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Afghanistan: where now for the unwinnable war?

This article is over 13 years, 3 months old
Simon Assaf assesses the growing crisis for the occupation
Issue 2124

General David Petraeus, the US military’s supreme commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, has launched a review of the “war on terror” that could lead to a U-turn in military policy in Afghanistan.

His reassessment of US strategy is a recognition of the deep pessimism engulfing Nato – the military alliance that runs the occupation – over whether it can win the war in Afghanistan.

Petraeus recently told the Washington Post of his plans to make peace with “moderate” elements in the Taliban and transform them into “tribal militias”.

“I do think you have to talk to enemies,” he said. “Clearly you want to try to reconcile with as many as possible.”

This a climbdown from the overwhelming victory declared by the US after its October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Back then the US, Britain and its allies believed they could quickly secure the country.

This comes as the new British commander says Afghanistan needs 30,000 new troops.

For the first two years of the occupation, they were able to boast of their success. The Taliban were scattered and it seemed only a matter of time before they captured Al Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden.

But it became clear early on that a crucial element of the Afghan occupation – “winning hearts and minds” through reconstructing the war-torn country – was going seriously adrift.

Billions of dollars earmarked for Afghan projects found their way into the pockets of Western contractors and corrupt officials.

Any roads that were built were for military purposes, while schools and clinics failed to materialise. Instead, the occupation concentrated on shoring up the government of US appointee Hamid Karzai based in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.

Karzai found himself isolated in his Kabul palace with little influence beyond the city. The state he presided over was shot through by corruption and reliant on much-hated warlords.

Afghanistan became a laboratory for the failed economic policies of the neoliberals. Giant glass buildings sprang up in the capital, boasting glitzy malls and exclusive restaurants. Meanwhile the rest of the country teetered on the edge of starvation.

The rampant corruption and grinding poverty fuelled ­sympathy for the Taliban’s insurgency. They were now being joined by a growing number of local ­resistance groups, that began to hit back at the occupation.

Between 2001 and 2004 around 50 foreign troops were killed by insurgents. This figure began to spiral upwards in 2005.

In 2006 Nato, spearheaded by British troops, launched a major offensive to seize control of key Taliban heartlands in the south and the east of the country.

At first this strategy found some success. Battles were one-sided. Groups of resistance fighters were heavily outgunned or massacred in airstrikes.

But it soon became clear that a great proportion of the victims were civilians. As airstrikes pounded down on villages, popular anger exploded into mass demonstrations and rioting.

Nato’s offensive also led to the war spilling across the border into Pakistan. Insurgents began attacking foreign troops in Afghanistan before spiriting themselves back over the border into the regions of Pakistan controlled by local tribal leaders.

Pakistan soon found itself as the new frontline in the “war on terror”. Pervez Musharraf, until recently the country’s military ruler and a key US ally, poured in tens of thousands of troops to pacify the border regions.

But far from cutting off the insurgents’ escape route, Musharraf provoked an uprising among his own troops.

Earlier this year he lost power, forced out by popular anger. But Pakistan’s new civilian government has found itself in a similar bind, caught between its US overlords on one side and widespread opposition to the war on the other.

The border regions are crucial for the occupation of Afghanistan. Most of Nato’s supplies go through the Khyber Pass between the two countries.

These supplies are being attacked and looted by Pakistani insurgents. The US has responded by flying unmanned, heavily armed, drones to “take out” the insurgents. The drones are raining down death on the villages below.

With the war spreading, the question of troop numbers has became a priority for the US. This is creating all manner of political crises inside the US ruling class and beyond.

One possible response is to take troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan. But despite claims of victory in Iraq, US military commanders stress that success there is “fragile and reversible”.

Attacks on US troops in Iraq have never entirely stopped. US control over Baghdad and other major cities remains in the balance. With Iraq so insecure, the US military fears that any significant shift of troops to Afghanistan will leave them dangerously exposed.

This leaves their Afghan mission short on the ground. There are currently 98,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan – well below the 400,000 needed to secure the occupation. Other Nato countries are unwilling to commit more soldiers to the occupation.

The insurgents now control many approach roads to Kabul. This has forced the US to rethink its ambitions for the occupation.

Petraeus wants to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire. This attempt to “manage the defeat” will mark a new stage in the occupation.

For more read Afghanistan: the case against the “good war” in the latest International Socialism journal. Go to »

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