The following was first published by The National on January 6, 2009
The number of US troops in Afghanistan will almost double in the coming months as part of a new military strategy to win the war. US military commanders hope to apply the “surge” strategy that proved so effective in turning the tide of the war in Iraq.
A massive increase in the number of soldiers there allowed the coalition forces not only to attack the insurgents, but also to prevent them from returning once they were driven out. Since the US faces the same issues in Afghanistan as in Iraq because of insufficient troop numbers, the reasoning is that a similar surge will have the same effect. Additionally, the US hopes to replicate the highly successful tribal militia system that was the key to driving al Qa’eda out of Iraq. But it will face its stiffest opposition to this new strategy from the Afghan government itself.
In a recent interview President Hamid Karzai spoke out strongly against both a surge and the creation of tribal militias. He has been voicing his disapproval for the past few years at the increasing civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes, and has condemned any potential intensification in the fighting inside Afghanistan itself. With more than 6,000 Afghan civilians killed since the beginning of the war, most of them by coalition forces, Mr Karzai’s reluctance to see a resurgence in violence is understandable.
But few people are listening to him any more, least of all the Americans. He has been derisively referred to as “the mayor of Kabul” since he assumed the presidency in 2002. The central government has never been able to extend its influence far beyond the capital and in the past two years it has lost what little authority and credibility it had in the face of continued civilian deaths, ineffective civil institutions and a resurrected Taliban. In his defence, Mr Karzai warned the US for years that the Taliban was not defeated, that stagnant reconstruction efforts risked alienating the Afghan people against their government, and that warlords hired by the US to help to fight the Taliban used brutal tactics that only increased support for the insurgency. He has instead called for reconciliation talks with the Taliban and for any new fighting to be directed at militant safe havens in the southern Helmand province and in Pakistan.
The US will probably pay no more heed to the concerns of Mr Karzai than it did in the first seven years of the occupation. However, that does not mean that his warnings should be ignored. Such a drastic increase in foreign troops will spell a new period of heightened violence, and civilian casualties would spike as a result. It should be remembered that it was the desire for peace that first led the Afghan people to embrace the Taliban during the civil war that erupted in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. With the Taliban in effective control of much of Afghanistan’s south, some semblance of normal life has begun to emerge for those people — albeit under the watchful eyes of an intolerant regime. A resumption of hostilities may merely push Afghans further into the arms of the insurgency.
On the other hand, the Taliban are not a homogenous force of religious fundamentalist fighters. Rather, they are a loosely affiliated conglomerate of religious ideologues, tribal fighters, criminal gangs and nationalists. In its harshest form the Taliban cannot be allowed to control any segment of Afghanistan: nor should the horrors that the previous Taliban government inflicted on its people be forgotten, despite the current anarchy in the country. More moderate elements, however, can and should be approached by the US.
Reconciliation with more moderate segments of the Taliban should be the goal of US commanders rather than attempting to arm the tribes. Unlike in Iraq, the tribes of Afghanistan are fractured by decades of internecine fighting and power struggles. The Taliban exploit these tribal divisions and use them to recruit the disenfranchised. In other words, there is no internal coherence to the tribes that make their organisation into a militia significantly easier than grabbing a group of civilians off the streets of Kabul. And the end result would be to pit pro- and anti-Taliban elements of a tribe against one another rather than to co-opt former insurgents. This defeats the entire purpose of the tribal militia.
However, those elements of the Taliban that prove resistant to attempts to co-option and incorporation into the political structure will have to be fought and defeated. And this will undoubtedly require more troops. The Afghan national army would be the preferred tool, but it is currently too ill-equipped and poorly trained for the task. But any new offensive by foreign forces must be extremely mindful of civilian casualties, as every dead Afghan further alienates the population against the occupation.
In the end, the US and its allies must become better than the Taliban at providing what Afghans want: security. The coalition has thus far concentrated too much on the assassination of Taliban leadership and other military means of winning the war. But in doing so it is making the same mistakes made by countless occupiers of Afghanistan before it. The country has been under the dominion of nearly every great power in history. As a gateway between the East and West it has been a battlefield on which civilisations have fought for global and regional influence from far into antiquity.
No wonder, then, that Afghanistan is one of the most under-developed countries in the world, its potentially lucrative natural resources remain untapped, and so much of its population remains mired in poverty. George Bush probably knew little if anything of Afghanistan’s history when he overthrew the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and its Taliban rulers in 2001. Nor has the neglect of reconstruction efforts in the seven years since the occupation began shown that members of his administration are any better students of history. All the Afghans want is peace and a chance for a better life. The US has yet to give that to them, and until it does, America will be on the losing side of this war.