In the late spring of 2005, British Lt. Gen. David Richards, Commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in southern Afghanistan, held a press conference in Khandahar not far from Britain’s old colonial base at Quetta, just across the border in Pakistan. In a speech that would have sounded familiar to Soviet commanders a generation earlier, he said he had “the force, the rules of engagement, and the caveat-free environment to do everything I need” to defeat the Taliban.
Three years later, British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles cabled London that the “security situation is getting worse,” that the government of Hamid Karzai has “lost all trust,” and that “the coalition, particularly its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
With the U.S. preparing to almost double its forces in Afghanistan, and pressing its European allies to increase their military commitments, we need to assess what happened between Richards’ bold boast and Cowper-Coles sober analysis? The answer is part illusion, part historical amnesia.
Poor and land-locked, Afghanistan is a gatherer of historical epithets.
To Greek, Muslim, and Buddhist conquerors, it was the “crossroads of Central Asia” and empires rose—and fell—in the shadow of its great mountain ranges. To 19th century colonial powers, it was a political chessboard, where the English and Russians played the “Great Game” amidst its searing deserts and freezing passes. Today Afghanistan is “the good war,” a moniker that distinguishes it from the catastrophe in Iraq.
But this “good war” is rapidly spinning out of control, drawing in neighbors, threatening the stability of the region, and sharpening differences between the U.S. and Europe, as well as among Europeans themselves.
Cowper-Coles is not alone in his assessment of the war. Brig. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s top military officer in Afghanistan, bluntly told the Sunday Times, “We’re not going to win this war.” Gen. Jean-Lois Georgelin, France’s leading military commander, agreed: “There is no military solution to the Afghan crisis.” Even the Chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, says Afghanistan is in “a downward spiral.”
That they should reach such a conclusion is hardly surprising.
According to the International Council on Security and Development Control, the Taliban control 72 percent of the country, up from 54 percent in 2005. The number of attacks on U.S. and NATO troops has risen from fewer than 100 a month to more than 600. NATO and the U.S. have lost more troops over the past year than they did in the first four years of the occupation, and civilian casualties from Coalition operations have risen by 21 percent.
The Taliban recently began attacking Coalition supply routes in Pakistan, through which 75 percent of the military goods bound for Afghanistan pass.
According to the Associated Press, the Taliban have created “shadow” or parallel governments throughout Afghanistan, including areas surrounding Kabul, which collect taxes, resolve disputes and mete out punishments.
“When in doubt, escalate the war, is an old imperial motto,” notes Pakistani historian Tariq Ali, and indeed the American surge bears a disturbing resemblance to the Southeast Asian War two generations ago, when in order to salvage a deteriorating situaltion, the conflict was spread from South Vietnam into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam. The escalation had quite the opposite effect.
Most European governments have concluded that a military “victory” is beyond the capacity of occupation troops, and have resisted sending anything but token reinforcements. In a sense they can do little else because polls indicate the war is deeply unpopular in virtually every European country, as well as in Canada and Australia.
The French, British and Italians are deploying a handful of troops, the Spanish are considering withdrawing, the German and Norwegian governments are deeply divided over the war, the Netherlands says it will leave by 2010, and the Canadians say they will be out by 2011.
Even some Americans have begun toning down talk of “winning” the war in Afghanistan, instead favoring a “surge” of troops that would “stabilize” the current downward spiral and create the conditions for reaching a political accord. As Roger Carstens, a former Special Forces officer and an analyst with close ties to the new administration, says,\ “What we need are more troops in Afghanistan because we need security, and eventually we will get a strategy.”
It is this kind of tail-first thinking that galls many Europeans, who want a specific exit plan. As French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently complained, “We need to know what their [President Obama’s] strategy is.”
Afghanistan is a country that seems to derange its occupiers, like the island of the lotus-eaters in Odysseus’s odyssey.
Gen. Davis’ Khandahar speech marked Britain’s fourth war in that country, a fact that should have suggested to the general that “force” is not particularly effective in Afghanistan.
More than that, the U.S. and NATO appear to have forgotten that the current crisis is a direct result of a similar surge in 2005. According to former British Foreign Service officer Rory Stewart, “When the decision to increase the number of troops in 2005 was made, there was no insurgency.” Thinking that the Taliban were on the ropes and eager to suppress the burgeoning opium trade, NATO poured troops into the countryside.
When the locals—many of them former Taliban who had returned to their villages following the 2001 U.S. invasion— resisted, the Coalition stepped up its aggressive tactics and increased the number of air strikes, tactics which ended up recruiting more foot soldiers for the Taliban.
Tribal leader Osama Jadaan Dulaimi told a U.S. reporter that Afghans now hated “the American occupiers” who demolished their houses with bombs and killed their families. “Now the people of Karabilah want to join the resistance against the Americans for what they did.”
In 2004, Helmand Province had 2,000 NATO troops and was relatively quiet. Today there are almost 10,000, and Helmand is arguably the most dangerous province in Afghanistan.
This resistance was interpreted as a challenge to the Bush Administration’s worldwide “war on terrorism,” in spite of the fact that the war in Afghanistan has always been a very local affair. As M.K. Bhadrakuman, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, says, “Political violence in Afghanistan is primarily rooted in local issues.”
As the war escalated, so did the rhetoric. “If we don’t succeed [in defeating the Taliban] in Afghanistan,” said James Jones, former NATO commander and President Barak Obama’s National Security Advisor, “you’re sending a very clear message to the terrorists organizations that the U.S., the U.N. and 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated.”
But rather than defeating the Taliban, the war has now spread to Pakistan and India. The recent attack on the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad was clearly a “blowback” from the Pakistani Army’s campaign in the Northwest Frontier and Tribal Areas, as well as from U.S. missile attacks on the Pakistan-based Taliban.
“Hellfire missiles, drones, special operations raids inside of Pakistan and the resulting death of innocents have fueled Pashtun nationalism,” says historian Ali. “It is this spillage from the war in Afghanistan that is now destabilizing Pakistan.”
The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and in the Northwest Frontier and Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
This border war has killed thousands of civilians, more than 2000 Pakistani soldiers, sparked the formation of a Pakistani Taliban, and cost more than $34 billion. With its economy in free fall, inflation and unemployment climbing, and foreign reserves dwindling, Pakistan cannot afford to shoulder the burden of an increasingly unpopular conflict. According to polls, 89 percent of Pakistanis oppose supporting the U.S. “war on terrorism.”
Another source of tension in Pakistan is India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan. New Delhi has sent road-building engineers into Southern Afghanistan and the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol to guard them. Pakistan, which has fought three wars with India, is deeply concerned about having Indian troops on both its borders.
What the war in Afghanistan increasingly resembles is Europe in July 1914, where regional tensions were so high that a local assassination could ignite a worldwide conflagration.
For most Americans and many Europeans, Afghanistan is a war between medieval Muslim extremists and modern secular democrats. Indeed, Afghanistan was sold to Europeans less as a war than as a development project that would boost the Afghan economy and bring water, power and education to the countryside.
But today’s Taliban is not the same as the organization that ruled Afghanistan in 2001. The invasion split the Taliban into three wings. One, led by Mullah Omar, retreated to Pakistan. Another—the wing that the 2005 surge stirred up—were local villagers who went home, buried their guns, and waited to see what would happen. A third wing simply surrendered, many of them ending up in the Karzai administration.
The Taliban have morphed from puritanical extremists to a much broader and more decentralized movement whose politics may vary from province to province. According to Waheed Mojda, a former Taliban foreign ministry aide, “It is a new updated generation. They are more educated and they don’t punish people for having CDs and cassettes.”
It has also developed a strong nationalist streak. “We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination,” says Taliban spokesperson Sari Yousef Ahmadi.
In contrast, the current government has little influence outside the country’s capital—Karzai’s nickname is “the mayor of Kabul”—and has allied itself to the war lords, whose corruption and violence led to the triumph of the Taliban in the first place. The Kabul government only survives because of the presence of U.S. and NATO soldiers and air power.
To the British in the 19th century, Afghanistan was a buffer to protect India, the jewel in its colonial crown. In the 20th century, the Soviets invaded to protect their southern borders from an insurgency underwritten by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
For the U.S., Afghanistan is a potential key that might open Central Asia’s oil and gas to exploitation by the West. It has also served to give the Americans a military presence in Central Asia.
The U.S. has long wanted to build a pipeline from the Caspian through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India in order to outflank Russia’s pipelines to Western Europe. That plan has taken on greater urgency in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian War, which demonstrated the vulnerability of western controlled pipelines in the southern Caucuses. With Kazakhstan’s huge Kashagan oil fields coming on line in 2013, a north-south pipeline would be a coup for Washington—provided Afghanistan were stable.
While the Europeans would like to get in on the Central Asia gas and oil rush, they—with the exception of a few countries—have been wary about Washington’s efforts to isolate Russia. After all, most of their energy supplies come from Russian pipelines, and few see any advantage to restarting a Cold War with Moscow.
Which is not to say that Europe does not have a major stake in Afghanistan as well.
The current war is the first deployment of NATO “out of area,” and there are many in the Alliance who would like to see the military pact go worldwide.
When Jones was NATO commander, he suggested the Alliance consider insuring oil deliveries from the volatile Gulf of Guinea. NATO even carried out a series of war games on the Cape Verde Islands that modeled intervening in a civil war over energy resources.
In a speech to the National Press Club in 2006, Jones said that NATO should no longer be viewed as an “area” alliance, because “our activities are definitely moving to the south and the east.”
NATO expansion into non-European areas is controversial. China and Russia are opposed to any NATO role in the Pacific, and neither is comfortable with Alliance troops on their borders. China is particularly sensitive because Afghanistan abuts its restive Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Russia, which supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, has become increasingly critical of the U.S. role in the region. In a recent speech to the World Policy Conference in Evian, France, Russian President Demitry Medvedev said that, following the overthrow of the Taliban, “the U.S. started a chapter of unilateral actions” as part of a drive to “consolidate its global role.”
It is no secret that Washington has a “Central Asia” strategy to isolate Iran, bypass Russia’s control of energy resources, and prevent China from emerging as a potential competitor. That general blueprint was laid out in President George W. Bush’s 2002 West Point speech, where he said the U.S. would accept no “peer competitor” in the world.
But any successful Central Asia strategy depends on a stable and friendly Afghanistan. It appears that the Obama Administration seems to think it can accomplish this through expanding the war.
However, there is hardly agreement among the NATO countries about what escalating the war would mean. For instance, the U.S. is lobbying hard for a war against Afghanistan’s opium industry. But a number of NATO countries, including Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy, are leery about targeting poppy fields because, they argue, it will pit them against the 500,000 local farmers involved in the industry. These countries also argue that narcotics are an issue for the police, not the military.
While it is true that drugs help arm the Taliban, they also pours\ money into the coffers of Karzai’s allies. Indeed, there are charges that the President’s brother is elbow deep in the drug trade. Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world’s opium, and the trade makes up about 13 percent of country’s GDP
A “surge” the size the Obama Administration is talking about is unlikely to have much impact. According to U.S. military doctrine, Afghanistan would require a force of at least 400,000 troops to even have a chance of stabilizing the country, although, given the Afghan’s history of resistance to occupation, even that figure is probably wildly optimistic.
There are about 82,000 U.S. and Coalition troops in Afghanistan, although many of the latter are not involved in combat operations. While the Afghan Army numbers 57,000, only a few units are capable of fighting on their own. The U.S. plans to increase the Afghan Army to 134,000, but how a country as poor as Afghanistan will afford an army of that size is not clear.
Besides expanding the Afghan military and police forces, the U.S. also plans to create tribal militias, much like those formed among the Sunni in Iraq. But according to the British Guardian, critics say the plan “would entrench tribal differences, bolster local warlords, spark sectarian conflict” and undo much of the U.N.’s work in the countryside. “We are not on board with that [plan]” says Canadian Defense Minster, Peter MacKay.
Diplomatically the U.S. strategy seems to be one aimed at dividing the “good” Taliban from the “bad” Taliban and forging an agreement with the former.
“There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of the political outcome to this [war]. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us,” says Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
But any “reconciliation” is fraught with complexities.
The Afghans are pretty clear about what they want: polls show 74 percent support negotiations and 54 percent favor a coalition government.
However, there are regional players who object to including any section of the Taliban in a Kabul government. Iran, for instance, is opposed to the Taliban’s streak of Sunni extremism, which they see as a threat to themselves, their allies in the Northern Alliance, and the Shiite Hazaras in central Afghanistan.
Iran is suspicious— with good reason—that Saudi Arabia is behind the push to bring the Taliban into an Afghan government. The Saudis are using their money and influence to try to isolate Iran, so Teheran smells a rat in any deal that includes the Taliban.
India has traditionally opposed the Taliban as well, seeing it as largely a creature of Pakistani intelligence. After the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, New Delhi would certainly find it hard to swallow an Afghan government that included the Taliban. The Indians blame Islamabad, specifically Pakistan’s intelligence services, for the attack.
Pakistan has traditionally seen Afghanistan as part of its strategic reserve, a place to fall back on if the more powerful Indian Army attacked it. It has been supportive of an Afghan government that includes the Taliban, but Islamabad is currently distracted by troubles with its own Taliban and the growth of Pushtun nationalism in its Northwest Territories.
The Taliban seem to be in a mood for compromise. Mullah Omar recently proposed a seven-point peace plan that no longer demands the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops as a precondition for negotiations. The plan calls for setting a “time table” for the withdrawal of foreign troops and suggests deploying troops from Muslim countries to lessen friction until a “consensus” government can be formed. The plan was delivered to the Saudi government, and several members of the Afghan parliament have endorsed it
A “surge,” however, might end up hardening positions on all sides and derailing the possibility of finally bringing the three-decade-old war to a close.
Like a black hole, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is sucking Europe, Russia, Central Asia, China, India, Iran and Pakistan into the American orbit. And while the war’s immediate impact is local and regional, the fact that it is also a NATO operation has global implications. A “defeat” could deeply damage the Alliance; a “victory” might tempt it seek new areas in which to intervene.
NATO began as a European alliance aimed at the USSR. It is now fighting in Central Asia, and— if it continues to follow Washington’s script— may find itself at war in Nigeria, occupying Somalia and Darfur, fighting Niger Tuaregs to defend French uranium mines, or patrolling hot spots in the Pacific.
Among its many epithets, Afghanistan has also been called “the graveyard of empires,” and it has certainly contributed to their decline in recent history: the British in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and the Americans in the 21st century. The question that Europeans will have to answer is: do they intend to follow in the same footsteps?