The approach of winter has usually indicated a respite in the Afghan conflict. This year, however, there seems to be no pause in the continuous litany of bad news emerging from there. Pakistan, for its part, seems relatively quiet. Perhaps the tragic floods, greeted with some indifference by the outside world, have contributed in quieting down insurgent and military activity there, since both the army and the insurgent forces have been occupied in rescue operations. The Western Alliance’s most visible contribution has been the continuation of the destruction of villages by drone attacks, thus probably hastening the demise of this “democratic” government in favour of a military administration as well as accumulating further anti-Western resentment for the immediate future.
The tense and violent atmosphere in which the recent Afghan parliamentary elections have taken place is a prime indication of how the situation is fast deteriorating. Dishonestly triumphant proclamations would have us compare these elections – in terms of turnout and number of violent episodes – to the recent, disastrous, almost farcical presidential vote. A different image emerges if a comparison is made with the previous parliamentary elections, in the fall of 2005, which I witnessed as an international monitor and which took place, by and large, in a peaceful and even good-humoured atmosphere.
At this stage, it is difficult to express an informed evaluation of the news that “secret” negotiations are taking place between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The very tribal structure of the latter, and the apparent absolute condition set by the Taliban that no agreement can be reached with foreign troops still in occupation seem to indicate some fragility in the proceedings.
In any historical analysis, it is not always easy to identify turning points, in which right or wrong decisions can be viewed as fundamental in determining the course of events. This is all the more arduous when the events are chronologically close and fresh in the memory of protagonists and witnesses.
Those fateful months, between 2005 and 2006, may well have constituted one of those watershed moments, in which a less obtuse mentality on the part of the Allies could possibly have prevented the road to what now seems like an inevitable disaster.
It is a well-known axiom that negotiations with insurgent, or “guerrilla” forces have to be undertaken from a position of unquestionable strength, unless, as in the case of the Soviet forces in 1989, their aim is to secure retreat. This, I believe, was the basic reasoning behind the much publicised intentions to “liberate” Kandahar, and thus be able to confront the insurgency in the wake of a resounding military success. Of course, wiser counsels having prevailed, the offensive never took place, and there has been no visible shift of the situation in Nato’s favour.
ISAF forces, however, most certainly were in a position of strength in 2006, and even the sporadic suicide attacks in the name of the Taliban insurgency were usually perpetrated by Arabs or Pakistanis, showing that the movement was not all that strong on the ground. At that stage, albeit in indirect, oblique ways, overtures were being made by some of the Taliban leaders, including the Mullah Omar. Suggestions to the effect that it would be a good idea to respond to these approaches were, however, slapped down unceremoniously with the specious (and contradictory) motivations that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” and that “the Taliban don’t want to talk”.
It was apparently believed that, with a “democratically elected” parliament and president, the Afghans had become masters of their own fate. According to a childishly dangerous line of thinking, the holding of elections in occupied territories invariably constitutes a panacea and should subsequently discourage complaints on the part of the population. I really don’t know what would have happened if “free and democratic” elections had been held in Italy in 1944. Elections should come after pacification, not as an early step towards peace and normality.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the situation began to deteriorate rapidly in the spring of 2007 when the sum of allied mistakes, miscalculations and cynical unconcern seemed to give the insurgency – no longer exclusively “Taliban” – renewed vigour, allowing it to expand and to infiltrate the population with ease.
All this paved the way for the present situation, in which it has become acceptable, indeed fashionable to assert that there is no satisfactory explanation to justify Nato’s continued presence in Afghanistan on these terms, that the war is unwinnable no matter how many “surges” can be added, and that we are on our way to the third betrayal or abandonment of the Afghan people by the West in the space of two short decades.
In 1989, after ten years of occupation, the Soviet Union bought its way out of Afghanistan, leaving behind a country torn by civil war which most often involved those very “war lords”, as well as the Taliban, who had been armed and financed by the West to resist Soviet occupation. At this stage the country needed outside help and was instead abandoned to itself. The chief victim of this short-sighted policy was, of course, the charismatic figure of Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was to be assassinated on the eve of the 11 September attacks. Massoud had tried to alert Western public opinion, even addressing the European parliament, but meeting polite indifference. He has been quoted as lamenting the fact that Europeans and Americans did not realise that his fight against the Taliban was also in our interest.
The Afghan people were again betrayed and abandoned right after the 2001 invasion. At first it was really believed that Nato’s invasion of Afghanistan would serve many purposes: the eradication of Al Qaeda, the defeat of the Taleban, and the encouragement of reform. None of this was true, and the Afghan invasion served principally as a dress rehearsal for the invasion of Iraq, which had far greater weight on Western agendas.
The third betrayal is imminent, and will occur when, after having destroyed much of what was left of the country’s fragile social structure, we shall again leave the Afghanistan to itself, expressing totally insincere and unrealistic confidence in its “democratic” institutions.
It is tragically easy to foresee the consequences.