There have been a lot of stories crowding the headlines the first quarter of this year. Currently, of course, the news media is dominated by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the disturbing disappearance of flight MH370 – which is generating a number of conspiracy theories, some of them potentially credible. Earlier in the year the news was full of devastating weather conditions – ice storms in North America, floods in the UK and bush fires in Australia, just for starters! Then we had a new prime minister in Italy, yet more civil war in central Africa, the highs and lows of the Winter Olympics gracing our TV screens, the truly-dreadful slaughter in Syria grinding on relentlessly while its peace talks foundered incongruously, the Scots independence debate beginning to get decidedly rough, bankers continuing to get found out – with the US regulator now suing 16 major banks for alleged Libor rate rigging…and even – wait for it! – a ban on women wearing lacy underwear in Kazakhstan. (A true Borat moment, if ever there was one!)
So, in and amongst, it’s not entirely surprising that Afghanistan seems to have slipped below the radar for many. The murder of at least 15 people by a suicide bomber detonating himself in the busy market place of Maymana in Faryab province on Monday, is a potent reminder that the Afghanistan situation is far from resolved.
Yet 2014 may well turn out to be the most pivotal year for Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. By the end of this year there may be only a small number of foreign military trainers and advisors in the country, plus a small but unspecified number of American combat forces. If President Hamid Karzai continues to refuse to sign the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington, there may be no American troops at all officially in the country by December. If there are no Americans, then other countries’ military specialists may well follow the American exit.
So… just what kind of place Afghanistan will start to become during 2015? And has it been worth the blood and dollars of 12 years of invasion and insurgency?
Job well done?
A “job very well done” was what David Cameron was reported to have told British troops at Camp Bastion in a surprise visit there in December (Tamara Cohen, 2013). Unsurprisingly, Cameron’s remarks have been compared with George W Bush’s infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech given in May 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been overthrown in a matter of months. The subsequent insurgency cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, with Iraq still destabilised and teetering on the brink of civil war 11 years later.
For anyone who cares about what happens in Afghanistan and the machinations of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, a January radio interview by John Simpson (2014a) with Taliban leadership spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed makes depressing listening/reading.
Mujahed asserted that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan again after the remaining American troops either leave or cease to have any meaningful combat role by the end of 2014. Mujahed claimed that the takeover was already under way. “In the remote parts, everywhere is mojahedin Taliban. They’re moving around and have control over the villages…. Vast swathes of Helmund are under our control.” He acknowledged that Karzai’s government still had control of the main urban centres but went on to say: “The foreign forces … are so scared they’re confined to their bases.”
Simpson, BBC News World Affairs Editor, is a vastly-experienced journalist with extensive knowledge of the country and its problems. (In the 2001 invasion, he reported live as he entered Kabul, disguised in a burka, ahead of the Northern Alliance forces the Americans were using as ground troops (Jessica Hodgson, 2001).) In his commentary on the interview with Mujahed, Simpson questions his motives and expresses some scepticism towards his claims …yet he doesn’t at all dismiss them.
With all his experience and understanding, Simpson has credibility. If he acknowledges it’s a real possibility, then it probably is.
Nor is he the only authority pondering potential disaster in Afghanistan.
In December General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the British army, warned that the Taliban could retake some lost territory after troops leave. Key Afghan towns such as Musa Qala, where British troops suffered heavy casualties during the early phase of military operations in Helmand province, could be retaken by the Taliban as insurgents seek to regain lost territory. Moreover, Wall predicted the fighting could continue for some years unless “more moderate” elements of the Taliban could be “assimilated into the political process”. (Con Coughlin, 2013).
Even the US National Intelligence Estimate has predicted Afghanistan will descend into chaos if Kabul fails to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the Americans (Lyse Doucet, 2014). Karzai has been reported – eg: Leigh Thomas (2013) – as saying that James Dobbins, the special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had effectively told him during a recent visit to Kabul that, without a security agreement, there would be no peace. Karzai was reported as saying Dobbins’ remarks could be interpreted as meaning: “If you don’t sign the agreement, we will provoke fighting in your country, we will cause trouble…. Even if they are serious [about a complete withdrawal], they can’t push us up against the wall. What I’ve been hearing in recent days and heard in the past is classic colonial exploitation…. Afghans will not submit, they have already fought colonial masters, they don’t accept it.”
Karzai has said he will not ratify the agreement with Washington, despite it being endorsed by the Loya Jirga of tribal elders, due to the mistrust between himself and the Americans. Instead he believes his successor should ratify it after April’s presidential elections – but with tough new conditions added, including an end to raids on Afghan homes by American troops.
One of the points Simpson makes in his commentary on the interview with Muhjahed is that it was a military campaign against a weak and corrupt government that brought the Taliban to power in 1996. There is, in his writing, the clear implication that, without foreign protection, a continuation of the Karzai approach to government could well result in another Taliban takeover.
Certainly, at an estimated cost of $5bn (£3.3bn) a year, poverty-stricken Afghanistan cannot sustain an independent military operation against the Taliban. Both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police have suffered high casualty rates since the US and its United Nations-mandated ISAF allies handed over security responsibilities in June last year. They lack heavy weapons and don’t have the aircraft to call in when fighting across terrain. More than 2,700 civilians were killed and nearly 5,000 injured in 2013 alone (Dawood Azami, 2013).
The mess…and a ‘bigger picture’ approach to the mess
The 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda were a declaration of war perhaps equivalent to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
With a bit of Qu’ran-based arm-twisting for leaders of Muslim countries by Tony Blair, pretty much the rest of the world sanctioned or at least understood the US need to take on al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. The American invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban took just 2 months. What was left of the Taliban in Afghanistan were obliged to flee, with their surviving al-Qaeda allies, into Pakistan, from where the Taliban ethos had originated. It has been alleged consistently by the US and a number of other countries that the exiled Taliban received covert assistance from fairly high up in both the Pakistani government and its military intelligence – though the government in Islamabad officially broke with the Taliban after 9/11 (Julian Barnes, Matthew Rosenberg & Habib Khan Totakhil, 2010).
According to The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn (2014a) this week, the resurgence of the Taliaban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda-affiliated movements in general has to be seen in terms of American double-mindedness in supporting Saudi Arabia, a major buyer of American arms and to be supported as a bulwark against Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. Yet the Saudis are long known to have been key funders of Sunni extremism. Cockburn also castigates the Americans for failing to confront Pakistani military intelligence.
There are some flaws in Cockburn’s detailed and provocative analysis. For example, he never explains the American reluctance to tackle Pakistan’s military elite – though any number of suggestions are credible – eg: further destabilising a weak and corrupt government and turning it into another outright Afghanistan type of conflict.
Nonetheless, Cockburn’s analysis is invaluable because he sets Afghanistan in the context of failed American policies which have actually facilitated the growth of Sunni jihadism from the mountains of Afghanistan to the bloody skirmishes in Syria. There are far more Sunni Muslims advocating al-Qaeda’s visions now than there were at the time of 9/11 and arguably the number of jihadists has increased significantly since the Americans’ grandstanding in situ execution of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
In short, American foreign policy since 9/11 has been an unmitigated failure. Just in the Middle East…
- Iraq is destabilised, the government unable to exert its authority sufficiently while Sunni insurgents and Kurdish separatists have the country on the verge of civil war and disintegration
- Syria is only held together by Iranian and Russian support for the most ruthless and brutal campaign against the rebels and their civilian supporters
- Egypt, one of the Americans’ most important allies in the Middle East, has reverted to a military dictatorship, with its economy in ruins and fighting a spasmodic military campaign against the Islamic Brotherhood
- Libya is destabilised, with the post-Gadhafi government unable to assert its authority over the revolutionary militias, many of whom are being increasingly revealed to have strong jihadist elements
The facilitation of this chaos comes clearly from the United States giving out multiple mixed messages.
For the second half of the 20th Century American RED/ORANGE expediency propped up a number of the dictators with money and arms, initially as bulwarks against Communism and to gain leverage to minimise aggressive behaviour towards Israel. Many of the dictatorial regimes were secular in philosophy and the West turned a blind eye to their sometimes brutal suppression of religious movements. It’s notable that the Americans openly funded secular Saddam Hussein’s war against fundamentalist Shia Iran (1980-1988) – including the use of chemical weapons (Mark Phythian, 1997).
What made George W Bush decide in 2002 to take out Saddam the following year has yet to be satisfactorily explained – a PURPLE/RED desire to complete his father’s unfinished business from the First Gulf War in 1991? Whatever the motivation, the bungled occupation and the subsequent insurgency gave al-Qaeda affiliates the opportunity to strike at the hated Americans after their Afghan brothers were destroyed or driven out.
If the Americans in Iraq had pursued a policy based on Stratified Democracy, and worked with Iraqi culture and the patchwork of tribal identities and religious adherences, the Middle East today might be a different place. Instead their BLUE vMEME insisted on imposing Western-style Democracy as ‘the one right way’ for a country to be governed. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives have been lost as a result and America’s reputation stands in tatters in Iraq – symbolised by al-Qaeda-linked militants now controlling Fallujah, the battle for which cost 95 American lives and well over 1,000 Iraqis in 2004.
Elsewhere American BLUE has encouraged embryonic democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, with resultant significant loss of life and little real political gain – with the possible exception of Tunisia. In the meantime American ORANGE has continued to make huge profits from its relationship with the Saudis who have continued to facilitate, if not actually foster, Sunni extremism in these countries, making it difficult for any form of stable direction to take hold.
Meanwhile back in Afghanistan…
That you cannot separate out the fate of Afghanistan from Sunni extremism fermented out of Saudi Arabia runs all the way of Osima Bin Laden having been a member of the Saudi elite to the Taliban having opened an office in Riyadh this January.
But, of course, Afghanistan is not an Arab country and has some very different traditions.
Possibly, if the Americans and their allies had concentrated on rebuilding Afghanistan instead of going to war with Iraq, the Taliban might never have regained the ground they did. Don Beck (2002a) has long held that encouraging healthy ORANGE development in dysfunctional BLUE conflict zones through smart, targeted investments can move people beyond fossilised hate conflicts – as indeed the booming economy in the Irish Republic undermined support for the IRA’s campaign in Ulster in the 1990s. If only the Americans in 2003 had held off Iraq and instead developed the Afghan infrastructure and restructured its economy….
Tellingly, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein (2013), Peter Baker, a writer with access to many White House and Pentagon insiders, remarks: “There’s a quote in the book from a senior administration official who was really involved in the decision to invade Iraq and who regrets it now who says we went into Iraq because Afghanistan was so easy. We needed someone harder to beat; 9/11 felt like such a signal event that it required action and response beyond simply toppling the Taliban.” A RED/BLUE desire to be triumphant made further war more attractive than a BLUE/GREEN investment in society-building.
The Americans’ imposition of Democracy on a country epitomised by PURPLE/RED tribalism largely resulted in the election of manifestly corrupt ex-warlords to various positions of government and influence. A tribal culture where people ask the elders how to vote and may well vote along ethnic lines is not ready for a system which allocates responsibility to the individual to weigh up the issues for themselves individually and to vote accordingly.
Back in 2009 I wrote Why we must win in Afghanistan. I stick by the conclusions I reached then. For all the costs in blood and money, the West needed to ensure that Afghan territory could not again be used by extremists to launch attacks on American and European citizens and that it had in place the potential to develop healthy tribal systems which, one day, might grow into Democracy under the right conditions.
But the argument has moved on. The failure to stabilise Iraq and especially the turning of the Syrian civil war into a murderous sectarian conflict between Alawites and their Shia Hezbollah allies on one side and all manner of extremist Sunni groups on the other has put the entire Mideast belt from Jordan through to Afghanistan at risk of a complete Sunni vs Shia conflagration, with the potential of it dragging in Turkey and being played out in the streets of European cities with large mixed Sunni and Shia populations. There is even the far possibility of such a conflict, if dragged out over a considerable length of time, going nuclear. The Iranians are on the verge of getting the bomb while the Pakistanis already have a limited capability and have got an agreement with the Saudis to deploy from their territory (Mark Urban, 2013).
Afghanistan’s fate now appears to be tied in to the larger direction of Sunni extremism.
On the ground things in Afghanistan do not look good. Especially for Democracy. According to BBC News’ Bilal Sarwary, the Taliban have threatened to target anyone who takes part in the April polls and the country’s election commission has closed 396 polling centres in 15 provinces, citing security concerns.
So the Afghanistan situation is not only not resolved, it has become a piece of the larger turmoil spilling out across North Africa and into Central Asia. Barrack Obama and David Cameron are not bringing the troops home because the conflict has been decided or the threat diminished; they’re bringing the troops home because they don’t know what else to do and their publics are sick of the costs in blood and money of ill-thought-out and badly-managed wars that seem to drag on endlessly and without anyone in charge seeming to have any idea how to win – or even what victory would look like.
Job not done!