Operation Enduring Disaster
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch
Afghanistan has been almost continuously at war for thirty years, longer than both World Wars and the American war in Vietnam combined. Each occupation of the country has mimicked its predecessor. A tiny interval between wars saw the imposition of a malignant social order, the Taliban, with the help of the Pakistani military and the late Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister who approved the Taliban takeover in Kabul.
Over the last two years, the US/NATO occupation of that country has run into serious military problems. Given a severe global economic crisis and the election of a new American president--a man separated in style, intellect and temperament from his predecessor--the possibility of a serious discussion about an exit strategy from the Afghan disaster hovers on the horizon. The predicament the United States and its allies find themselves in is not an inescapable one, but a change in policy, if it is to matter, cannot be of the cosmetic variety.
Washington's hawks will argue that, while bad, the military situation is, in fact, still salvageable. This may be technically accurate, but it would require the carpet-bombing of southern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the destruction of scores of villages and small towns, the killing of untold numbers of Pashtuns and the dispatch to the region of at least 200,000 more troops with all their attendant equipment, air and logistical support. The political consequences of such a course are so dire that even Dick Cheney, the closest thing to Dr. Strangelove that Washington has yet produced, has been uncharacteristically cautious when it comes to suggesting a military solution to the conflict.
It has, by now, become obvious to the Pentagon that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his family cannot deliver what is required, and yet it is probably far too late to replace him with UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. On his part, fighting for his political (and probably physical) existence, Karzai continues to protect his brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, accused of being involved in the country's staggering drug trade, but has belatedly sacked Hamidullah Qadri, his transport minister, for corruption.
Qadri was taking massive kickbacks from a company flying pilgrims to Mecca. Is nothing sacred?
A Deteriorating Situation
Of course, axing one minister is like whistling in the wind, given the levels of corruption reported in Karzai's government, which, in any case, controls little of the country. The Afghan president parries Washington's thrusts by blaming the US military for killing too many civilians from the air. The bombing of the village of Azizabad in Herat province in August, which led to ninety-one civilian deaths (of which sixty were children), was only the most extreme of such recent acts. Karzai's men, hurriedly dispatched to distribute sweets and supplies to the survivors, were stoned by angry villagers.
Given the thousands of Afghans killed in recent years, small wonder that support for the neo-Taliban is increasing, even in non-Pashtun areas of the country. Many Afghans hostile to the old Taliban still support the resistance simply to make it clear that they are against the helicopters and missile-armed unmanned aerial drones that destroy homes, and to "Big Daddy" who wipes out villages, and the flames that devour children.
Last February, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell presented a bleak survey of the situation on the ground to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence:
Afghan leaders must deal with the endemic corruption and pervasive poppy cultivation and drug trafficking. Ultimately, defeating the insurgency will depend heavily on the government's ability to improve security, deliver services and expand development for economic opportunity.
Although the international forces and the Afghan National Army continue to score tactical victories over the Taliban, the security situation has deteriorated in some areas in the south and Taliban forces have expanded their operations into previously peaceful areas of the west and around Kabul. The Taliban insurgency has expanded in scope despite operational disruption caused by the ISAF [NATO forces] and Operation Enduring Freedom operations. The death or capture of three top Taliban leaders last year--their first high level losses--does not yet appear to have significantly disrupted insurgent operations.
Since then the situation has only deteriorated further, leading to calls for sending in yet more American and NATO troops--and creating ever deeper divisions inside NATO itself. In recent months, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador to Kabul, wrote a French colleague (in a leaked memo) that the war was lost and more troops were not a solution, a view reiterated recently by Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the British Defense Chief, who came out in public against a one-for-one transfer of troops withdrawn from Iraq to Kabul. He put it this way:
I think we would all take some persuading that there would have to be a much larger British contingent there.... So we also have to get ourselves back into balance; it's crucial that we reduce the operational tempo for our armed forces, so it cannot be, even if the situation demanded it, just a one for one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan; we have to reduce that tempo.
The Spanish government is considering an Afghan withdrawal, and there is serious dissent within the German and Norwegian foreign policy elites. The Canadian foreign minister has already announced that his country will not extend its Afghan commitment beyond 2011. And even if the debates in the Pentagon have not been aired in public, it's becoming obvious that, in Washington, too, some see the war as unwinnable.
Enter former Iraq commander General David Petraeus, center stage, as the new CentCom commander. Ever since the "success" of "the surge" he oversaw in Iraq (a process designed to create temporary stability in that ravaged land by buying off the opposition and, among other things, the selective use of death squads), Petraeus has sounded, and behaved, more and more like Lazarus on returning from the dead--and before his body could be closely inspected.
The situation in Iraq was so dire that even a modest reduction in casualties was seen as a massive leap forward. With increasing outbreaks of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, however, the talk of success sounds ever hollower. To launch a new "surge" in Afghanistan now by sending more troops there will simply not work, not even as a public relations triumph. Perhaps some of the 100 advisers that General Petraeus has just appointed will point this out to him in forceful terms.