9 Jan 2012

Afghanistan 2012: the scramble to end an unwinnable war

Whilst we were looking the other way at the Arab Spring, the Japanese tsunami, the implosion of the Euro and all the rest of the most astonishing year for news since 1989, some extraordinary things were afoot across Afghanistan and beyond. They all point to a serious headlong rush for the exit as the USA tries, increasingly desperately, to end its longest war.

Let us begin outside Afghanistan – in, say, Washington. For in recent weeks even as the last momentous year was ending, came forth the announcement from the Presidents of the United States (POTUS) and Commander-in-Chief that suddenly after a decade of fighting, the Taliban are no longer the enemy.

It was a statement of extraordinary directness from one of the less-decisive presidencies the US has seen in recent memory. But that is the case and with it will come forth many things.

New office for ‘provisionals in turbans’

First the news after this that the Taliban will be able to open an office in Qatar – a place where they may formally be contacted. If you will, a Sinn Fein to the provisionals in turbans still waging the war neither side can win against NATO in Afghanistan.

It is a vast step forward because various levels of US officialdom will want to use that letter-drop. We’ve travelled far from the days of the General Petraeus’s ‘surge’ when the commander on the ground persuaded (briefly) the Administration that all it needed was yet more forces and the Afghan resistance would finally fade away.

Well it’s doubtful that ever worked even in Iraq, where he’d tried it. In Afganistan The White House was persuaded initially, then – election looming ever closer – it was back to the main strategy of Cut and Run: Well Cut at Least and Do Some Running.

For months, back-channel talking has been underway between the US and the Taliban. The idea that moderate and hardline Talibs could be sundered and the war won, lies wrecked in the sands of Afghanistan – like so many other previous strategies vainly attempted by NATO’s occupation of the country.

All or nothing

Tragically late in the day the realisation is simple: if you want out of Afghanistan and want to leave the place in any kind of coherent shape then all Afghans – Talibs and the rest of the resistance – have to be part of the talks and the deal. President Hamid Karzai, to his credit, has long realised this fact. He told Washington this in no uncertain terms even when the US could not tolerate even the idea of talking to the turbans.

And Karzai should know – don’t forget he used to work for the Taliban and was at one stage heading to the UN in New York as their ambassador, before abruptly moving on to new employ. Such is the way things turnabout in Afghan politics.

And Hamid Karzai knows that this time, it is a whole lot more difficult than when the Soviets left (and also tried but failed to leave a deal behind them). The very men who lost out so bloodily to the Taliban are the Tjik Northern Alliance, now in government. These are the men the US must ask to cede a lot to the Taliban who beat them back in 1996. Would you fancy asking the questions of them?

And in America’s haste to get out, Afghan politics must take a lead. The Soviets got out too soon at too great a speed. The result was that the murderous warlords set about pulverising Kabul until the Taliban finally brought about stability and security. That is deeply remembered by Kabul and beyond. Remembered too that those murderous warlords now constitute large sectors of the current (Tajik) government.

Danger of future divisions

If Washington moves too fast there is a real danger that the Taliban and others who resisted NATO all these years, come back into greater areas of the south and east but fail to penetrate perhaps as far as Kabul. The country ends up divided yet again, precisely where it was a decade ago before the current western invasion began: before the billions were spent; before the thousands of Afghan and western lives were lost; before Wootton Bassett was anything more than a small country town.

That, after 35-odd years of civil war, would surely be the greatest betrayal of the Afghan people of all creeds, languages and religions.

But there are lights flashing red for danger that this is what we yet might see unfold across 2012.

Consider Helmand – the southern province where the British failed so miserably to quell a few hundred fighters with IEDs and Kalashnikovs with the odd RPG thrown in. In came Uncle Sam with anything up to 18,000 Marines. The Afghan fighters either knew better than to fight this enemy who had already announced they were going to leave, or was bought off so handsomely for not fighting that it became pointless to do anything but wait. Both scenarios amount to the same thing on the ground.

In places like Sangin, in Helmand, which I visited repeatedly – where British soldier after British soldier was picked off by sniper or IED – there’s little fighting. Not because the Afghans have been defeated in any way, but because it’s not in their interest to fight. Why not accept the money floating around? Accept the cash that comes from poppy that NATO cannot or will not eradicate? And again, wait for the invaders to leave?

Fears of filling the US void

And they are. Said army of US Marines will have left barely a few weeks when this coming summer’s opium is being harvested, processed and shipped. That leaves the British in Helmand with a puny force of 9000 soldiers to control a violent place way beyond the capacity of that size of force of any nationality. The British are angry at the speed. They say they won’t – indeed can’t – backfill the vast void left by the vanished Americans.

In that scenario – barring any political deal and even with one in place – will the Afghan fighters not retake the land that British and US soldiers died for, as did their own fighters too? It is hard to see the Taliban simply sitting back when their hand at any talks can be easily strengthened on the ground by virtue of controlling more of it.

Such is the dilemma of the US President, a man currently preoccupied by caucuses, primaries and the economy. Insofar as America’s Longest War is an issue, it is simply as a shouting match between Republican and Democrat candidates about who will pull the troops out the quickest.

Look at Helmand. Look at this pull-out timetable. You can almost smell the danger in the scramble to end the unwinnable war.

Follow Alex Thomson on twitter @alextomo

Tweets by @alextomo