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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

When will the Occupation of Afghanistan End?

Friday 31 December 2010, by Ninan Koshy

Forty nations are embroiled in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Anyone who travels through the country with Western troops soon realises that NATO forces would have to be increased tenfold for peace to be even a remote possibility.
—Ulrich Fichtner in Spiegal online International,May 29, 2008

When will the occupation of Afghanistan by the USA-led NATO end? While the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal in the third week of November gave a timetable for exit, with the end of 2014 as the point at which security would be handed over to Afghan forces, the discussions before and at the Summit indicate that the occupation may continue indefinitely.

The NATO leaders set a deadline in Lisbon at end of 2014 for a halt to combat operations in Afghanistan, agreeing to an exit strategy to extricate the vast majority of the 138,000 multinational troops waging an increasingly unpopular war. It was more a reiteration of the vague platitudes that have been heard throughout the nine years since the 2001 US-led invasion that began a new chapter in Afghanistan’s chaotic history. “Here in Lisbon, we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house,” the NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, claimed. This was an admission that the Government of Afghanistan led by Hamid Karzai is not sovereign, that Afghans are not masters in their own house. The war is steadily losing popularity and support both within Afghanistan and among the 50-odd nations that make up the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The Summit was attended in addition to heads of states or governments of member states of the NATO, by Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General. President Obama spoke about a transition to Afghan responsibility that begins in 2011 with Afghan forces taking the lead for security across Afghanistan by 2014. The Secretary-General of the NATO made it clear: “We will not transition until our partners are ready. We will stay to finish the job.” He added that the “process must be condition-based, not calendar-based; we have to make sure that we don’t leave Afghanistan prematurely”. He had earlier bluntly said that there was no alternative to continuing military operations.

It was not long ago that President Obama had given 2011 as the date US troops would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. In December 2009 President Obama spoke of July 2011 as a firm date to “begin the transfer of American forces out of Afghanistan”. That would be the moment assuredly when the beginning of the end of the war would come into sight, Obama had claimed at that time. Now the date for the ‘completion of the transition’ has been set for the end of 2014. But even that timetable is subject to change. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrel indicated 2014 is an “aspirational goal” more than a firm deadline. The US stated that post-2014, it would be maintaining “a counterterrorism capability” in Afghanistan for which “platforms to execute counterterrorism operations” (read military bases) would be needed. That means the occupation will continue indefinitely. Pepe Escobar commented in Asiatimes online (November 5): “As to how many US/NATO troops will be getting a piece of the action from 2015 onwards that is a classic example of one of former Defence Secretary’s ‘known unknowns’.” The new British Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, suggested that, given the difficulty of defeating the Taliban (or Al-Qaeda) militarily, the NATO should be preparing plans to maintain a role for its troops for the next thirty to forty years.

“The primary purpose of the NATO Summit was to allow the alliance retain the appearance of life,” said Anatol Lieven, a Professor in the War Studies College in London, a widely renowned expert on the AfPak region. It was also supposed to show that the US was not being left alone in Afghanistan. It gave the much-needed impression of support to the US strategy in Afghanistan, while serious differences exist among allies with the increasing pressures in several of them for troops’ withdrawal.

Soon after the end of the Summit, the leader-ship of the Afghan Taliban issued a statement, characterising the alliance’s adoption of a loose timetable for an end in 2014 to combat operations, as “good news” for Afghans and “a sign of failure for the American Government”. Obama had said that 2011 would begin a “transition to full Afghan hands” in security operations. The Taliban declared that “in the past nine years the invaders could not establish any system of governance in Kabul and they will never be able to establish some in future”. Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from Washington and Brussels, the Taliban’s progress is steady and they believe that they have nothing to gain by negotiating with the USA or NATO. They believe time is on their side and that foreign forces will have to leave sooner than later.

While Obama claimed that the US and its allies are “breaking the Taliban’s momentum”, the reality on the ground tells a different story. Despite increased Special Operations Forces, raids and, under General David Petraeus, a return to regular US-led air strikes, the insurgency in Afghanistan is spreading and growing in strength. Taliban leaders claim a swelling in their ranks. In part, they say, this can be attributed to the widely held perception that the Karzai Government is corrupt and illegitimate and that Afghans—primarily ethnic Pashtuns—want the foreign forces out.

IT is generally believed that the conflict will ultimately end in a political settlement. US commanders have long insisted that this can’t be achieved from a position of weakness. Continuing the war may be part of the strategy to compel the Taliban to yield on its terms. It also may be part of the long-term goals of the USA in Central Asia. But a movement, first scattered by the US-led forces in 2001, that began its comeback in three years and which has demonstrated its ability to withstand major counter-insurgency operations, is bound to believe that time is on its side.

This raises the question about the purpose of the war. The NATO’s self-styled mission since 2001 has been to fight against “international terrorism”. Even low-level CIA operatives know that there are no Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan now—apart from 20 to 30 rather invisible jihadi trainers. The war is not about Al-Qaeda.

The bottom line: the Afghan war is nothing but a Western war against the Pashtuns. A report by an International Council on Security and Development (ICOSD) think-tank estimates that 92 per cent of Pashtuns in Helmand and Kandahar provinces don’t know absolutely anything about 9/11. Yes, they know nothing about the reason why foreign soldiers are in their country. In a classic understatement the report noted that the “relationship gap” between Afghans and the international community was “dramatic”. For the international community (read the US and NATO). No wonder the Afghans call the Americans “invaders”. There is studied reluctance on the part of the US officials to accept the disturbing reality that the cultural and religious values of much of the population, which comprises up to 40 per cent of the country, more clearly align with those of the Taliban than they do with the US/NATO forces or the Karzai Government which to them is a stooge of the USA.

Just days before the Lisbon Summit Karzai strongly criticised the war strategy of the US/NATO. In an interview to the Washington Post in mid-November, President Karzai called for an end to the night raids saying they were counterproductive and that they incited Afghans to join the Taliban insurgency against the government. “I don’t like it in any manner and the Afghan people don’t like these raids in any manner. We don’t like raids in our homes. This is a problem between us and I hope this ends soon. Terrorism is not invading Afghan homes and fighting terrorism is not being intrusive in daily Afghan life.”

Apart from the question of war strategy, Karzai was raising the more important issue of sovereignty. Karzai resents the fact that his fledgling democratic government cannot veto the NATO methods. Most of the important decisions are made in the fortified US embassy in Kabul. The strong disagreement came to the fore at the Summit where Obama asserted the ‘right’ of the NATO forces to take whatever steps were necessary for security. He realised that there was the question of sovereignty but Obama with two years in office has learnt that the US policy in the War on Terror is to ignore the sovereignty of nations. On his return to Kabul after the Summit, Karzai said that the NATO as a partner would keep its presence beyond 2014 in Afghanistan but “it would be limited and not against any country in the region or a third country”.

While a brave face was put up by Obama and company in Lisbon, the stark realities of the Afghan adventure were clearly pictured in the most recent report by the Pentagon to the US Congress. The report said that violence in Afghanistan has reached an all-time high with clashes up fourfold since 2007. “Progress across the country remains uneven with modest gains in security, governance and development in operational priority areas. But despite the presence of nearly 100,000 US troops and almost 50,000 other forces the Taliban insurgency remained resilient and efforts to cut off safe havens and supply links to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan “have not produced measurable results”.

QUESTIONS are being raised within and outside the NATO about its mission in Afghanistan and the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The mission in Afghanistan is seen as a test of the allies’ military capabilities and their political will to undertake a complex operation in a distant land and to sustain that commitment. Since 1999 the NATO has sought to be ‘global’ in its geographic reach and in the development of non-member partner states that can assist in achieving an agreed mission. The NATO’s original ‘zone of hostility’ has been shrinking geographically over the past twenty years while its ‘zone of activity’ has continued to expand on a vast scale. The change in the nature of the mission and zone of activity initially reflected a NATO consensus that the principal dangers to allied security lie distant from the treaty area. The NATO’s military intervention in Afghanistan is the alliance’s first out-of-area mission.

The ISAF was created by the UN Security Council resolution 1386 on December 20, 2001. Led initially by the US, the ISAF mission was originally limited to Kabul. The NATO took over the command of the ISAF in August 2003. The mandate given to the ISAF by the Security Council, reaffirmed annually, “calls upon NATO to provide security and law and order, promote governance and development, help reform the justice system, train a national police force and army, provide security for elections and to provide assistance to the local efforts to address the narcotics industry”.

Does this mandate authorise the NATO to carry on a war of attrition in Afghanistan? The NATO actions in Afghanistan are based on a dubious interpretation of the Security Council resolution. Of course this is never challenged since the US itself controls the Security Council.

As we have seen, the claimed rationale of fighting international terrorism is not valid. In fact it has never been valid. William Pfaff wrote within days after the war began:

What set out as an American war on terrorism has become a war against Afghanistan. The substitution of Afghanistan for terrorism, or the identification of the one with the other, is not only unjust but diverts US policy from where it was intended to go, to where it is most simple to go. Afghanistan is substituted for terrorism because Afghanistan is accessible to military power and terrorism is not. (International Herald Tribune, November 3, 2001)

Several key members of the alliance, above all the US, view the Afghan mission as a test case for their ability to generate the political will to counter significant threats to their security. However, as the war entered its tenth year, there appears to be strong opposition to the war among the public throughout Europe who question whether there is any threat to Europe from Afghanistan, especially with little evidence of the Al-Qaeda activity in or from Afghanistan.

The 138,000 NATO forces currently in the theatre of Afghanistan—from fifty odd nations already, with more pegged to provide troops—are at the centre of the world’s longest lasting and increasingly deadly hot war, the NATO’s first ground war, its first combat operations in Asia. This is the first time in the history of the world that troops from so many countries are fighting in one single theatre. On November 27, the NATO beat the former Soviet Union by staying in Afghanistan longer than the latter did. And we are assured by the NATO Summit that the alliance will be engaged there for at least four more years. Even the most starry-eyed cannot hope that the Americans will succeed where the Soviets failed.

History has a great sense of humour. During the 1980s when the Soviet Union had its military adventure in Afghanistan it fought alone without dragging in any of its Warsaw Pact allies. But the very same Warsaw Pact members, re-christened NATO members—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Roman, Slovakia and former East Germany (now part of the United Federal Republic of Germany) are in Afghanistan killing and dying.

The NATO’S military mission in Afghanistan is a direct intervention in Asian affairs and fits in with the US plans for the whole region. Zbigniew Brzezinki in his book, The Grand Chess Board (1997), defines the North Atlantic alliance as part of an integrated and long-term strategy for all of Eurasia in which the NATO would eventually reach Asia, where another military alliance would connect the Pacific and South-East Asian states. The prediction is coming true with a military alliance of several Asian states, including India, led by the USA taking shape.

Dr Ninan Koshy, formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA, is the author of The War on Terror—Reordering the World and Under the Empire—India’s New Foreign Policy.

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