By Irfan Husain
19th March, 2012
TRUTH, as the old cliché goes, is the first casualty of war. Thus, our generals assured us during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India that our forces were winning until the very end. In the first conflict, we were forced to accept a ceasefire, while in the latter, we suffered a shattering defeat.
The Americans are equally prone to this syndrome. General after general appearing on TV channels has assured their American audiences that the war in Afghanistan is going well. But after more than a decade of fighting with thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, Nato forces have been fought to a draw. And a stalemate for western forces is simply untenable for any length of time due to increasing financial and political pressures back home.
President Obama has declared his intention to pull out the bulk of American troops by 2014, with the drawdown beginning later this year. Other coalition partners are packing their bags even earlier. In the wake of the recent burning of the Holy Quran and the berserk attack on Afghan villagers near Kandahar by one or more US soldiers, the official timeline is shrinking rapidly.
During a visit to Washington by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister and the US President wrote a joint comment in the Washington Post in which the two leaders spoke of an end to combat missions in 2013, with Afghan forces doing the fighting instead of coalition troops. In this scenario, foreign forces would play a training and support role. But after the recent bloody incidents involving US troops, President Karzai has demanded that foreign troops should go to their bases, and leave the fighting in the Afghan hinterland to his security forces.
Clearly, Karzai is playing to the gallery here. He knows full well that his soldiers and police are nowhere near the professional levels needed to take on the Taliban on their own. But he is echoing the deep anger people feel over the night raids that are carried out by Special Forces targeting senior militants. These tactics see foreign troops burst into homes where insurgents are suspected of sheltering in the dead of night, terrifying women and children.
One indication of how far the two sides have drifted apart came when an Afghan parliamentary group probing the recent killings of civilians in Panjwai district released its report.
According to this body, one soldier alone simply could not have killed so many people in two villages within an hour. The report, published by Daily Outlook Afghanistan, suggested that based on interviews with survivors, there could have been as many as 15 to 20 US soldiers involved in the carnage.
In an editorial, the same newspaper wrote on 17 March: “However, our political and religious leadership … who were calling for Jihad after the Quran burning incident should not be hypocrite [sic]. Taliban kill civilians every single day. The other day, 9 women and children were killed in an IED blast in Uruzgan. Yesterday there was a similar attack on civilians in Helmand. Their daily stories of atrocities never get condemned as it should be.”
It’s a similar story in Pakistan where we never tire of condemning US drone attacks targeting militants, but ignore terrorist attacks on our own people. But in Afghanistan, the implications of an early coalition pullout due to increasing tensions are obvious. As the editorial concludes:
“Seeing the series of unfortunate events, and the uncertain direction it is leading the situation, we are strongly fearful of a catastrophe ahead after 2014. The overconfidence shown and without a proper domestic strategy, President Karzai’s irresponsible statements have self-destructive implications.”
One of the main pillars of the US exit strategy is that Afghan forces will be ready to take on the combat role played by Nato troops over the last decade. It was estimated that the Afghan army and police would cost between eight and ten billion dollars per year, and this expenditure would be met by external aid. According to Steve Coll (What is Plan B? The New Yorker;
14 March 2012), the figure has been revised downwards to two to three billion dollars. Clearly, such a drastic cut will result in a proportionate shrinkage in the size of the Afghan armed forces. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.
Another fallout from the Panjwai killings is the pullout of the Taliban from talks with the Americans. These tentative contacts had caused a tremor of excitement among an American security establishment grasping desperately for straws. For an occupying force keen to declare victory and leave, these negotiations held the prospect of a dignified exit. But thus far, they have proved to be a mirage.
While the Americans placed a lot of faith in these initial contacts, the Taliban only wanted to talk about establishing a liaison office in Qatar, and the transfer of certain prisoners there from Guantanamo. The termination of these negotiations has left the US with only President Karzai to fall back on, and he is a frail reed at best.
In any case, he is due to leave office in 2014 as he cannot run for a third term under the constitution. General elections are due that same year, so to add to the confusion and demoralisation caused by the Nato withdrawal, Afghan will also go through probably violent and destabilising presidential and parliamentary elections.
Steve Coll concludes his article on this gloomy note:
“When NATO arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, it recognised that its governments had, during the dark nineteen-nineties, ignored the connections between Afghan suffering and international security. An exit of NATO combat forces is now a certainty. Perhaps it is already likely that NATO will leave behind another terrible civil war or a second era of widespread, coercive Taliban rule. The security of the Afghans and Americans will remain linked, come what may. There is no reason to march ahead, blinkered and fatalistic, burdened by a plan that may already have failed.”
Source: The Dawn, Karachi