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.”
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.