The unwinnable war in Afghanistan

October 13, 2008 - 0:0

It has taken time and bitter experience but gradually it has dawned on western policymakers and generals that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, at least in the way it is now being waged. Worse, U.S. and NATO over-reliance on a military strategy that combines insufficient troops on the ground and indiscriminate attacks from the air has triggered a popular backlash and spread the war across the Afghan border into the strategically far more important arena of Pakistan.

This is just not working.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s top field commander in Afghanistan, said bluntly a week ago there could be no military solution to the conflict. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed by his French opposite number, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, is saying pretty much the same thing.
Robert Gates, U.S. defense secretary and a sane voice in the lame duck Bush administration, talks of political solutions while Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, pleads for Saudi Arabia to mediate with the Taliban. Leaks from the new National Intelligence Estimate being prepared for the incoming U.S. president suggest Washington believes the Karzai government is collapsing under the combined weight of corruption and attrition. The Taliban is tightening its noose around Kabul and, financed by record opium poppy output in its southern strongholds, can keep this conflict going almost indefinitely.
It may be shocking that the military might of the west cannot defeat the Taliban, but it is true.
The revival of the Taliban after its 2001 defeat should be the real shock. U.S. and western strategy after 9/11 should have been to ensure that a growing but manageable militant current never entered the Muslim mainstream, and to build up the legitimacy needed to isolate and crush the extremists. Instead, in Afghanistan (and now Pakistan) it has managed to fuse Pashtun nationalism with radicalism. The scattergun “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq have persuaded mainstream Muslims the west has declared war on Islam. This has to be reversed. With new governments soon in Washington and Kabul, perhaps it can be.
Militarily, the U.S. and NATO must rein in their air forces, and direct their combined 70,000 troops to hold and expand secure territory while they help create a state: building up local strength and security capacity and spreading the rule of law. Institution-building, along with jobs, schools and clinics, electricity and irrigation, roads and markets for farmers must be the priorities.
Politically, this should help to outflank and to split the Taliban, internally and from its al-Qaeda allies. Peace feelers put out to Pashtun elders close to the Taliban, at a Ramadan iftar meal last month hosted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, may help this process.
The next U.S. administration needs to see beyond the superficially muscular policies of the Bush era. Mr. Gates, by speaking of “detaching those who are reconcilable and who are willing to be part of the future of the country from those who are irreconcilable”, already does.
(Source: Financial Times)