Afghanistan: A war that can never be won?

One fatal disaster after another has left the coalition’s hopes of succeeding in Afghanistan at an all-time low, writes Dani Garavelli

THEY sat in the presidential palace in Kabul, their faces etched with grief and rage. The relatives of the 16 people slaughtered by a US soldier who rampaged through their village as they slept last week had come to be consoled by the country’s leader Hamid Karzai. But most of all they wanted answers. How had a man on his fourth tour in a war zone been able to leave his base in the Panjawi district of southern Kandahar unchallenged and embark on a night-time killing spree which claimed the lives of three women and nine children? Was the attack the work of one unstable gunman – as the US maintains – or could more soldiers have been involved? And – most explosively – why had the country which is supposed to be helping the Afghan people embrace democracy spirited the alleged perpetrator across the border to Kuwait and then to the US military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, instead of allowing him to stand trial in Afghanistan?

Two of the villagers broke down in tears. Another, whose brother was one of the victims, said: “I don’t want any compensation. I don’t want money, I don’t want a trip to Mecca. I don’t want a house. I want nothing. But what I absolutely want is the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my demand, my demand and my demand.”

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A sombre Karzai was unable to provide answers. But he was forthright in his criticism of the US. Days after he called for all combat troops in rural outposts to be moved back to their bases, he told the relatives he had tried to talk to the US soldier, rumoured to have suffered brain damage in Iraq, but that the Americans had refused to co-operate in any way. “This behaviour can no longer be tolerated,” he said, as he stressed the Afghan people’s trust in the coalition forces had been eroded.

It is not the first time the Kabul palace has been at the centre of a drama; the building has witnessed many explosive events, from the murder of president Hafizullah Amin by the Soviets in 1979 to a rocket attack three years ago. But rarely, in this current conflict at least, have the political stakes for the Afghan government and its Western allies been so high.

The massacre has heightened tensions already raised by the burning of copies of the Koran by US troops and the deaths of six British soldiers killed when their vehicle hit a Taleban bomb on 6 March. With the deadline for withdrawal set for the end of 2014, the villagers’ anger and Karzai’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric underlined the rapidly deteriorating chances of the coalition forces leaving a lasting legacy in an increasingly unpopular war.

Although few would argue that some advances have been made – two million girls now go to school and women make up a quarter of the parliament – the fear is that the existing timetable for withdrawal leaves little time to ensure the Afghan government is ready to rule and the Afghan National Army Special Forces is ready to guarantee the safety of its citizens.

With tentative talks with the Taleban on hold (because of a lack of progress on the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and the Taleban’s reluctance to deal with Karzai), domestic support for the war waning, and David Cameron and Barack Obama under increasing pressure to accelerate the removal of troops, some unforgiving questions are now being asked.

Do we now have to confront the possibility that withdrawal may ultimately be synonymous with defeat? Have allied forces done enough to ensure the gains made in Afghanistan will be sustained, or will the troops’ departure signal the country’s implosion into civil war? And, as Nato is met with a cascade of unexpected challenges, is the much-vaunted exit strategy – in the words of Henry Kissinger – “all exit and no strategy”.

One of the difficulties with assessing “victory” or otherwise in Afghanistan is that the endgame has never been precisely defined. Initially, a war of reprisal, aimed at ridding the country of al-Qaeda, punishing the Taleban for giving them quarter and ensuring they could never flourish there again, the emphasis has shifted over the years to counter-insurgency and securing a better future for the people of Afghanistan – a concept that has been increasingly difficult to sell to the US and British publics, especially as the death toll has mounted.

“The real tragedy of Afghanistan is that the initial intervention in the aftermath of 9/11 was very successful,” says former deputy SAS commander Clive Fairweather. “The major error was that from the end of 2002/3, the switch to the war of revenge and regime change in Iraq took the focus from Afghanistan for four or five years, during which the central government didn’t develop. In 2006, we thought we were going back to the same situation and didn’t send enough resources – had we had the big push then, things might have been different.”

Politically, Fairweather says, the problem is that coalition forces haven’t really been able to influence central government, failing to crack down on corruption which has seen millions of dollars taken out of the country. “Now we’re worried it’s all going to implode because the central government isn’t strong enough,” he says.

Few would argue that no advances have been made. “I have met some wonderful Afghans who are thrilled that women are able to go to school, to be able to participate in government. This is not a story that’s being communicated because unfortunately, the Taleban delivers a strong and powerful counter-narrative,” says Dr Alexis Crow, an expert in military strategy at Chatham House.

But the political and public willpower, which began to disintegrate after the capture of Osama Bin Laden, has collapsed as the body count has risen (passing the 400 mark in the UK) and it has become clear this is a war the West can no longer afford to wage.

With the US presidential election approaching, the economic crisis showing no sign of abating and the spectre of an Israeli attack on Iran looming large, Obama and Cameron need to get out of Afghanistan with some credibility intact.

Since the scramble for the exit began, attention has been focused on ensuring a successful transition and on promulgating the message that the Afghans are almost ready for self-governance. But the events of the last few weeks – beginning with the burning of copies of the Koran – have shown in the most brutal way, how far from stable Afghanistan continues to be.

Some believe the United States’ handling of the fall-out from the massacre has inflamed the situation. “The fact the US has removed this officer from the country is very clear evidence that they’re not necessarily dealing with it well,” says Crow. “What would have been a much more favourable option in terms of sending a good message to the Afghans is bringing someone like that to justice in Afghanistan.”

But the sheer relentlessness of the bad news which continued its onslaught when a helicopter carrying Turkish troops crashed into a house on the outskirts of Kabul on Friday, killing 14, two of them girls on the ground, must make the coalition forces feel the fates are against them.

Karzai’s shifting position as he tries to deflect criticism from all sides isn’t helping. His insistence that Afghan forces can fend for themselves – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – is undermining Nato’s strategy, while his decision to sign off on a code of conduct for women that says they must not travel unaccompanied by a man or mix with men in offices or schools has been interpreted as evidence he is selling out to the fundamentalists in advance of peace talks.

Yet such talks are vital. Indeed, the Taleban’s decision to break off negotiations was one of the most depressing developments last week, as engaging the more moderate voices within the factionalised movement is regarded as the only way to secure lasting peace.

Major-General Andrew Mackay, who commanded the British military presence in Helmand in 2007, has been gloomy about Afghanistan for some time, but he hasn’t given up hope. “I still think there’s a number of factors that, if we add them into the mix, might allow us to have a positive outcome,” he says. He points out that – though the Afghans are tired of the conflict and want it to finish – the fact that the insurgents were formerly the government, means they have a good sense of what will happen if the Taleban take control.

“Any Afghan I ever spoke to was acutely conscious that there’s got to be some sort of accommodation with the Taleban, but they don’t want it to be an accommodation where the Taleban gain power,” he says. “The Taleban are people who live in their communities, not some homogenous grouping; there are many factions in the Taleban. They’re not all ideologically driven.”

Mackay says some hope, too, is to be found in the fact that the Quataris are willing to step up to the plate and try to help make political dialogue possible.

“I have heard people being dismissive of that, but the Quataris have a track record,” Mackay says. “They played a major role in peace negotiations in the Lebanon, they played a major role in bringing Hamas and Fatah to some kind of resolution and they are willing to commit not just resources, but the idea of a Taleban Embassy and the idea of housing Taleban prisoners from Guantanamo,” he says.

Yet even if Obama and Cameron stand firm against demands to accelerate the withdrawal, and the Taleban come back to the table, it seems unlikely any huge advances will have been made by the end of 2014, especially as the talks so far have been nascent – more talks about talks than substantive negotiations.

“Much will depend on the level or degree of momentum. At the moment, there are so many contradictions. The US is saying the Taleban must renounce violence, the Taleban are saying all foreigners must go,” Mackay says. “I’m not disheartened by those contradictions – they will always be there in long-running conflicts. It’s only when you begin to talk that you can explore areas of compromise; to see what might be possible. But look at peace negotiations throughout history. They take many, many years. These are not things that are done easily, especially when you think the conflict in Afghan has been going on for 30 years.”

Yet time is not on the coalition forces’ side. And Karzai’s anti-western rhetoric and his demands – if met – will only make achieving their goal more difficult. Nato commanders, after all, see the rural outposts in insurgent-plagued provinces as essential to their goal of providing enough security for the Afghan government to take root.

“One of the crucial parts of the strategy is teaching Afghan national security forces to take care of their own national security, yet increasingly we’ve seen what’s referred to as green on blue killings – that’s ANSF [Afghan security forces] turning on ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] troops. That’s the most worrying thing,” says Crow.

The academic recounts the Taleban slogan that dates back to the Soviet invasion: “‘While you have the watches, we have the time.’ In other words, while you have great firepower and technology, we have all the time in the world,” she explains. “While for you this is just a misadventure, for us it’s a serious war for political gain, for political survival.”

The truth of this may become all too apparent in the next few months. “The snow is melting across the Hindu Kush now – this is the fighting season opening,” Crow points out. “The Taleban commanders will come in from neighbouring Pakistan ready to fight – and I don’t know to what extent our domestic public’s going to be willing to put up with many more losses.”