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Afghanistan: the point of decision

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The world media's attention on Afghanistan in the past week has, most unusually, been focused on the country's domestic politics rather than its internal-security situation. The questionable process and equally uncertain outcome of the presidential election in the country on 20 August 2009 mean that political tension is likely to persist for at least several weeks, possibly longer. This is particularly the case as doubts evolve about the fairness of the vote. Such a situation creates worries for the coalition's military forces and diplomatic representatives, whose main interest is to see a semblance of order and control in Kabul so that the campaign against the Taliban and related militias can proceed as straightforwardly as possible.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here

But the understandable emphasis on the election has also served to a degree to draw attention away from the deteriorating security situation, in which United States and British forces in particular - engaged in bitter fighting with the Taliban in the southern Helmand province - continue to experience regular casualties.

An earlier column in this series highlighted a change in US military tactics in Afghanistan, namely the decision to try to kill or capture around fifty key people in the opium industry that were reported to have links with Taliban groups (see "Afghanistan: the wrong target", 13 August 2009). This project - mentioned in a report from the foreign-relations committee of the US Senate, and revealed on 10 August 2009 - is significant on three counts.

First, it indicates that the Barack Obama administration's involvement in the war is becoming even more intense, at the very time that the president's domestic difficulties over healthcare reform and the economy are growing (and with public doubts over the Afghan war on the rise, prompting some commentators to suggest that Afghanistan might become for Obama what Vietnam had been to Lyndon B Johnson).

Second, it appears on every reasonable criterion to represent a violation of international law.

Third, it represents an escalation in US operations that tacitly acknowledges what senior US military commanders have begun openly to admit: that, despite a substantial increase in troop levels in 2007-09, the war in Afghanistan is not going well.  

The longer view

A clear indication of current worries is the interview given to CNN on 23 August 2009 by the chair of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. The admiral accepted that there had been a marked downturn in levels of security. The situation, he said, "is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the last couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated.  Their tactics just in my recent visits out there and talking with our troops certainly indicate that" (see "More troops may be needed to bolster Afghanistan", CNN, 23 August 2009). 

In a later interview, Mullen commented "that with the ‘right resources', the coalition could begin to make progress in quelling the insurgency within twelve to eighteen months" (see Scott Wilson & Joshua Partlow, "On Afghanistan, Political Test for Obama", Washington Post, 26 August 2009).

In neither interview did Mullen indicate how many additional troop numbers might be sought, but he is clearly working the media and public - and perhaps his political masters - to prepare the way for a further "surge", following the additional 17,000 troops deployed from May 2009. The current commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is due to deliver his report on the security situation to the White House in the first week of September; there are widespread expectations that as many more troops (perhaps 25,000) will be requested. At present, 62,000 of the 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan are American, and 6,000 more are already scheduled to arrive by the end of 2009; a further increase at the higher end of the scale anticipated would take the total to around 130,000.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

Between the lines a telling degree of pessimism is audible in such estimates and plans. When, for example, the most senior officer in the US armed forces says that the coalition "could begin to make progress in quelling the insurgency within twelve to eighteen months" [emphasis added], it implies that positive results - even with existing and further deployments of additional resources - will not be visible until 2010-11. This is a very long way from the impression given on both sides of the Atlantic that the increase in troop levels of early 2009 was intended primarily to ensure sufficient security for the presidential elections.  

The larger strategy

The immediate run-up to the polls - originally planned for April, before the current presidential term ended in May, and then rescheduled for 20 August - was indeed marked by an upsurge in violence in June-July. The toll of coalition casualties, both deaths and serious injuries, has been especially severe: the killing of four American soldiers on 24 August, for example, took the total coalition losses in 2009 to 295, meaning that more have already been killed this year than in any other year since the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001.

Even on election-day itself - during which the government in Kabul tried in effect to impose something of a security-news blackout - there seem to have been in excess of 400 attacks across the country. A provisional assessment from the United Nations suggests that up to one-fifth of the polling may be suspect, on account of corruption and malpractice as well as insecurity; though the precise degree of violation and of orchestration involved is yet to become fully apparent. What does seem beyond dispute is that very low turnouts in many areas reflect the apathy and disaffection among Afghans who voted in the 2005 elections and are unhappy with the failure of their government and its foreign backers to deliver good governance.

The Taliban assaults continued throughout the electoral campaign, though it is clear that the movement's violence was not targeted specifically at the electoral process but has larger strategic objectives. A big attack on 25 August in the southern city of Kandahar, for example, targeted the provincial offices and other key buildings; the truck-bomb killed at least forty-three people and wounded nearly twice that number. It was followed by another bomb in the same part of the city a day later.

It is in this context that McChrystal's report, and the Obama administration's response to its recommendations, are so crucial. Even in comparison with 2006, the Taliban and other paramilitary groups are far more active and control more territory, while many Afghans have lost faith in the prospects for security and clean government.

The moment of choice

In coming to a view of General McChrystal's report, Barack Obama and his advisers will need to take into account three further developments.

First, Pakistani army activity across the border appears to have declined in the wake of the killing of a key Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The passing of the local Taliban leadership to one of the new generation of leaders, the determined and already experienced 30-year old, Hakimullah (Zulfiqar) Mehsud, might seem to argue for a continued pursuit; but the army's apparent success over Baitullah can equally be regarded as providing a good reason not to go further with a potentially unpopular campaign.

Second, the elusive but much-discussed "back-channel" talks with Afghan Taliban elements are actually underway, notwithstanding the opposition of the local Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. These talks involve, most notably, an Afghan senator, Moulvi Arsala Rehami (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Seven Steps to Peace in Afghanistan", Asia Times, 25 August 2009). 

Third, and perhaps most important, the attitude of the US military leadership may be opposed to compromise. General David H Petraeus, the commander of US Central Command, and some of his colleagues have made substantial progress in changing the attitudes and tactics of the US army and marine corps towards counterinsurgency warfare, and are committed to seeing these implanted in the next generation. At the same time, there is a pervasive concern at the most senior levels of the US military that to compromise with Taliban elements in Afghanistan - following the costly (and unfinished) six years of war in Iraq - will be viewed as a humiliation for the world's only superpower.

The different approach

The American concern over a negotiated outcome in Afghanistan is made deeper for the symbolic reason that the war there has all along been represented as the direct and utterly necessary response to 9/11 - a true "war of necessity" as opposed to the "war of choice" in Iraq. The very least the US military wants is a substantial further surge in troop levels sufficient to reduce Taliban influence, followed only then (perhaps in 2011) by some kind of deal.

There is an alternative political option, which is advocated by the Afghan presidential candidate and former senior World Bank official, Ashraf Ghani. This is to embark on serious and determined negotiations with the Taliban that might offer a clear timetable for a progressive withdrawal of foreign troops in return for a series of ceasefire agreements. 

This would be a very different approach for Barack Obama's team to take; it would rouse considerable anger among the political right in the United States; and it would it certainly be risky. Against this, an intelligent leadership may have to recognise the unpalatable reality that the more foreign forces have been deployed in Afghanistan in the past three years, the greater the violence and the success of the paramilitaries. In this light, the perils of a serious engagement leading to a timed withdrawal may be balanced against the prospect of an even more violent conflict if the present course continues..

There are many analysts in and around the United States military who argue that Iraq and Afghanistan are more truly representative of future wars than state-on-state warfare, and that these are the conflicts that the US forces must learn to fight.  A near-nightmare outcome - with, again, the Vietnam precedent in mind - would be for both of these wars to be seen at their end as bywords for chaos, waste, failure and embitterment. If the Afghanistan war, in particular, concludes in a withdrawal negotiated with those deemed responsible for harbouring the 9/11 attackers, the damage to the world's most powerful military would be profound. 

The public sentiments of gloom about the course of Afghanistan's war are striking. But equally strong military voices want to ensure that Barack Obama prosecutes the war, and at even higher intensity. The Afghan people face more political manoeuvring, and possibly another round of voting, in the weeks ahead. But whoever emerges as their president at the end of the process, the war that approaches its eighth anniversary in their country is set to continue.


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