People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 29

July 18, 2010


Afghanistan: Dead End for the West


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE newly appointed US commander for Afghanistan, general David Petraeus, takes over at a time when the Taliban seem to have taken the upper hand. The general himself seems to have acknowledged that the facts on the ground are not conducive for the American military to score a decisive military victory anytime soon. While taking over command in Kabul, he told NATO and Afghan officials present at the ceremony that they were witnessing a “critical moment” in the country and that the US was engaged in “a contest of wills”. He tried to reassure his audience in Kabul and send out a message to the wider world that the US was in Afghanistan to “win” the war against the resurgent Taliban.


At the same time, general Petraeus also was particular to emphasise that he endorsed president Barack Obama’s plans to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by the middle of 2011. An increasingly emboldened Taliban has in recent weeks staged attacks on high profile American targets, including a military base. The death toll among NATO troops in Afghanistan in the month of June itself was over 100. More than half of those killed were American servicemen. This is the highest casualty rate recorded in a single month so far. General Petraeus has said that the Obama administration was not surprised by the rise in casualty figures among American and NATO troops. According to the general, the sudden rise in the number of deaths was connected to the military surge.


But many military analysts are of the view that the much vaunted military surge under general McChrystal against the Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, has failed to achieve its goals. An illustration of the Taliban blowback was the recent incident in Marjah, the epicentre of the recent American military surge. When the US special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke and the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, visited Marjah in late June to meet with local leaders, they were greeted with small arms fire from Taliban fighters in the vicinity. According to reports, three suicide bombers were also waiting in the vicinity to target the senior American officials, but their bombs went off prematurely.


The Obama administration had decided to implement an Iraqi style “military surge” in Afghanistan in February this year. The sharp increase in American military activity is scheduled to last for 18 months. The plan was to put the Taliban militarily on the back foot and then force them to the negotiating table. Things have not apparently gone according to the script. “Operation Moshtarak” launched in February, has not succeeded in getting either Marjah or Helmand out of Taliban control. McChrystal before his departure had described the Marjah campaign as a “bleeding ulcer” and warned NATO defence minister at a conference not to expect any significant progress in Afghanistan in the next six months. He described the Afghan resistance as “a resilient and growing insurgency”.


The general was particularly upset that the Obama administration did not give him the green signal to launch a frontal attack on Kandahar---the Taliban’s spiritual capital. With the numbers of American troops surging over 100,000, there is likely to be one last massive military onslaught to subdue the Taliban. This would mean the loss of more innocent lives in a country that has seen little peace since the 1980’s. In the last ten years, US air strikes and drone attacks on weddings, funerals and transport buses have killed thousands of innocent civilians.




The Afghan resistance has met the American military surge with a counter surge. Unlike in Iraq, where the Bush era surge was deemed as successful, the Americans are finding to their chagrin that in Afghanistan, the situation on the ground is more complicated. General Petraeus is the architect of the US military’s current counter-insurgency program (COIN) in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The military surge in Iraq was mainly confined to the Sunni insurgents in central Iraq. The Bush administration had successfully brought off key Sunni tribes. This strategy has apparently failed in Afghanistan where loyalty among Pashtuns and the desire to rid the foreign invaders from the country, has evidently triumphed over petty tribal rivalries.


The American military surge in the South seems to have only galvanised the Taliban, who have pushed forces into new areas, including the North, where their presence was minimal. Attacks on American soldiers in the East have shown a marked increase after the “surge”. President Hamid Karzai, had cautioned the Obama administration against the American military surge from the outset, saying that it would further alienate the populace. For the last couple of months, he has been repeatedly advocating talks with “our angry brothers”----the Taliban. The reports about the Afghan president having a secret meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban leader who is said to have the backing of the Pakistani military, have been denied by the Afghan government. Al Jazeera had reported in the last week of June that a face to face meeting between the two leaders had indeed taken place. According to reports in the Afghan and Pakistani media, the meeting was personally brokered by the Pakistani army chief, general Pervez Kiyani.   


The Afghan Taliban has been loudly insisting that they are amenable to talks only after the foreign forces depart from the country. President Karzai and the Pakistani government however are known to be working overtime to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. It will be a win-win situation for the Pakistan government if the Taliban is brought to the negotiating table. If there is a negotiated settlement to the conflict, Islamabad hopes to regain its so-called “strategic depth” in the region and keep its historic adversary, India at bay. The Pakistani media has reported that Islamabad has presented a “road map” to the Afghan president for a political settlement with the Haqqani faction of the Taliban.


A US state department spokesman acknowledged that the Obama administration is aware that the Afghan and Pakistani governments are holding direct talks with insurgent groups. He said that the US wanted Pakistan to play a supportive role in the broader peace process. Islamabad seems to be playing a key role once again in Kabul as the US starts its preparations to wind down its military presence in Afghanistan. In early June, New Delhi had agreed to discuss issues relating to Afghanistan with Islamabad. Islamabad has always been insisting that only Pakistan is in a position to bring about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. US officials have openly said that Pakistan has been helping some sections of the Taliban and other Islamic militant groups in an effort to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan and to ensure that a post-US Afghanistan reverts to a traditional pro-Islamabad stance. Karzai, who till the other day, used to accuse Pakistan for interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, today has become noticeably warm towards Islamabad and Beijing, while distancing himself from Delhi.


Senior anti-Taliban officials in the Karzai government like Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief and the interior minister, Hanif Amir, resigned in early June, reportedly in protest against Karzai’s decision to open channels of communications with the Taliban and other resistance groups. An end to the conflict in Afghanistan could help the Pakistani government to end the spate of terror attacks occurring on its own territory. Terrorism in the country has been spawned by the events in Afghanistan and the counter-insurgency methods adopted by the US, which has resulted in huge collateral damage to Pakistanis living across the Durand Line.




But hopes for an early peace deal in Afghanistan could be misplaced. In the last week of June, the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, while acknowledging that Islamabad was trying to broker a deal with the Taliban, said that the militants had not shown any “real interest” for reconciliation. Panetta admitted that the militants would not negotiate till they were convinced that they were on the losing side of the war. “I think that the Taliban is obviously engaged in greater violence right now. They’re doing more on IED’s (improvised explosive devices). They are going after our troops. There is no question about that”, Panetta told the American television network, ABC.


The steady stream of announcements by NATO countries that they are planning to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan is more encouraging news for the Taliban. The British prime minister, David Cameron, has said that he wants his country’s troops out of Afghanistan completely by 2015. The Dutch voters have brought down a government on the issue. The German defence minister, Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg warned in the last week of June that NATO countries needed to dramatically “scale down” their goals in Afghanistan. He also questioned the rationale for the launching of the Afghan invasion in 2001 in the first place. He said that there was an urgent need for NATO to lay out strict criteria before embarking on future wars. This, he said, was essential to prevent the organisation from being committed to open ended wars without defined political goals. Germany has 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the third largest military contingent after the US and the UK.


Ann Jones, an American writer, who was recently embedded with American troops in Afghanistan fighting on the frontlines, has succinctly summed up the American dilemma in Afghanistan. “If you spend time in Afghanistan, evidence of failure is all around you, including those millions of American tax payer’s dollars that are paid to Afghan security contractors (and Karzai’s relatives) and then handed over to insurgents to buy protection for US supply convoys travelling on the US built, but Taliban controlled, roads. Strategy doesn’t get much worse than that: financing both sides and every brigand in between, in hopes of a happier ending one day”, she wrote in a recent article.