war began in 1992, when the puppet government that the Russians left behind when they pulled their troops out the country in 1989 collapsed. The various mujaheddin groups who had fought the Russians went to war with one another for control of the country, and that civil war has continued ever since.

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country, and the conflict soon resolved into a struggle between the Taliban, the dominant organisation in the Pashtun-populated parts of the country, and the militias of the Northern Alliance, the various smaller ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan.

Since the Pashtuns are almost half the country’s population and had Pakistani support, the Taliban won control of multi-ethnic Kabul and become the country’s “government” in 1996. However, they never conquered the “Northern Alliance” that dominated the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek provinces in the north.

Then, after 9/11, the US invaded and made a de facto alliance with the warlords of the Northern Alliance. This tipped the balance in the war in the other direction, and it’s the northern warlords who have effectively run (or rather, looted) the country for the past decade.

Once the US leaves, the balance of power between these two sides will be restored – and the civil war between them will continue on a more equal basis. This is not Vietnam, a homogeneous country with a strong national identity. It is a tribal country whose borders are entirely artificial. Decisive victory in Afghanistan is unattainable for any ethnic group.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Just…stupid”)

 

 

Afghanistan: Changing Generals in Midstream

11 May 2009

Afghanistan: Changing Generals in Midstream

By Gwynne Dyer

There is always a high turnover of generals in wartime. Some get replaced because they turn out to be no good at the job, but many others are changed because they have failed at a task that was beyond anybody’s ability to accomplish.

They are fired, in other words, because the alternative would be to blame the person who gave them that impossible task. That certainly seems to be the case with General David McKiernan, the American commander in Afghanistan, who was appointed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates less than a year ago, when President Bush was still in power.

The specific event that caused McKiernan’s dismissal may have been his recent admission that there is a “stalemate” in Afghanistan. But it was probably inevitable anyway, because Gates, who was retained from the Bush administration by President Obama, needed somebody to blame for the fact that the military situation in Afghanistan is worse than ever.

What’s need is “fresh thinking, fresh eyes on the problem,” said Secretary Gates, explaining why he was appointing General Stanley McChrystal to the job instead. So what should General McChrystal’s fresh eyes see?

He could start by understanding that the United States is not fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is fighting the entire Pashtun nation, some thirty million people, two-thirds of whom live across the border in Pakistan. That border has never really existed for the Pashtuns, who move freely across it in peace and in war

The Taliban are entirely Pashtun in membership, and always were. When they ruled southern and central Afghanistan in 1996-2001, they were hated by the other ethnic groups (who never lost control of the north), and even by many Pashtuns. But the US invasion effectively drove not just the Taliban but the Pashtuns in general from power, in a country that Pashtuns have dominated for several centuries.

To minimise US casualties, the United States made an alliance with all the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Afganistan (the “Northern Alliance”) in 2001. There really was no American land invasion; it was the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban, with considerable assistance from American B-52 bombers. It was a clever strategy, but it perpetuated what was effectively an Afghan civil war between the Pashtuns (40 percent of the

population) and all the other ethnic groups, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek.

It is warlords from those other groups who have controlled the Afghan government ever since. “The political, religious and economic mafia are all Northern Alliance people,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, a member of parliament from Ghazni province, exaggerating only slightly. “Nobody outside the Northern Alliance is in the government.” Except, of course, President Hamid Karzai, the token Pashtun, who is mockingly known as “the mayor of Kabul.”

This is not a war about ideology, even if all the American and Taliban commanders insist that it is. The Pashtuns are fighting to regain at least a major share of power in Afghanistan, while the US and other foreign troops are for all practical purposes allied to the other ethnic groups. That is why ALL the fighting is in the Pashtun-majority provinces.

There is no point in trying to win over Pashtun “hearts and minds.”

The war will only end when the Pashtuns regain a big share of the power at the centre (and the loot that comes with it). And no matter how fresh General McChrystal’s eyes are, it’s unlikely that he can deliver that.

Hamid Karzai has ensured his re-election as president in the elections in August by bribing or bullying his most serious challenger into withdrawing from the race, and choosing “Marshal Fahim” (Mohammed Qasim Fahim), a powerful and notoriously bloody Tajik warlord, as his first vice-president. The other vice-president, Karim Khalili, is, predictably, a Hazara.

Karzai’s second term will be a reprise of his first: the same ethnic imbalance, the same rampant corruption and warlordism, the same combination of toadying to the foreigners who provide the cash-flow and occasional outbursts of nationalist resentment when US air-strikes kill too many innocent civilians. And McChrystal should ignore the air force’s promises to do better: in counter-insurgency wars, air-strikes ALWAYS kill more civilians than combatants.

On top of everything else, the US still insists on eradicating the poppy-growing that provides over half of the country’s national income.

Opium use is obviously a problem in Afghanistan — as one observer said, “If you applied a drug test to the Afghan army, three-quarters of them would be kicked out” — but burning farmers’ fields leaves them no alternative source of cash income except fighting for the Taliban, who pay $200 a month.

The final thing McChrystal should understand is that “winning” or “losing” in Afghanistan makes almost no difference to US security. The Taliban are not “outriders for al-Qa’eda,” in the lazy formula used by State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

The Taliban are an Afghan phenomenon with almost exclusively Afghan goals, and even if they should win absolute power after the US leaves (which is unlikely), there is no reason to believe that they would send terrorists to attack the United States. Indeed, Osama bin Laden probably didn’t even let them know in advance about the 9/11 attacks.

This war is not only unwinnable but unnecessary, and if David McChrystal understood all these things he wouldn’t have taken the job. But he did take it, so he doesn’t understand. Afghanistan is Vietnam for slow learners.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 12. (“The specific…ever”; and “Hamid…combatants”)