NATO in need of an exit strategy in Afghanistan
Thursday, 03 April 2008
LAST Monday, March 31, two British marines and one Danish soldier were killed in a firefight with Taleban in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. This brought the number of international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year to over 30.
For what noble cause have these young men died?At their summit meeting in Bucharest this week, NATO heads of state have discussed how to boost the Alliance's war effort in Afghanistan. They should instead have debated how to reach a peace settlement with the insurgents - and how to get out. NATO has evidently got itself into a colossal muddle in Afghanistan. Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. It is far from clear why the Alliance is fighting there at all, and what it is seeking to achieve. Talk of 'victory' is a dangerous illusion.
In 2003, there were 20,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. By 2007, this number had trebled to 60,000 - and is shortly to increase further with the arrival of another 3,200 US Marines and a further 1,000 French soldiers, as President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to the anger and dismay of the Socialist opposition. That he chose to make this pledge in the British Parliament, during his recent state visit to Britain, rather than in the French National Assembly has not helped his cause.
Has this vast increase in troop levels brought added security to the country? Is peace breaking out? Are reconstruction and development of the war-torn country progressing? Has opium growing been eradicated, or at least curbed? Alas, quite the contrary.
Violence and deaths have increased steadily over the past five years, with attacks on foreign troops now running at a rate of 500 a month. In 2007, there were no fewer than 140 suicide attacks - the most dreaded and lethal form of attack. As Westerners are often targeted, they live in fear, restrict their movements and therefore cannot help much with reconstruction and development. Far from being eradicated, opium production has increased year by year and narco-traffic is booming.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Afghanistan knows that this is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, profoundly attached to its customs and traditions. It is a country of tribes, clans and warlords, of mountains and deserts. What most Afghans have in common is pride and a fierce attachment to their country - as well as a visceral hatred of foreign domination.
This was a lesson the British learned to their cost in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s. It is a lesson the United States and its NATO allies are painfully learning in their turn. A leading French expert on Afghanistan, Professor Gilles Dorronsoro, believes that NATO's key blunder has been the attempt to impose a Western model of modernization on Afghanistan, where it is inevitably seen as a foreign import. The goals of democracy, of a market economy and of gender equality may be embraced by a small elite in Kabul, but are rejected in much of the countryside, where they face incomprehension and hostility.
President Hamid Karzai's state is a fiction. It controls only 30 percent of the territory - the rest is in the hands of warlords or insurgents - and has only a tenuous grip on the economy.
The West may seek to demonize the Taleban as medieval barbarians, alien to Afghan society. The truth, however, would seem to be that they are very much a home-bred product. Although originally almost exclusively Pashtun, the insurgency has now spread beyond the Pashtun areas, pointing to the Taleban's growing support.
In 2006-07, there was a notable change of sentiment in Afghanistan. The idea took hold that NATO and the Americans were losing the war. This alone should have persuaded the heads of state gathered in Bucharest this week that it was time to bring this thankless neo-colonial military adventure to a close.
An astonishing statistic is that American forces in Afghanistan cost the American taxpayer $100m a day - or, currently, $36 billion a year. So far, since 2001, the United States has spent $127 billion on the war in Afghanistan. One can only weep at such a waste of resources.
In contrast, total international aid to Afghanistan - on which the Kabul government depends for 90 percent of its expenditure - has averaged only $7 million a day since 2001. Half the promised aid has failed to arrive - there is a $5 billion shortfall - while two-thirds of the aid was not channeled through government institutions at all. A lot of it was squandered inefficiently or was diverted into private pockets. The result has been an explosion of corruption, which may be observed in million-dollar houses in Kabul.
These facts and figures are taken from a recent report by ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), which has the difficult task of coordinating the work of 94 NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) working in Afghanistan, including such major NGOs as Oxfam and CARE.
What the ACBAR report makes damningly clear is that some 40 percent of the aid money finds its way back to the donor countries, one way or another, mainly in the form of salaries to expatriates. An expatriate consultant can cost between $250,000 and $500,000 a year.
If seeking to impose a Western model on Afghanistan has aroused local opposition, another even greater source of hostility is the large-scale use of airstrikes, especially by American forces. Millions of tons of bombs have been dropped on Afghanistan in pursuit of a policy of "killing the enemy."
These have inevitably caused the death of hundreds of Afghan civilians and much material "collateral damage." Breaking into homes, ignoring local customs and showing disrespect for ordinary Afghans has also created immense anger. The result has been to bring large segments of the population over to the Taleban side. As in Iraq, far from pacifying the country, US strategy has created an enemy bent on revenge.
There is much talk in Washington these days of taking the war to the Taleban in the tribal areas of West Pakistan. Already, US airstrikes pay no attention to the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is as if the frontier had ceased to exist. Even Barack Obama, the leading Democratic presidential candidate and a stern critic of the Iraq war, has spoken of "cleaning out" Pakistan's tribal areas.
This is dangerous talk. Pakistan is seething with angry opposition to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan and, more generally, to US President George W Bush's war on terror.
Some experts believe that a large-scale Western ground incursion into Pakistan's tribal areas could split the Pakistan army, bring down President Pervez Musharraf, and put an end to any security cooperation with the West.
On a visit to Islamabad in late March, John Negroponte, the US Deputy Secretary of State, was surprised to hear that the leaders of Pakistan's new coalition government - former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari (the late Benazir Bhutto's husband) - want talks with the Taleban rather than military strikes.
"One is dealing with irreconcilable elements who want to destroy our very way of life. I don't see how you can talk with those kinds of people," Negroponte was quoted as saying. It would be in NATO's, and Washington's, interest to find out - and the sooner the better.