Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Russia Today Cross Talk

Michael Glackin discussing Afghanistan on Russia Today's Cross Talk

Friday, 21 September 2012

No more pretending in Afghanistan

The Daily Star, Friday September 21 2012

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, insisted on Tuesday that NATO’s sudden decision to suspend joint patrols with Afghan forces will have a “minimal” impact on Western actions in Afghanistan. The decision, which followed the latest so-called “green on blue” shootings – where coalition troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers or policemen – has led to cries from all quarters that NATO’s Afghan policy, or “strategy” as the British government has suddenly taken to calling it, is in tatters.

The strategy, such as it is, rests on building up the Afghan army to a force of 370,000 and training the raw recruits through joint patrols with coalition forces. The idea is for the Afghans to gradually take over responsibility for security when NATO’s largely American and British combat force withdraws from the Afghan conflict in 2014.

Yet how can Western forces leave Afghanistan if the replacement forces cannot be trained to take over? The reality is that this week’s announcement finally kills the notion that the withdrawal of Western troops in the next two years hinges on training Afghan forces so that they can adequately fill the security vacuum.

So for once Hague is right. The decision to suspend, or “scale down,” joint patrols won’t affect American or British strategy one jot. And the reason for this is that the only strategy Washington and London are firmly committed to is an exit strategy. They don’t care what shape the Afghan army is in when they leave. Afghanistan will be left to the Afghans, whether their army is capable of policing the country or not.

Earlier this year a British official told me privately that the priority for Her Majesty’s Government was simply to “get out before it gets worse and leave it to the Afghans.” Now, by suspending joint patrols, NATO is effectively stating this publicly. And yet the United States and the United Kingdom have long been aware that the Afghan army is unequal to the task of taking responsibility for security, regardless of how many joint patrols they have organized with coalition troops.

In the limited number of operations they have led against the Taliban – which account for less than a third of all operations – the Afghans have been incapable of operating without the backup of NATO troops and air power. Speaking earlier this year, Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, an American and the second highest ranking soldier in Afghanistan from July 2011 until June 2012, conceded that only 1 percent of Afghan battalions could operate independently.

Short of an unlikely peace deal with the Taliban, the West will exit a country that is, at best, divided between the Taliban, local warlords and the moth-eaten administration of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul; or, at worst, in the throes of civil war. Poverty and death are rife in Afghanistan, and corruption within all branches of government flourishes. As in Iraq, the great beacon of democracy that the West promised would burn bright in Afghanistan will remain unlit as the U.S. and the U.K. scramble toward the exits in the darkness.

Tuesday’s announcement will at least save the lives of some coalition soldiers. The facts speak for themselves. Fifty-one NATO troops have been killed by Afghan forces so far this year – 15 in August alone. Last year there were 35 deaths from green on blue attacks. Yet in 2008, there were just two deaths from insider attacks. Many in the military believe the recruitment drive is to blame for the recent sharp increase.

The desire to build up the Afghan army to a strength of 370,000 has been crucial to providing visible cover for the withdrawal of Western troops. In the last year Afghan national security forces have grown rapidly to around 350,000, from 280,000 a year earlier. However, military insiders believe the race to increase troop numbers before 2014 has led to a sharp decline in the vetting of volunteers. This has allowed so-called rogue elements to get into uniform and kill unsuspecting NATO soldiers. It has even been claimed that one of the gunman in the latest attacks is related to a senior Taliban leader.

In the light of the suspension of joint patrols, and the deaths that led to the decision, there will of course be arguments in the United Kingdom about the continued merit of deploying troops to a war the West is determined to abandon. You can see the critics’ point.

NATO troops aren’t safe from their comrades in arms, the men they are fighting alongside and whom the West is relying on to fight and contain the Taliban once coalition troops leave.

Whether you believe the Taliban are coordinating these insider attacks or accept the official military line that the killings stem from personal grievances among individual Afghan soldiers is irrelevant. NATO has blown the opportunity to make Afghanistan a better place. The West has lost. And when Western countries are not even pretending to train Afghan troops, is there really any point in hanging around until 2014? Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

More blood in an aimless Afghan war

The Daily Star
Tuesday March 27 2012
By Michael Glackin

In a month that saw six British soldiers killed in Kandahar, the worst loss of life suffered by British troops in a single incident since 2006, and the massacre of 17 helpless Afghans – including nine children – at the hands of a U.S. soldier, it was inevitable there would be renewed questions about the course of the war in Afghanistan.

And so there has been, from an increasingly war weary and skeptical public, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. Unfortunately, there have been few answers from the politicians.

Instead, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama, the leaders of the countries with the largest contingents in Afghanistan, repeat that stabilizing the country will reduce the risk of terrorist attacks at home. Yet both have set the date when their combat forces will be withdrawn, despite the fact that the efforts of the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan continue unabated.


In between jokes in the White House Rose Garden last month, both leaders insisted that the upsurge in violence had not affected the end of 2014 withdrawal deadline. Cameron even admitted that the U.S. and U.K. would leave Afghanistan without a “perfect democracy” in place, and with “huge developmental problems.” Stable government and improvement of the lives of Afghans have ceased to be priorities in Washington and London. The priority, as one British official told me, is to “get out before it gets worse and leave it to the Afghans.”

Nor does it apparently matter that American and British military sources doubt that the Afghan National Army will be capable of taking full responsibility for security when coalition troops leave in 2014 – let alone next year, as President Hamid Karzai demanded in the wake of the killing spree by the American soldier.

Some insist that this spring’s “fighting season,” when Taliban activity usually increases, will be a “good test” of the Afghan military, which has doubled in size to around 300,000 troops in the last year. But size isn’t everything. The Afghan army was unable to operate without the backup of coalition troops and air power in the limited number of operations (30 percent) that it has led against the Taliban. Speaking in February, Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, an American and the second highest ranking soldier in Afghanistan, conceded that only 1 percent of Afghan battalions were able to operate independently.

Barack Obama insists there is “no rush to the exits.” However, he needs to go into November’s presidential election saying he has ended both wars started under President George W. Bush. Cameron meanwhile is under increasing public pressure to end British involvement in a highly unpopular war. More than 2,000 people lined the streets to greet the coffins carrying the remains of the soldiers killed in Kandahar when they were returned to the U.K. last week.

Many in the U.K. believe it is obscene to continue fighting when Obama and Cameron have decided that the war is over and are not concerned of the condition in which they leave Afghanistan. Small wonder that the Taliban have abandoned the “preliminary peace talks” with the U.S. in Qatar. What have they to gain by them? What do Western negotiators say to the Taliban: “If you keep killing our troops we will leave Afghanistan in 2014”? How does that coerce or encourage the Taliban to scale down their murderous activities?

Despite the fact that the 2014 withdrawal deadline was generally agreed at a NATO summit in 2010, there is still no precise timetable either for the military drawdown or for bringing some elements of the Taliban into the tent of government, surely the ultimate objective in any negotiations with the movement.

Cameron, as a junior partner in the conflict, is waiting for Obama to fill in the details, and the U.S. president won’t do that until May. That is when a scheduled NATO summit will take place in his hometown of Chicago, and when his re-election campaign will begin in earnest.

It all smacks of soldiers’ lives, and those of the Afghan people, being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. The failure to set out a definitive withdrawal strategy has created a deadly vacuum for British and American troops who remain on a front line that their leaderships are now committed to abandoning.

So why are these soldiers still being made to risk their lives?

One of the original remits of the invasion was to “deny Al-Qaeda space in which to train and operate in Afghanistan,” and destroy the Taliban regime that protected them. Part of that has been achieved. Al-Qaeda is now happily ensconced in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. But the Taliban remain undefeated. Western military power and a couple of dodgy elections have kept Karzai in power in Kabul, but the south and east of Afghanistan remain under Taliban control.

The idea that the presence of coalition troops in Afghanistan is essential to the West’s domestic security is, sadly, laughable. And another justification for the war – to establish democracy, complete with rights for women – has also been abandoned. Karzai’s recent endorsement of an Islamic code permitting, among other things, wife beating, has helped undermine that facet of the Afghan campaign.

Then there is the role of troops in stamping out the Afghan heroin trade, which former British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted was a key element in the war on terror. Unfortunately production has increased from a mere 185 tons before the war in 2001, to 5,800 tons last year, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. estimates that 15 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP now comes from drug-related exports, with the trade having a net worth of around $2.5 billion.

As happened in Iraq, the remit for the military operation is being redefined so much that it has now become completely meaningless. There are no winners in this war. And the longer it goes on, directionless and unnecessarily, the more losers there will be.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The time for talk on Syria is over

The Daily Star
Tuesday, February 14 2012
By Michael Glackin

Here’s a thought. Imagine that Russia and China had supported the recent diplomatic maneuvers at the U.N. Security Council to further isolate Syria. What difference would it have made to the innocent people currently being gunned down by President Bashar Assad’s troops? Absolutely none.

The limits of diplomacy are laid bare in the daily death toll on the streets of Homs, where more than 400 civilians are understood to have been killed in the government’s offensive against the city. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces since the first demonstrations began 11 months ago, with some estimates putting the figure much higher. In Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa the British government believes that thousands of Syrians have suffered torture and sexual violence, including possible instances of the rape of children.

Assad is a desperate man who no longer cares that he presides over what is now the most violent country in the Middle East. And the murder, or “some mistakes committed by some officials,” as the Syrian president memorably described the human carnage during an interview with American journalist Barbara Walters, will continue in the absence of decisive action by the rest of the world.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have firmly ruled out military action and insist that they have no intention of arming the still bitterly divided Syrian opposition. British Foreign Secretary William Hague was at pains in the first week of February to stress that his government has had “no contact” with the Free Syrian Army during its consultations with Syrian opposition groups.

It remains to be seen whether the Arab League has the stomach to fight a war with one of its members, despite increased speculation that Qatar has been supplying military aid to the rebels. At an Arab League meeting on Sunday, however, Arab states said they would seek to provide Syrian opposition groups with political and material support. Turkey has also been more vocal in the past week, but has had to tread carefully amid fears that its outspokenness might drive Syria’s Kurds into Assad’s arms.

Hague said that the U.K. and other nations would look for a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly, though these are non-binding. Saudi Arabia has circulated a draft similar to the one that was vetoed by the Security Council. The foreign secretary also outlined proposals for a “Friends of Syria” group of countries under the aegis of the Arab League, which would increase sanctions against the Assad regime.

In reality the “Friends of Syria” proposal is the outcome of the British government and Western countries in general casting around for a new policy toward Syria and failing to find one. Last year, the Cameron government appointed Frances Mary Guy, a former ambassador to Lebanon, to coordinate relations with Syria’s opposition – or as one official put it more pithily, “to knock their heads together.” A Foreign Office official told me on Feb. 9 that Guy was “getting to grips” with the task. “The Syrian opposition is not at the same stage as the Libyan opposition, it will take time,” the official noted.

In plain English that means the head-knocking has failed. Guy has met with opposition leaders in London, Paris, Ankara and Istanbul, but despite her travels, insiders concede that creating a credible – never mind representative – opposition, is all but impossible.

Many of the groups refuse to even speak to each other. Just one example of the task facing Guy is that the U.K., along with France and the U.S., has urged the main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, to “reach out” to the Kurdish National Council, which represents the majority of Syrian Kurds. However, despite tentative negotiations between the two groups, that plea has not led very far. Many Kurds view the SNC as a front for Turkish ambitions in the region. Then there are the stark divisions between the SNC and the rival National Coordination Body.

At the same time, the opposition has no regional foothold in Syria as did the Libyan rebels in Benghazi. Privately, British government officials admit there is no plausible route to the opposition seizing power, even if it were actually capable of forming a government.

Russia and China have defended Assad only partly to protect their business interests. Russia’s navy has access to the Tartous port, however Russian arms sales to Syria, worth between $700 million and $1 billion, account for an estimated 7 percent of Russia’s annual global arms sales, which is not particularly high. Chinese exports to Syria have risen sharply in recent years, but traffic along the so-called “New Silk Road” is decidedly one way these days. China exports around $2.5 billion worth of goods annually to Syria, and has invested in a number of its oil production and exploration projects. Syrian exports to China are worth less than $6 million.

Against this background Russian and Chinese diplomatic moves are nothing short of shameful. But if we accept that arming Syria’s divided opposition is not sensible and that military intervention, even by the Arab League, is a non-starter, what else can be done?

In the absence of meaningful action, the West, Russia, China and the Arab League can do one thing: They can demand that Syria open up Homs and other cities under siege to international aid agencies. Indeed, that is precisely what the Arab League intended to do by proposing on Sunday that the U.N. deploy a peacekeeping force in Syria. The Arab states know the divided Security Council will not to pass such a decision, but are calculating that a compromise resolution will advocate support for a humanitarian mission.

Homs is a humanitarian disaster and it shames the international community to allow it to remain so. That is surely something that everyone can agree on. Providing the means to enable relief agencies to help those who are enduring the unendurable, whether it is done through the offices of Russia and China or some other means, is surely the very least that diplomacy in this day and age can achieve.

The “Friends of Syria” group, when it meets on Feb. 24, will no doubt come up with new words of condemnation and fresh sanctions. But while it deliberates, murder and mayhem reign in Syria. The time for talk should be over.