NATO's Afghan Quagmire
By Patrick Seale
8 February 2008
NATO -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- is the world's most powerful military alliance. It has two million men under its command, a thousand helicopters and countless other military resources. Yet it is facing failure, if not actual defeat, in Afghanistan. Why?
The answer is simple. The Afghan war was misconceived from the very start. It was decided in rage and haste by Washington, without proper thought or planning, in response to al-Qaida's 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.
Instead of patiently tracking down al-Qaida's leaders by police and counter-terrorist methods, the United Sates launched an all-out war against Afghanistan with the declared goal not only of smashing Al-Qaida, but also the Taliban regime which, willingly or unwillingly, was giving it sanctuary.
Instead of seeking to separate al-Qaida from its Taliban hosts – which would have been the sensible thing to do -- the U.S. war has cemented them together, with the result that, five years on, NATO is today fighting not just a small band of al-Qaida extremists, but a mass tribal movement, which enjoys strong support from its brothers across the 2,500 kilometre Afghan-Pakistan border.
Yet al-Qaida and the Taliban are very different creatures. Al-Qaida is a militant group of dedicated Islamic fighters – Arabs, Chechens, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Uighurs and others -- of global reach and international aims. These aims include fighting America, fighting Western and Israeli occupation of Muslim lands, and overthrowing pro-Western regimes, in particular the ruling al-Saud family in Arabia.
The Taliban, in contrast, are a local not an international movement. Their prime aim is the security of their tribal areas, free from foreign attack and intervention, on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier – a frontier drawn by Britain in 1893 which the local tribes have never recognised.
Whether they are called Pashtuns on the Afghan side of the border or Pathans in Pakistan's adjacent tribal areas, they are one and the same people, dreaming of a united 'Pashtunistan.'
If one American mistake was to merge al-Qaida and the Taliban into a single enemy, another was to imagine that Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI – itself made up largely of Pathans – could be mobilized effectively against the Taliban.
The war in Afghanistan is almost certainly unwinnable. Instead of going in deeper, as the U.S. is urging, NATO should plan an exit strategy. That would be the sensible option.
All the indications are that the war is going badly. Security has steadily deteriorated since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. Insurgency activity has intensified every year. Suicide bombings have greatly increased and casualty rates have soared. The Taliban have re-grouped and are now vigorously on the warpath.
Kabul itself is no longer safe. On 14 January, multiple suicide attacks on the Serena Hotel killed eight people during a visit by the Norwegian Foreign Minister. On 31 January, the deputy governor of Helmand province and five others were killed in an attack on a mosque.
At the same time, U.S. blunders continue to inflict casualties on Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces. On 25 January, for example, nine Afghan police were killed in a firefight with U.S troops – an incident described by the U.S. as a 'misunderstanding.'
The United States has been urging its allies to commit more troops to the fight against the Taliban. But several NATO member countries are refusing to comply. Germany, for instance, has 3,200 men in Afghanistan, based in the relatively peaceful northern part of the country. It has rejected a U.S. appeal to redeploy them to the volatile Helmand province in the south. The Canadians would like to pull out their contingent altogether.
Several Western leaders are beginning to doubt the wisdom of the American-led war. The Afghan war has, in fact, become a subject of intense controversy inside NATO, threatening the alliance with a major split.
Strong words will be exchanged when NATO defence ministers meet this week at Vilnius in Lithuania, and it is doubtful whether a full-scale row can be avoided when NATO heads of state and government hold their summit meeting in the Romanian capital of Bucharest in early April.
Part of the trouble is that the war in Afghanistan has been portrayed -- mistakenly but repeatedly -- as a 'test case' for the alliance, a sort of make or break affair. Either NATO can prove itself by defeating the Taliban or it will be shown to be a paper tiger. This is a mistaken approach.
In the United States itself, influential voices have arisen in the Congress and among former senior officers expressing alarm at the absence of an over-arching strategy. The most telling criticism has come from a former NATO Supreme Commander, General James Jones, who in a recent report deplored the lack of a 'clear and consistent comprehensive strategy.'
Three aspects of the scene spell doom for NATO's war effort. First, instead of confronting Afghan's predatory warlords, President Hamid Karzai has brought them into his government. This is predictable behavior by a weak leader who, unsure of how long he can depend on fickle foreign backers, needs powerful local friends.
Secondly, the Afghan National Army, on which the U.S, has spent billions of dollars, suffers from mass desertions and is widely believed to be infiltrated by Taliban sympathizers.
Thirdly, the Afghan police force is thoroughly corrupt, largely because of the flourishing drug trade. In 2007, Afghanistan produced a record 8,200 tons of opium, twice as much as in 2005 -- accounting for 93 per cent of the world's heroin. Fifty percent of the crop was produced in Helmand province which, not surprisingly, is the scene of the heaviest fighting.
On 29 January, an unmanned Predator aircraft, operated by the CIA Special Activities Division, launched a missile inside Pakistan against an al-Qaida target in North Waziristan – apparently without the authorization of the Pakistan government. A senior al-Qaida commander, Abu Laith al-Libi, is believed to have been killed, together with many others.
The CIA can claim a success but, rather than isolating al-Qaida, such operations offend Pakistan and cement al-Qaida's ties with the Taliban.
America's two wars -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- were fought against the wrong enemy, with catastrophic consequences for the countries concerned and for America itself.
Iraq had no link whatsoever with Al-Qaida, yet it was smashed. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and millions more displaced. Material damage is incalculable. Four thousand US troops have died and perhaps as many as 40,000 seriously wounded. The enormous sum of some $600 billion has been squandered -- and the absurd war goes on at a cost of $12billion a month. Rarely in modern history has there been such a criminal enterprise.
The Afghan tragedy is not yet on this scale. But the longer it continues – the more men and resources are thrown at it -- the more the United States and its allies will find themselves embroiled inextricably in an unwinnable tribal war such as defeated the British army in the 19th century.