Afghanistan's war enters its second decade with the Taliban emboldened and the United States enfeebled. But the power-play between Pakistan, India and China is also now central to an assessment of what comes next.
Ten years ago this week, just under a month after the attacks of 9/11, the United States campaign to terminate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan began. The opening phase was muted: little seemed to be happening even as the media reported huge air assaults. In Washington, the emphasis in Republican circles was already on the need for war with Iraq (see "From Afghanistan to Iraq?", 15 October 2001).
By early November, progress still seemed slow (see "The horizon of war lengthens", 5 November 2001). A month later, however, the campaign was largely over when Kandahar was taken (see "The wages of war", 10 December 2001). By then it had become clear that the United States had used the troops of the Northern Alliance warlords as its ground-force and this, combined with intensive air operations and special forces had overwhelmed the Taliban.
In practice, the Taliban were undeafeated in direct combat: rather, they retreated with their arms and munitions often intact. The western media, however, chose to portray the entry into Kabul and other cities as a conventional - and definitive - military victory.
The ending of the Taliban's rule was followed by a greater focus on Saddam Hussein's Iraq by the George W Bush administration. This was a dominant theme of the president's state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002. Afghanistan was by then largely forgotten as a military (as opposed to reconstruction) problem, with only some ominous insurgent activity close to the Pakistani border drawing concern; calls for a 30,000-strong stabilisation force went unanswered.
A failed strategy
A decade on, Barack Obama's decision to order a "surge" of American troops into Afghanistan in 2009 - following the pattern of his predecessor in Iraq in 2007 - looks increasingly ineffective as a way to bring the war there to an end. The surge was intended to achieve a degree of military superiority clear enough to force the Taliban and other armed opposition groups to the negotiating table, in turn facilitating a political settlement and US withdrawal. The evidence now is that the insurgents see little or no need to talk.
The major attacks in Kabul and regular assassinations in 2011 show the Taliban's capacity to act with impunity even in the centre of international power in the country. But the more subtle reality is that the Taliban and other forces now have the capacity to dictate the terms of the war. The US and its coalition allies can claim to occupy far more territory, not least in Kandahar and Helmand provinces; but the paramilitary forces maintain their power by avoiding confrontation and operating on a different, non-territorial plane.
This can be seen in the steady acquisition of power by the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan where the group had but a meagre presence. For example, it is now active and influential in and around Mazar-e Sharif, a city far from the key Taliban areas (see Joshua Partlow, "Taliban stalks outskirts of calm Afghan city", Washington Post, 29 September 2011). Taliban power is clear in Lashkar Gah - a provincial capital in southern Afghanistan that was taken over by US forces in 2010 - in the most obvious of ways: namely, the mobile-phone system closes down at 8 pm each evening. The phone companies will not contravene "advice" from local Taliban (see Alissa J Rubin, "Taliban gaining in subtle battle for minds, via cellphone cuts", International Herald Tribune, 5 October 2011).
For many Afghans, there is a balance-of-advantage calculation underlying these shifts. If more foreign troops are seen as capable of delivering permanent peace and security, backed by a non-corrupt and transparent Afghan government acting in the interests of the people, then they would have had a strong chance of fulfilling key political goals. But if the Taliban maintain their position, the Kabul government remains corrupt, and US troops are viewed as ineffective occupiers with no lasting commitment to the country, there is little incentive among Afghans to back the international forces. In these circumstances, the military-political strategy behind the whole "surge" concept fails (see "America's wars: the logic of escalation", 22 September 2011).
A regional conflict
There is a larger context for this failure: for it is being played out in a regional context where neighbouring states - not least India and Pakistan - are themselves engaged in a proxy contest for control in Afghanistan (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008).
Here, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai's two-day visit to New Delhi on 3-4 October 2011, marked the signing of a strategic-partnership pact, is inevitably viewed with deep suspicion in Islamabad. The timing, the tenth anniversary of the start of a war in which Pakistan too has been deeply embroiled and suffered so much, is already disconcerting; the sight of Indian investment and engagement in Afghanistan rising each month is even more so. Islamabad is afraid that the country is being undermined from the rear by its old enemy, and thus losing the defence in depth that a pliant Afghanistan provides.
India for its part wishes precisely to undermine what it sees as Pakistan's threat to Indian stability. A series of bombing attacks in its commercial heart, Mumbai, has created in India haunting awareness of its vulnerability; and New Delhi further sees influence in Afghanistan as a check to its greater competitor (and Pakistan's strategic ally) China, which is working tirelessly to develop its own contacts there.
In this complex chessgame, Pakistan fears Indian involvement in Afghanistan, while India fears both Chinese and Pakistani influence there; Pakistan worries about the loss of defence in depth, but India is concerned about China's projection of power across southern parts of central Asia (see "Afghanistan, and the world's resource war", 17 June 2010)
The popular mood in Pakistan that lays ever more blame for the daily violence across the country on the perfidious Americans adds a further dimension (see Karin Brulliard, "Shaken by increase in attacks since 2001, many Pakistanis fault U.S.", Washington Post, 27 September 2011). In Afghanistan, the Karzai government regards the Pakistanis as supporting the most dangerous paramilitary groups operating in the country, and after the assassination on 20 September 2011 of the former president and would-be peace-broker Burhanuddin Rabbani it is less than ever confident of a negotiated solution to the morass.
Even this skeletal summary indicates that after ten years of war, the situation in Afghanistan is much more complicated than a Taliban vs Americans fight. India, China and Pakistan are locked into the struggle for Afghanistan's future, with the country at the heart of the conflict as vulnerable as ever to outsiders' ambitions (see "Afghanistan: victory talk, regional tide", 25 March 2010).
If there is going to be any degree of peace and stability, these three countries will have to be heavily involved in the process that achieves this result. The United States now seems, for a range of reasons that include its domestic politics and economic problems, ever less able to lead the way towards a settlement. Afghanistan's future will be decided in Islamabad, New Delhi and even Beijing as much as, if not more than, in Kabul and Washington.