George Kerevan: No role for UK troops in Afghanistan

Tributes have been paid to three British soldiers killed in an IED blast this week. Picture: PA
Tributes have been paid to three British soldiers killed in an IED blast this week. Picture: PA
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THE deaths of three British soldiers is part of a complex picture as a troubled nation stumbles towards peace, writes George Kerevan

THIS week saw the tragic death of three British soldiers in Afghanistan. Their killing takes to 444 the number of British service personnel who have died since operations began in Afghanistan in 2001. However, sad as it may be, these deaths were not the most politically significant event during this week’s launch of the Taleban spring offensive.

While the British media focused on British casualties, it was Wednesday’s assassination of Malim Shah Wali, head of the Afghan High Peace Council in Helmand, that is the key to understanding the end game now taking place in Afghanistan. The Taleban has now assassinated three senior members of the Peace Council, including its first chairman, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

This body was set up by president Hamid Karzai supposedly to negotiate with the Taleban and broker a political settlement following the exit of the Americans and Nato in 2015. And true, the Peace Council does include a few former members of the factious network of groups that come under the Taleban banner. But don’t be fooled. There is no genuine peace process.

The Peace Council initiative is merely a desperate bid by Karzai (who stole the 2009 election) to protect his back after the Americans go home. And the untruths told by Western politicians to justify the deaths of their soldiers – that they are training an indigenous Afghan army and police force – are equally bogus. The Afghan national security forces will disintegrate just as the South Vietnamese army fell apart after the Americans left Saigon.

Wali’s assassination, and the death of the three British soldiers, took place just as President Obama was announcing that the US is “winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al-Qaeda core, and we’ve kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks”.

Note that Obama says nowhere, in this carefully constructed sentence, that the Taleban are being defeated. Obama responds to US domestic political pressures. America wants to go home and Obama is obliging, using the fig leaf that he is handing over to a government in Kabul that can defend itself against the Taleban. US troop numbers in the country will be down to 68,000 by the end of the year and most (if not all) should be gone by the end of next year. In truth, Obama does not care what happens in Afghanistan after that.

But how effective would the Afghan army be in fighting on its own? Answer: not very. On April 12, 200 Taleban fighters overran a military outpost in eastern Afghanistan, on an important infiltration route from Pakistan. This outpost was manned by a battalion of the 201st Military Corps, which the Americans regard as the Afghan National Army’s best combat unit. The 201st was fighting on its own because US forces have already been sharply reduced in the area.

One reason the White House gave for running down its military presence in East Afghanistan is that this is where the Kabul government will have to take a stand, and win, once the Nato forces leave. Judging by what happened to the battalion of the 201st, the prospects are hardly promising. The other reason was to woo the Haqqani group, the dominant Taleban group in the area, who the Americans thought could be enticed into the peace process. Those hopes – always naive – are now ashes. The White House has quietly abandoned any hope of negotiations and last September put the Haqqani Network on its list of international terrorist groups.

Why has any hope of peace collapsed? The fundamental reason is because Pakistan is sabotaging it. The leadership of the main Taleban factions are based in Pakistan and depend on the covert support of the Pakistan military and intelligence elite for their existence. Pakistan uses the Taleban for political leverage in the area, as part of its obsessional conflict with India. Pakistan wants to be in control in Afghanistan and it is using the Taleban to get there.

President Karzai’s desperate attempts at brokering a “peace process” have always hinged on getting Pakistan to rein in the Taleban and get them to join some sort of coalition. But Pakistan’s military and fundamentalist clerics sense that, with the Americans leaving anyway, they can go for broke. Witness Pakistan’s chief cleric, Tahir Ashrafi, who recently announced that Taleban suicide bombings were permissible under Islamic law. This move effectively sabotaged an initiative by Karzai to persuade local Afghan religious leaders to denounce suicide attacks as un-Islamic.

What happens in January 2015 when US combat troops finally pull out? Seemingly the Kabul government will have a large, well-equipped army over 200,000 strong. But Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and its army can only exist if paid for by America. Which means it will always be viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a mercenary force controlled by the Pentagon. On the political front, things are just as fragile. Last month, the New York Times revealed that since December 2002, president Karzai’s personal office has been funded with “tens of millions of dollars” direct from the CIA. It all looks very like Saigon in 1976.

The next Afghan presidential election is due in April 2014. Karzai is barred from standing for a third term. But with no obvious candidate to replace him that constitutional nicety might go by the board. Rumours abound that he might postpone elections in favour of a jirga (tribal meeting) to grant him emergency powers. If so, how will the Taleban react, especially if Karzai offers to bring them into government? Or will the country collapse into an even bigger civil war with the Afghan army disintegrating?

This is hardly a situation British troops want to find themselves in. Afghanistan long ceased to be about protecting the UK from terrorism. The deaths of the three British soldiers this week should be the last. Bring the boys and girls home now.