Unwinnable Afghanistan?

2008-10-10 00:00

The main purpose of British generals, it sometimes seems, is to say aloud the things that American generals (and British diplomats) think privately but dare not say in public. Things like: “We’re not going to win this war.”

That was what Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, said last week at the end of his six-month tour in command of 16 Air Assault Brigade. His force saw a great deal of combat and lost 32 killed, but it didn’t lose any battles. Regular troops rarely lose battles against guerrillas. But there were no lasting successes either — which is also typical of wars where foreign troops are fighting local guerrillas.

Carleton-Smith did not say that the foreign forces in Afghanistan will lose the war. He said that they could not deliver a “decisive military victory”. The best they might do, over a period of years, would be to reduce the Taliban insurgency “to a manageable level ... that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army”.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement,” Carleton-Smith said, “then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.” The truth is that the foreign forces are backing one side in an Afghan civil war. If the war cannot end in a decisive victory for one side or the other, then it must end in a negotiated peace that is acceptable to both sides.

The reason neither side can win is that they are too evenly balanced and each can hold its own territory indefinitely. The U.S. allied itself with the main northern ethnic groups, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, who together account for about 60% of the population, in order to drive the Taliban from power in 2001. But the Taliban were and still are the major political vehicle for the Pashtuns, who are about 40% of the population.

The Pashtuns were traditionally the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, but in 2001 they were effectively driven from power by the other ethnic groups and their Western allies. That is why they are in revolt: the area where Western troops are fighting “the Taliban” are all the areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan where Pashtuns are in the majority and nowhere else. In practice, the foreigners are fighting Pashtun nationalism. That is why they cannot win.

On the other hand, and for the same reason, the Taliban cannot win a decisive victory either. They never established control over northern Afghanistan even when they ruled in Kabul in 1996-2001, mainly because the other ethnic minorities saw them as an exclusively Pashtun group. Moreover, most non-Pashtuns who did fall under their rule were alienated by their intolerance and brutality and would certainly not welcome them back in sole power.

But a negotiated peace deal must give the Pashtuns a fair share of power at the centre and that means giving the Taliban a share of the power. This is still seen as unthinkable in most Western capitals, but it is a thoroughly traditional Afghan way of ending the periodic ethnic bust-ups that have always plagued the country and it will happen sooner or later.

Does this mean that Afghanistan will re-emerge as a base for international terrorism? Unlikely, since it would not be to the advantage of any Afghan government, even one that included Taliban elements, to attract that kind of international opprobrium. Besides, international terrorists don’t need “bases” to prepare their attacks; a few rooms will do.

In a recently leaked diplomatic cable the deputy French ambassador in Kabul, François Fitou, reported that the British ambassador there, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, told him that the strategy for Afghanistan was “doomed to failure”. In Cowper-Coles’s view “the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption and the government has lost all trust”. The usual denials followed, but that is exactly what British officials there say in private.

So it would make sense to announce a deadline for pulling out the foreign troops and start negotiating for a final peace settlement in Afghanistan now. Waiting is un-likely to produce a better deal. Which is probably why President Mahmud Karzai said last week that he had asked the king of Saudi Arabia to mediate in negotiations with the Taliban.

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