Afghanistan: A war that can never be won?
The blood-stained and charred remains in one of the homes targeted in last
weeks fatal gun rampage by Staff Sgt Robert Bale, below. Main picture: AP
By DANI GARAVELLI
Published on Sunday 18 March 2012 00:00
One fatal disaster after another has left the coalition's hopes of
succeeding in Afghanistan at an all-time low, writes Dani Garavelli
THEY sat in the presidential palace in Kabul, their faces etched with grief
and rage. The relatives of the 16 people slaughtered by a US soldier who
rampaged through their village as they slept last week had come to be
consoled by the country's leader Hamid Karzai. But most of all they wanted
answers. How had a man on his fourth tour in a war zone been able to leave
his base in the Panjawi district of southern Kandahar unchallenged and
embark on a night-time killing spree which claimed the lives of three women
and nine children? Was the attack the work of one unstable gunman - as the
US maintains - or could more soldiers have been involved? And - most
explosively - why had the country which is supposed to be helping the Afghan
people embrace democracy spirited the alleged perpetrator across the border
to Kuwait and then to the US military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas,
instead of allowing him to stand trial in Afghanistan?
Two of the villagers broke down in tears. Another, whose brother was one of
the victims, said: "I don't want any compensation. I don't want money, I
don't want a trip to Mecca. I don't want a house. I want nothing. But what I
absolutely want is the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my
demand, my demand and my demand."
A sombre Karzai was unable to provide answers. But he was forthright in his
criticism of the US. Days after he called for all combat troops in rural
outposts to be moved back to their bases, he told the relatives he had tried
to talk to the US soldier, rumoured to have suffered brain damage in Iraq,
but that the Americans had refused to co-operate in any way. "This behaviour
can no longer be tolerated," he said, as he stressed the Afghan people's
trust in the coalition forces had been eroded.
It is not the first time the Kabul palace has been at the centre of a drama;
the building has witnessed many explosive events, from the murder of
president Hafizullah Amin by the Soviets in 1979 to a rocket attack three
years ago. But rarely, in this current conflict at least, have the political
stakes for the Afghan government and its Western allies been so high.
The massacre has heightened tensions already raised by the burning of copies
of the Koran by US troops and the deaths of six British soldiers killed when
their vehicle hit a Taleban bomb on 6 March. With the deadline for
withdrawal set for the end of 2014, the villagers' anger and Karzai's
increasingly aggressive rhetoric underlined the rapidly deteriorating
chances of the coalition forces leaving a lasting legacy in an increasingly
Although few would argue that some advances have been made - two million
girls now go to school and women make up a quarter of the parliament - the
fear is that the existing timetable for withdrawal leaves little time to
ensure the Afghan government is ready to rule and the Afghan National Army
Special Forces is ready to guarantee the safety of its citizens.
With tentative talks with the Taleban on hold (because of a lack of progress
on the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and the Taleban's reluctance
to deal with Karzai), domestic support for the war waning, and David Cameron
and Barack Obama under increasing pressure to accelerate the removal of
troops, some unforgiving questions are now being asked.
Do we now have to confront the possibility that withdrawal may ultimately be
synonymous with defeat? Have allied forces done enough to ensure the gains
made in Afghanistan will be sustained, or will the troops' departure signal
the country's implosion into civil war? And, as Nato is met with a cascade
of unexpected challenges, is the much-vaunted exit strategy - in the words
of Henry Kissinger - "all exit and no strategy".
One of the difficulties with assessing "victory" or otherwise in Afghanistan
is that the endgame has never been precisely defined. Initially, a war of
reprisal, aimed at ridding the country of al-Qaeda, punishing the Taleban
for giving them quarter and ensuring they could never flourish there again,
the emphasis has shifted over the years to counter-insurgency and securing a
better future for the people of Afghanistan - a concept that has been
increasingly difficult to sell to the US and British publics, especially as
the death toll has mounted.
"The real tragedy of Afghanistan is that the initial intervention in the
aftermath of 9/11 was very successful," says former deputy SAS commander
Clive Fairweather. "The major error was that from the end of 2002/3, the
switch to the war of revenge and regime change in Iraq took the focus from
Afghanistan for four or five years, during which the central government
didn't develop. In 2006, we thought we were going back to the same situation
and didn't send enough resources - had we had the big push then, things
might have been different."
Politically, Fairweather says, the problem is that coalition forces haven't
really been able to influence central government, failing to crack down on
corruption which has seen millions of dollars taken out of the country. "Now
we're worried it's all going to implode because the central government isn't
strong enough," he says.
Few would argue that no advances have been made. "I have met some wonderful
Afghans who are thrilled that women are able to go to school, to be able to
participate in government. This is not a story that's being communicated
because unfortunately, the Taleban delivers a strong and powerful
counter-narrative," says Dr Alexis Crow, an expert in military strategy at
But the political and public willpower, which began to disintegrate after
the capture of Osama Bin Laden, has collapsed as the body count has risen
(passing the 400 mark in the UK) and it has become clear this is a war the
West can no longer afford to wage.
With the US presidential election approaching, the economic crisis showing
no sign of abating and the spectre of an Israeli attack on Iran looming
large, Obama and Cameron need to get out of Afghanistan with some
Since the scramble for the exit began, attention has been focused on
ensuring a successful transition and on promulgating the message that the
Afghans are almost ready for self-governance. But the events of the last few
weeks - beginning with the burning of copies of the Koran - have shown in
the most brutal way, how far from stable Afghanistan continues to be.
Some believe the United States' handling of the fall-out from the massacre
has inflamed the situation. "The fact the US has removed this officer from
the country is very clear evidence that they're not necessarily dealing with
it well," says Crow. "What would have been a much more favourable option in
terms of sending a good message to the Afghans is bringing someone like that
to justice in Afghanistan."
But the sheer relentlessness of the bad news which continued its onslaught
when a helicopter carrying Turkish troops crashed into a house on the
outskirts of Kabul on Friday, killing 14, two of them girls on the ground,
must make the coalition forces feel the fates are against them.
Karzai's shifting position as he tries to deflect criticism from all sides
isn't helping. His insistence that Afghan forces can fend for themselves -
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - is undermining Nato's
strategy, while his decision to sign off on a code of conduct for women that
says they must not travel unaccompanied by a man or mix with men in offices
or schools has been interpreted as evidence he is selling out to the
fundamentalists in advance of peace talks.
Yet such talks are vital. Indeed, the Taleban's decision to break off
negotiations was one of the most depressing developments last week, as
engaging the more moderate voices within the factionalised movement is
regarded as the only way to secure lasting peace.
Major-General Andrew Mackay, who commanded the British military presence in
Helmand in 2007, has been gloomy about Afghanistan for some time, but he
hasn't given up hope. "I still think there's a number of factors that, if we
add them into the mix, might allow us to have a positive outcome," he says.
He points out that - though the Afghans are tired of the conflict and want
it to finish - the fact that the insurgents were formerly the government,
means they have a good sense of what will happen if the Taleban take
"Any Afghan I ever spoke to was acutely conscious that there's got to be
some sort of accommodation with the Taleban, but they don't want it to be an
accommodation where the Taleban gain power," he says. "The Taleban are
people who live in their communities, not some homogenous grouping; there
are many factions in the Taleban. They're not all ideologically driven."
Mackay says some hope, too, is to be found in the fact that the Quataris are
willing to step up to the plate and try to help make political dialogue
"I have heard people being dismissive of that, but the Quataris have a track
record," Mackay says. "They played a major role in peace negotiations in the
Lebanon, they played a major role in bringing Hamas and Fatah to some kind
of resolution and they are willing to commit not just resources, but the
idea of a Taleban Embassy and the idea of housing Taleban prisoners from
Guantanamo," he says.
Yet even if Obama and Cameron stand firm against demands to accelerate the
withdrawal, and the Taleban come back to the table, it seems unlikely any
huge advances will have been made by the end of 2014, especially as the
talks so far have been nascent - more talks about talks than substantive
"Much will depend on the level or degree of momentum. At the moment, there
are so many contradictions. The US is saying the Taleban must renounce
violence, the Taleban are saying all foreigners must go," Mackay says. "I'm
not disheartened by those contradictions - they will always be there in
long-running conflicts. It's only when you begin to talk that you can
explore areas of compromise; to see what might be possible. But look at
peace negotiations throughout history. They take many, many years. These are
not things that are done easily, especially when you think the conflict in
Afghan has been going on for 30 years."
Yet time is not on the coalition forces' side. And Karzai's anti-western
rhetoric and his demands - if met - will only make achieving their goal more
difficult. Nato commanders, after all, see the rural outposts in
insurgent-plagued provinces as essential to their goal of providing enough
security for the Afghan government to take root.
"One of the crucial parts of the strategy is teaching Afghan national
security forces to take care of their own national security, yet
increasingly we've seen what's referred to as green on blue killings -
that's ANSF [Afghan security forces] turning on ISAF [International Security
Assistance Force] troops. That's the most worrying thing," says Crow.
The academic recounts the Taleban slogan that dates back to the Soviet
invasion: "'While you have the watches, we have the time.' In other words,
while you have great firepower and technology, we have all the time in the
world," she explains. "While for you this is just a misadventure, for us
it's a serious war for political gain, for political survival."
The truth of this may become all too apparent in the next few months. "The
snow is melting across the Hindu Kush now - this is the fighting season
opening," Crow points out. "The Taleban commanders will come in from
neighbouring Pakistan ready to fight - and I don't know to what extent our
domestic public's going to be willing to put up with many more losses."
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Received on Mon Mar 19 2012 - 17:07:50 EDT