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How the “surge” in Afghanistan has spread the war

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In public it’s the war that is being won, but behind the headlines there is a growing realisation that the battle for Afghanistan has been lost and a new phase in the "long war" is about to begin.
Issue 2085

In public it’s the war that is being won, but behind the headlines there is a growing realisation that the battle for Afghanistan has been lost and a new phase in the “long war” is about to begin.

Last week a suicide bomber attacked the Sarena Hotel, a watering hole for aid workers, security contractors and diplomats in the “safe” city of Kabul. The Daily Telegraph noted with irony that for the foreigners living in the Afghan capital “the party is over”.

The attack on the Sarena Hotel illustrates the failure to secure Afghanistan after seven years of occupation. This has led to paralysis in Nato, the Western military alliance running the country.

Late last year Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, demanded that Nato countries commit more ground forces to shore up the occupation.

Gates said that the only way to turn the tide in Afghanistan was to launch a “mini surge”. He requested that his allies send more troops and equipment.

Nato ministers agreed but, fearful of growing anti-war sentiment at home, only managed to rustle up two ageing Polish helicopters.

In frustration Gates was forced to transfer 3,200 US soldiers and 500 armoured vehicles from Iraq to Afghanistan. He then hit out at his Nato allies, describing the alliance as a “lemon”.

At the heart of this split in Nato is the realisation by some in the “coalition of the willing” that since they have been unable to defeat the insurgency, they should try and strike a deal with local Taliban commanders.


The most recent incident of this strategy led to humiliation for Britain’s secret services. In December Gordon Brown initiated talks with the Taliban – in a strategy known as “tribal engagement” in New Labour speak – behind the backs of his US allies.

Two hapless British agents posing as European Union diplomats set off to explore contacts with Taliban leaders, but they were exposed by the Kabul government as MI6 spies and expelled from the country.

For the US nothing short of victory will do in Afghanistan, and faced with a never ending war, the “surge” strategy can be appealing.

Pouring in thousands of soldiers can give the appearance of victory. As the troops march in, the insurgents melt away – usually across the border into Pakistan – and for a while the occupation can claim that an area is pacified and progress is being made.

In an attempt to counter the insurgents’ tactics the US demanded the right of “hot pursuit” and to chase insurgents into Pakistan.

Pakistan’s dictator Pervez Musharraf refused, insisting that his army could do the job. He sent hundreds of thousands of troops into the troubled border regions, but instead of isolating Al Qaida and the Taliban he triggered a major rebellion among local tribes.

Hundreds of his soldiers were killed and, more worrying for the regime, thousands mutinied or defected.

Musharraf responded by launching attacks on religious schools – the madrassas – that he blamed for leading the opposition to his alliance with the US.

The spill-over of the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan has raised alarm bells in Washington.

The New York Times reports that in the city of Peshawar “the extremists are doing well. They have undermined faith in the government, sown distrust and made the police fearful for their lives.”

In the latest incident a Pakistani border post was overrun by insurgents while a military base was pounded with rockets.

The war is slowly closing in on the cities, with reports that some neighbourhoods in Peshawar are falling under the control of “Pakistan’s Taliban”.

Instead of winning in Afghanistan, the US is now in danger of losing the border regions of Pakistan.

The “mini surge” is a desperate gamble by the US that is looking increasingly shaky in its “war on terror”.

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