Afghanistan’s lost decade

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 July 2009

The war in Afghanistan will move into its ninth year in under three months' time, with the anniversary of the start of the United States bombing on 7 October 2001. This war is now beginning to approach the duration of the Soviet occupation. That started with the invasion by the Red Army on 24 December 1979 and ended with the United Nations-brokered ceasefire of 15 May 1988 and the final withdrawal of Soviet troops a year later.

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 2001That earlier conflict, which killed over a million Afghans and caused millions more refugees, was devastating. It was followed by a bitter and complex civil war in the early 1990s that led to a Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996 and of most of the country by the end of the decade. For sheer civilian suffering, the Soviet occupation far exceeds the conflict of 2001-09 - but this ongoing war may still be in its early stages. Most military analysts believe that if present-day levels of western military involvement are maintained, then - whoever is in the White House - the war has at least a decade to go (see "Iraq, AfPak, beyond: the global cost of war", 18 June 2009).

The motive of war

In many ways the Barack Obama administration has adopted a different approach to that of George W Bush (see Godfrey Hodgson, "Barack Obama's world", 16 July 2009). If John McCain had won in November 2008, there would have been a major military surge aiming at overall victory against the Taliban and other militia groups. Obama has also gone for a surge - by the end of 2009, foreign troop numbers in Afghanistan will be approaching 100,000, two-thirds of them American. But there is no longer an expectation of decisive victory.

The aim now is more of a determined effort to so weaken the Taliban that deals will be able to be brokered. That itself is hardly new - at least for the British government, whose then defence minister Des Browne made clear in October 2007 that the prospect was inevitable (see "Afghanistan-Pakistan: zone of insecurity", 11 October 2007).

Two years down the line, the conflict is intensifying. Any kind of settlement could take years to arrange and would in any case be dependent on maintaining support in the homelands - a concern for London even more than Washington. Because of this, the stated motive for the war has moved on from building a new democratic state in the western mould to preventing Taliban control of much of the country and the reappearance of al-Qaida training-camps. Thus, the Afghan war is about the western states's domestic security, and preventing more attacks.

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

This does not add up. The diffuse al-Qaida movement does not rely on a large network of training-camps, now that its cellular influence spreads in Yemen, Somalia, and north Africa. In any case, it is often forgotten that the bases operated by the movement in Afghanistan in the late 1990s had very little to do with transnational jihadist actions and much more to do with training foreign volunteers to aid the Taliban in completing their civil war against the Northern Alliance.

The rising cost

But whatever the motives for the continuing war, the chance of President Obama's limited aim of a negotiated settlement being achieved is limited by a major negative trend: the first is the greatly improved capabilities of the Taliban paramilitaries as they further develop their guerrilla tactics (see Antonio Giustozzi, "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban", 15 December 2009).

The American and British forces in southern Afghanistan have put much more effort into ground patrols as more troops have become available - partly because of the effects of drone-attacks and other air-strikes on civilian casualties. But as they do so, the use of roadside-bombs has a drastic effect, including causing most of the recent deaths among the young British soldiers (see James Dao, "Roadside bombs redefining Afghan war", International Herald Tribune, 13 July 2009).

A grim aspect of this war is that many of the technologies developed by the bomb-makers in southern Afghanistan utilise experience gained in Iraq. What is now happening reveals an enduring result of the six-year war in Iraq - the creation of a cohort of young paramilitaries with substantial experience against the world's best-armed and trained conventional armies. In the same way, every month that passes in Afghanistan adds to the training and experience of the Taliban insurgents.

These have also become very much more practiced at handling the overwhelming firepower available to the foreign forces, just as their associates have done in the Swat valley and elsewhere in western Pakistan (see Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: the road from hell", 9 June 2009). They tend to avoid most forms of conventional military conflict, moving instead to engage the western troops when the latter are on patrol. Taliban commanders know only too well that if the western forces want to control the rural areas they have to maintain a pervasive presence, including foot-patrols (see Steve Coll & Susan B Glasser, "Attacks Bear Earmarks of Evolving Al Qaeda", Washington Post, 8 July 2009).

The Taliban's challenge

The support for the Taliban is minimal in northern and western Afghanistan. But the movement does retain support in the Pashtun areas in the south and southeast, aided by the rampant corruption and maladministration of the Hamid Karzai regime in Kabul.

It is just possible that Karzai may fail to be re-elected in the presidential election on 20 August; an Ashraf Ghani presidency, with its promise of change, would be welcomed by many. The signs, though, are that the Karzai group already has things sorted - certainly the level of preparedness for free and fair elections is worse than before the 2004-05 elections (see "Afghanistan's Election Challenges", International Crisis Group, Asia Report 171, 24 June 2009). There are also widespread fears of violent disruption of the vote (see Pamela Constable, "Afghans Fear Violence Could Subvert August Elections", Washington Post, 5 July 2009).

What makes the present situation even more difficult is that there are reliable indications that the loosely affiliated Taliban groups are currently operating in a coordinated manner and are under the general and unexpectedly effective influence of Mullah Omar. The current leadership's ability to mount effective opposition to the surge in US and British forces means that Mullah Omar and his colleagues see little reason to consider any kind of negotiation - either with Kabul or with western officials, and even were the Saudis or others to act as intermediaries (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban will let guns do their talking", Asia Times, 13 July 2009).

The key question

The persistent difficulties facing the western forces, and the prospect of a war lasting at least another decade, raise an obvious question: how did it all come about?

An important point here is that both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown inherited this predicament from their predecessors. Britain's military forces in Afghanistan are second in size to the US's partly because of Tony Blair's absolute commitment to the transatlantic relationship after the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, and partly because Gordon Brown was able to extricate the British troops from Iraq on the basis of maintaining that relationship through heightened involvement in Afghanistan.

But this still leaves the original question of why the United States and its Nato allies ended up in an Afghanistan quagmire unanswered.

The initial attack on the country, following the numbing shock of 9/11, was fuelled by the (in retrospect, even more extraordinary) neo-conservatives' intoxicating belief in the "new American century". Yet while the destruction of the twin towers was bad enough, the attack on the Pentagon was just as deeply felt by the US military. How could the headquarters of the world's most powerful military be brought low by a "gang of terrorists" armed only with parcel-knives?

The answer starts there.

The two approaches

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 there were in principle two possible responses. The first was to see al-Qaida as a brutal, transnational, criminal entity that had to be pursued by every legal means available, no matter how long it took. The second was to see it as a global enemy that had to be fought, as in a war, with any regime that appeared in any way connected to it being ripe for termination.

Some analysts proposed the former view. This was summarised in one of the first columns in this series, on 29 September 2001, even before the war in Afghanistan started.

It argued that: "the extent of the devastation and human suffering inflected in the [9/11] attacks means that support for the United States among its allies is far-reaching, and extends to a remarkable range of states. In this light, the immediate response should be to develop, extend and cement this coalition; base all actions on the rule of law; (and) put every effort into bringing the perpetrators top justice" (see see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 29 September 2001).

That approach cut no ice at the time. Instead, the second view prevailed: massive force was used in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, with results that are all too visible in both countries. Now, nearly eight years later, the first approach is getting more serious consideration.

The close of an era

The United States and its Nato allies are now mired in Afghanistan, with little idea of how to achieve their aims. Their predicament goes far beyond the immediate circumstances of a particular summer of violence.

Indeed, it is best compared with events of the 1940s and 1950s. In 1947, Indian independence and partition marked the beginning of the end of several centuries of the colonial era; this was followed by the humiliation of the French military at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 and the British (and French) fiasco at Suez in November 1956 - only two of many more prolonged setbacks. Yet these colonial powers were then unable fully to recognise that the imperial age was ending (see "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent", 17 April 2008).

The world is now in a similar period. It is, put bluntly, no longer possible for western states to occupy countries in the middle east and southwest Asia. It is a lesson that should have been learnt by 2001: but the terrible impact of 9/11, coupled with a throwback regime in the White House -  aided by its appallingly misguided British ally - meant that it was not. Eight years on, the consequences are being suffered by young British and American soldiers and (it is too often forgotten) by many thousands of Afghans.

Perhaps the lesson can now, at last, be learned. Barack Obama may be the figure to acknowledge the real nature of an epic historical shift. If he does, then his presidency may in just this one respect prove notable. If he cannot, there is a real chance that it could end in bitter failure.

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