By Conn Hallinan | Every war has a story line. World War I was “the war to end all wars.” World War II was “the war to defeat fascism.”
Iraq was sold as a war to halt weapons of mass destruction; then to overthrow Saddam Hussein, then to build democracy. In the end it was a fabrication built on a falsehood and anchored in a fraud.
But Afghanistan is the “good war,” aimed at “those who attacked us,” in the words of columnist Frank Rich. It is “the war of necessity,” asserts the New York Times, to roll back the “power of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Barack Obama is making the distinction between the “bad war” in Iraq and the “good war” in Afghanistan a centerpiece of his run for the presidency. He proposes ending the war in Iraq and redeploying U.S. military forces in order “to finish the job in Afghanistan.”
Virtually no one in the United States or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) calls for negotiating with the Taliban. Even the New York Times editorializes that those who want to talk “have deluded themselves.”
But the Taliban government did not attack the United States. Our old ally, Osama bin Laden, did. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same organization (if one can really call al-Qaeda an “organization”), and no one seems to be listening to the Afghans.
We should be.
What Afghans Say
A recent poll of Afghan sentiment found that, while the majority dislikes the Taliban, 74% want negotiations and 54% would support a coalition government that included the Taliban.
This poll reflects a deeply divided country where most people are sitting on the fence and waiting for the final outcome of the war. Forty percent think the current government of Hamid Karzai, allied with the United States and NATO, will prevail, 19% say the Taliban, and 40% say it is “too early to say.”
There is also strong ambivalence about the presence of foreign troops. Only 14% want them out now, but 52% want them out within three to five years. In short, the Afghans don’t want a war to the finish.
They also have a far more nuanced view of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While the majority oppose both groups —13% support the Taliban and 19% al-Qaeda — only 29% see the former organization as “a united political force.”
But that view doesn’t fit the West’s story line of the enemy as a tightly disciplined band of fanatics.
Whither the Taliban
In fact, the Taliban appears to be evolving from a creation of the U.S., Saudi Arabian, and Pakistani intelligence agencies during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union, to a polyglot collection of dedicated Islamists to nationalists. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar told the Agence France Presse early this year, “We’re fighting to free our country. We are not a threat to the world.”
Those are words that should give Obama, The New York Times, and NATO pause.
The initial invasion in 2001 was easy because the Taliban had alienated itself from the vast majority of Afghans. But the weight of occupation, and the rising number of civilian deaths, is shifting the resistance toward a war of national liberation.
No foreign power has ever won that battle in Afghanistan.
War Gone Bad
There is no mystery as to why things have gone increasingly badly for the United States and its allies.
As the United States steps up its air war, civilian casualties have climbed steadily over the past two years. Nearly 700 were killed in the first three months of 2008, a major increase over last year. In a recent incident, 47 members of a wedding party were killed in Helmand Province. In a society where clan, tribe, and blood feuds are a part of daily life, that single act sowed a generation of enmity.
Anatol Lieven, a professor of war at King’s College London, says that a major impetus behind the growing resistance is anger over the death of family members and neighbors.
Lieven says it is as if Afghanistan is “becoming a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the U.S. and NATO breed the very terrorists they then track down.”
Once a population turns against an occupation (or just decides to stay neutral), there are few places in the world where an occupier can win. Afghanistan, with its enormous size and daunting geography, is certainly not one of them.
Writing in Der Spiegel, Ullrich Fichter says that glancing at a map in the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) headquarters outside Kandahar could give one the impression that Afghanistan is under control. “Colorful little flags identify the NATO troops presence throughout the country,” Germans in the northeast, Americans in the east, Italians in the West, British and Canadians in the south, with flags from Turkey, the Netherlands, Spain, Lithuania, Australia and Sweden scattered between.
“But the flags are an illusion,” he says.
The UN considers one third of the country “inaccessible,” and almost half, “high risk.” The number of roadside bombs has increased fivefold over 2004, and the number of armed attacks has jumped by a factor of 10. In the first three months of 2008, attacks around Kabul have surged by 70%. The current national government has little presence outside its capital. President Karzai is routinely referred to as “the mayor of Kabul.”
According to Der Spiegel, the Taliban are moving north toward Kunduz, just as they did in 1994 when they broke out of their base in Kandahar and started their drive to take over the country. The Asia Times says the insurgents’ strategy is to cut NATO’s supply lines from Pakistan and establish a “strategic corridor” from the border to Kabul.
The United States and NATO currently have about 60,000 troops in Afghanistan. But many NATO troops are primarily concerned with rebuilding and development — the story that was sold to the European public to get them to support the war — and only secondarily with war fighting.
The Afghan army adds about 70,000 to that number, but only two brigades and one headquarters unit are considered capable of operating on their own.
According to U.S. counter insurgency doctrine, however, Afghanistan would require at least 400,000 troops to even have a chance of “winning” the war. Adding another 10,000 U.S. troops will have virtually no effect.
Afghanistan and the Elections
As the situation continues to deteriorate, some voices, including those of the Karzai government and both U.S. presidential candidates, advocate expanding the war into Pakistan in a repeat of the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, when the Vietnam War began spinning out of control. Both those invasions were not only a disaster for the invaders. They also led directly to the genocide in Cambodia.
By any measure, a military “victory” in Afghanistan is simply not possible. The only viable alternative is to begin direct negotiations with the Taliban, and to draw in regional powers with a stake in the outcome: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, and India.
But to do so will require abandoning our “story” about the Afghan conflict as a “good war.” In this new millennium, there are no good wars.
Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.