The west has lost in Afghanistan
By Gideon Rachman
March, 26, 2012
Five years ago the Americans were refusing to speak to the Taliban. Now the Taliban are refusing to speak to the Americans. That is a measure of how the balance of power has shifted in Afghanistan. The western intervention there has failed. As Nato prepares to withdraw from the country in 2014, it is only the scale of the defeat that remains to be determined.
A senior Pakistani official comments sardonically: “I remember when the Americans used to say that the only good Taliban was a dead Taliban. Then they talked about separating the reconcilable from the irreconcilable. Now, they say, the Taliban are not our enemy.” In fact, Nato and Taliban forces are still enemies on the battlefield. But in a desperate effort to leave behind a stable Afghanistan, the US and its allies are also battling to include the Taliban in the political process. However, the Taliban are in no rush to negotiate – and recently broke off talks. With western troops on their way out, there is little pressure on them to compromise now.
Although it was the presence of al-Qaeda that led Nato into Afghanistan, the dreadful nature of the Taliban regime gave the fight an extra moral dimension. Visiting western politicians were always eager to visit a newly opened girls’ school – and to stress the progress for women’s rights.
The Americans insist that the Taliban’s participation in the political process is still dependent on them accepting the current Afghan constitution, which contains all sorts of protections for human rights, and commitments to gender equality. But Afghan reality never matched the words on the page. As one EU foreign minister says: “Three-quarters of the population can’t actually read the constitution, because they are illiterate.”
Even under the current government, the situation of Afghan women is pretty grim. Last week Human Rights Watch released a report highlighting the hundreds of women who are currently jailed in Afghanistan for “moral crimes”, such as resisting a forced marriage, or even complaining about rape. But there have been gains for women, too, particularly in schools and in the cities – and these are likely to be threatened as the Taliban regains influence. For Hillary Clinton, who has made the promotion of women’s rights a theme of her time at the US state department, this must be an especially bitter pill.
The reality, however, is that the killing of Osama bin Laden last year has given the US government all the “closure” it needs to justify a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nato’s goals for the country are now minimal and focused entirely on security: Afghanistan must never again provide a haven for terrorists – and the country must not become a “failed state”.
Even these minimal goals may not be achieved. The focus of Nato’s efforts has been training and equipping the Afghan security forces, so that they can take over from western troops. But funding the Afghan military costs $8bn-$9bn a year. Will the west continue to be willing to plough that sort of money into Afghanistan – with so many competing claims on funds? If not, as Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister put it at this weekend’s Brussels forum: “We will have given 100,000 people training and a gun, and then made them unemployed.”
Even if the Afghan military hangs together, Afghanistan is quite likely to descend into civil war. That, in turn, is likely to continue to further radicalise the Pakistani Taliban – because of the tribal, military and religious links on either side of the border.
When President Barack Obama came to power, he privately labelled Pakistan “the most frightening country in the world” – and insisted that the Afghan problem could not be separated from the fate of its much larger neighbour: hence the insistence on the ugly term “AfPak”. In the rush to get western troops out of Afghanistan, however, the Pakistani problem is in danger of being neglected.
That too is a mistake, because the situation in Pakistan is just as frightening as when Mr Obama took power. Mr Bildt, a recent visitor to the country, describes it as being in the grip of “hysterical anti-Americanism”. That mood will only be intensified by the news over the weekend that no US servicemen will face charges over the Nato air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.
The idea that the US is plotting to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has become an obsession, both for the Pakistani media and for much of the country’s ruling class. In response, Pakistan is cranking up the production of nuclear weapons and distributing them all over the country. Given the radicalisation of opinion in the country and the amount of fissile material it is producing, the American nightmare of “loose nukes” is looking uncomfortably realistic.
As a result, the US will remain deeply engaged in counter-terrorism in south Asia. But the drone strikes on jihadists in the tribal areas of Pakistan – which have been the source of America’s biggest successes – are a double-edged sword. They have devastated the leadership of al-Qaeda. But they have also fed the rampant anti-Americanism that can breed the next generation of terrorists.
As a top Pakistani official puts it: “The number three in al-Qaeda has been killed at least five times. But there is always a new number three. It is the mentality that gives rise to al-Qaeda that you need to defeat.” Unfortunately, that mentality is once again on the rise – in both Pakistan and Afghanistan