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 Yet both have set the date when their combat forces will be withdrawn, despite the fact that the efforts of the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan continue unabated.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.