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Sleepwalking into catastrophe in Afghanistan

Confused war aims and massive electoral fraud must be the signal for withdrawal argues, Andy Gregg

NATO, US and UK policy towards Afghanistan is not only wrongheaded and chaotic, but increasingly dangerous for the West. The rationale for continuing to pour money, marines and materials into Afghanistan appears to be that by taking the fight to the Taliban in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan we will be able to ensure that Al Qaida terrorist training camps don't return to a Taliban run Afghanistan. It is actually arguable that NATO is setting up all the conditions for a military disaster like that experienced by the Soviets in the 1980s and at the same time stoking up jihadist anger throughout the region and indeed all over the world.

Even worse, NATO's current approach is destabilising the entire region and in particular stoking up extremists and pro-Taliban elements in nuclear armed Pakistan. None of this actually makes us any safer indeed it is likely to cause more terrorism rather than less. Gordon Brown claims rather bizarrely that the: 'Afghanization' of Afghanistan is the key to beating the Taliban and bringing troops home. It is not clear what is meant here. Sometimes this is taken to imply a gradual withdrawal of NATO troops and on other occasions it seems to mean training up a massive Afghan army and Police Force to take over the bulk of the fighting with the Taliban and other allied groups. Many have pointed out the unfortunate echoes of the earlier failed US strategy of 'Vietnamization'.

Whichever meaning prevails there are huge problems tooling up the Afghan army and police force to manage the country's own affairs. Afghanistan is effectively a country in the middle of a long term civil war. The numerically dominant Pashtun tribes whose hinterland is in the South and East (but there are considerable Pashtun communities elsewhere) are the mainstay of support for the Taliban. More especially they are strongly opposed to any government dominated by non-Pashtun groups who provided the backbone to the Northern Alliance which was used by the US to bring down the Taliban Government in 2001. Most of the recruits to the Afghan National Army are non Pashtuns from the North and are seen just like NATO as a foreign army of occupation in large parts of the South and East. Whilst this ethnic mix may be less true of the Police they display an alternative but equally serious problem - they are riddled with corruption and often collude with the huge opium trade which, whilst ubiquitous in Afghanistan, is concentrated in Pashtun heartlands. According to Nushin Arbabzadah there is widespread anecdotal evidence that Afghani families are hedging their bets between Kabul and the Taliban by sending one cousin or brother to fight for the Taliban and another to serve the police force.

It is also clear that corrupt elements in the Afghan police and even in some cases the army have been supplying significant amounts of equipment to the Taliban. Ann Jones in her article Meet the Afghan Army: Is It a Figment of Washington's Imagination? writes 'when I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name'. The fact that such a large portion of the Pashtun heartlands are under the direct or indirect control of the Taliban is the reason why Hamid Karzai (himself a Pashtun) had to contrive such a massive voting fraud in these areas. The scale of this vote rigging has brought the whole 'democratisation' project in Afghanistan to the level of a laughing stock.

The danger is that we actually think of Afghanistan as a cohesive country that is capable of being ruled effectively by a government in Kabul. There is little evidence that the country has ever really been like this let alone that it is about to become like it in the near future. There is very little left of any real 'Afghan' nationalism like that which was slowly growing in the 1970s.Thirty years of war have sundered and split the different tribes amongst themselves and resulted in a situation where tribes or smaller clans will give temporary militia style support to whoever has the largest bag of money to give out. As James Denselow points out in his article 'How national is the Afghan army?''Afghanisers' pin their hopes on a bolstered national security force. First you need soldiers with patriotic, not ethnic loyalties'.

Ironically the original rationale for military intervention in Afghanistan the presence of Al Qaida - has largely dissipated. President Obama's own national security adviser, former Marine Gen. James L. Jones, admits that 'the al-Qaida presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.' In fact almost all the Al Qaida operatives from the leadership down have decamped across the border and relocated in the tribal areas of North Western Pakistan and it is this Pakistan factor that poses the real current threat to both the entire region and to mayhem on the streets of Europe.

The Taliban, by contrast are getting ever stronger. We might have got rid of them for good if we had concentrated on rebuilding Afghanistan eight years ago. But instead we were sidetracked into the disastrous mess in Iraq. The collateral damage (i.e. innocent civilian lives) that is resulting from the current level of conflict is bringing new recruits to the Taliban every day. A military surge will only make this far worse and talk of 'winning hearts and minds' is no more likely to be successful in Afghanistan than it was in Vietnam. The Afghan National Army is itself viewed as a corrupt army of occupation in large parts of Pashtunistan.

There is no evidence that Afghans will ever accept let alone welcome a Western occupation force. However, unlike Al Qaida, there is no evidence that the Taliban are anything other than a bunch of very unpleasant religious obscurantists. Now that Al Qaida has largely left the country it would be most unlikely that the Taliban would sponsor or organise Al Qaida style terrorist attacks outside the region. Yes they do treat women and minorities appallingly badly but so do the other warlords and the Karzai Government itself. has a very chequered record on allowing women even the most basic freedoms. But outside the region they have never attacked us and are most unlikely to do so. They and AlQaida do not come from the same traditions. The Taliban are not intensely ideological in the same way as is Al Qaida and their fundamentalism owes more to the strict Deobandi school of Islam (which grew up in South Asia) rather than Al Qaida's ultra-Wahabi sectarianism (which comes straight from Saudi Arabia).

The notion that we are fighting the Taliban just in case they one day again play host to Al Qaeda is increasingly redundant especially as the real locus of Al Qaida operations is next door in Pakistan if it is anywhere.

Obama should get US troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible and take the public relations hit now while his term of office is still fairly young. If he escalates the fighting he is likely to be ruining his own chances of being anything other than the president who presided over another catastrophic military failure on the scale of Vietnam.

We must not forget that the Soviets were unable to hold Afghanistan down in the 1980s even though they were deploying around twice as many troops as the current total ISAF contingent. If Gordon Brown or an incoming Tory administration really wanted to make some serious savings as they claim, then getting out of this unwinnable war would take them quite along way. Their craven inability to act independently of the US does not bode well.