This week President Obama made a speech about the future of the war in Afghanistan (1). He quite strongly hinted that it will not be long before the country sees a similar withdrawal process to that seen in Iraq last year, provided, of course, that the vague and intangible goals of “protecting national security” and making sure the “job is done” are met.
Of course, there’s been a lot of questions and criticism of the Iraq withdrawal with more than a few commentators saying that the presence of military advisors and private security contractors makes it more of a downsizing operation rather than a genuine pull out. It’s easy to believe something similar will happen in Afghanistan with bases like Bagram still being home to a large number of armed English speakers in khaki fatigues.
Still, less direct interference by US forces does at least give local Afghans on both sides more room to manoeuvre and decide things for themselves. As such, a settlement should be welcomed, if only due to a lack of any better alternatives.
I’m sure the diminished ranks of the Obama fan club will be championing and quoting the speeches made by the President on his new phase of the Afghan plan. The more cynical, like me for example, will probably draw attention to the annoying fact that the popularity of the War in Afghanistan has been on the decline since at least 2003, when the invasion of Iraq poisoned the goodwill earned post 9/11. In fact, recently support seems to have completely evaporated following the death of Bin Laden with many raising questions of why troops remain in Afghanistan? A number of high profile atrocities (2) and blunders (3) remind the folks back home that wars are actually vicious and cruel and it ain’t always the bad guys that get hurt. And let’s not forget this is now an election year, and the Republican race has quietened down and stopped grabbing attention. An unpopular war is bad news for any elected official but especially so for one like Obama whose first term can, if you’re feeling charitable, be described as lack lustre, or a bitter disappointment if you’re not.
To give you a crystal clear picture of just how acidic this war is to an election campaign, here’s a very recent poll conducted by Fox News. Remember that as you read these results:
Fox News Poll (4) conducted by Anderson Robbins Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R). April 22-24, 2012. N=915 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.
“Do you approve or disapprove of the U.S. withdrawing military troops in Afghanistan?”
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how serious it is that even Fox News, the largest and loudest cheerleaders of American invasions, can’t seem to find even a quarter of people in favour of continuing the conflict.
However, in addition to looking more and more like a desperate ploy to energise the Democratic party base come polling day, Obama’s touted withdrawal plan has a lot wrong with it. At several points in his speech, he states the war in Afghanistan will end this war. Not only is that not the aim of his plan, but even if it were, he’s overlooking something very important. America and its NATO allies do not have the power to end this war. The most they can do is end their direct and overt involvement in the conflict. The Afghan conflict is a civil war that outside involvement has escalated to the point it has regional implications. The only people who can stop this war are the Afghans – all factions including government forces, the Taliban and other insurgent groups and, the ordinary long suffering civilian population. Either they find a settlement between them or one group may gain the advantage and destroy the other(s). America for all its wealth and technology can do nothing to change that fact.
The West’s war in Afghanistan is frequently compared to the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, for obvious and usually valid reasons. The location is the same, as are some of the “toys” and tactics being used. Both sides have similarities with the combatants before them, both conflicts involved a mechanised superpower with a global vision and ideology it believed should be exported. Their opponents where an indigenous collection of tribes and Islamists, relying on the support and kindness of their neighbours for shelter and supplies.
What we are likely to see in the coming days and months is going to feel comparable to the Soviet Union’s final strategy. In 1989,, Gorbachev pulled Soviet forces out of Afghanistan. However, he did keep military aid, such as air strikes and covert operations and financial assistance, at levels of between $3-4 billion per year. Oddly enough, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), by then the only thing holding the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) together, was able to regroup and then counter attack the Mujahedeen and reclaim some territory. What we’ll see if the Taliban don’t immediately go for a cease-fire and negotiation process will be similar to this brief period, only with more direct support from the “advisors” left behind to make sure the Afghan army does what it’s told. In fact, even if the Taliban do stand down , there are many other armed groups currently ambushing checkpoints and patrols, like the Haqqani network (estimated strength 4,000-15,000), or the “Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law” which some have estimated to have nearly 100,000 members in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There’s even a Maoist party (5) operating trying to start a “People’s war” and I very much doubt they’ll care what about the state of the relationship between Kabul and the Taliban. Yet these groups often get overlooked or lumped in with the Taliban, no doubt greatly annoying the leaders of these bands of hardy rebels.
Obviously I can’t say for sure whether Karzai will benefit from a poll boost once he becomes chief helmsmen like Najibullah did, but if I had to guess I would say no. Karzai’s regime, which is cobbled together by a coalition of warlords and anaemic political parties, seems without strong outside support and even shakier then the old PDPA. Which in a way is impressive as a cursory reading of the party’s Wikipedia page will give you the impression that the party copied its structure from the Terran Empire in Star Trek, where once the boss is killed, everyone goes up in rank. Unfortunately for the PDPA, in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed which meant that aid disappeared, bankrupting the DRA and grounding its forces. It wasn’t long before they were ousted and Afghans saw the rise of what would later be called the Northern Alliance.
Given the flagging state of the world economy I suppose it’s worth asking whether the US could suffer a fate similar to the USSR? After all, there is a lot of wisdom in the old saying “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”,. For now though, rejoice (just not too much), for it looks as though the war is winding down for us Westerners, just don’t let the smiles and photos of firm handshakes fool you. This isn’t over yet and the architect of “change” has once again failed to do anything more substantial then alter the scale of the problem.
(2) There was the disgusting case of US soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses, then not long after that we had the Staff Sergeant using a village in Kandahar as his own personal hunting ground killing 16 civilians mostly women and children.
(3) Burning Koran’s didn’t do ISAF any favours.Global
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This post was written by R.M. Harrison