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Why NATO Cannot Win In Afghanistan

By M K Bhadrakumar

30 September, 2006
Asia Times Online

The four-month-old Republic of Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea received its first foreign dignitary on Monday when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrived at its capital, Podgorica. Unknowingly, the tiny country of rugged mountains and great beauty in the Balkans with a population of 630,000 was being catapulted into the cockpit of 21st-century geopolitics.

Rumsfeld's mission was to request the inexperienced leadership in Podgorica to dispatch a military contingent to form part of the

coalition of the willing in the "war on terror". Rumsfeld promised that in return, the US would help train Montenegro's fledgling army to standards of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

However, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic could not make any commitments. Rumsfeld's proposal came at an awkward moment for the leadership in Podgorica, which had just scrapped the draft and was scaling down its 4,000-strong army to about 2,500.

This bizarre diplomatic exchange between the most awesome military power on Earth and the newest member of the "international community" brings home the paradoxes of the "war on terror" on the eve of its fifth anniversary. Three ministerial-level meetings of NATO have taken place within the space of the past month alone, specifically with the intent of ascertaining how troop strength in Afghanistan can be augmented.

US Marine Corps General James Jones, NATO's supreme commander of operations, has admitted that the fierce resistance put up by the Taliban and the burgeoning insurgency has taken the alliance by surprise. NATO forces have realized that an all-out war is at hand, rather than the peacekeeping mission that was imagined earlier. New rules of engagement have been accordingly drawn up for NATO contingents deployed in the southern provinces of Afghanistan - and soon to be extended to the whole country, where US soldiers are reportedly to be put under NATO control.

British commanders in southern Afghanistan have been given clearance to use the army's controversial Hydra rockets, which can target large concentrations of people with tungsten darts. The commanders are also permitted to resort to air strikes on suspected Taliban formations, conduct preemptive strikes and set up ambushes. Yet a British commander has been reported as telling the media, "The intensity and ferocity of the fighting is far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis."

The fatality rate of the 18,500-strong NATO force averages about five per week, which is roughly equal to the losses suffered by the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Indeed, in withering comments to The Sunday Telegraph newspaper last weekend, Soviet commanders who oversaw Moscow's disastrous campaign have predicted that the NATO forces will ultimately be forced to flee from Afghanistan.

General Boris Gromov, the charismatic Soviet commander who supervised the withdrawal in 1989, warned, "The Afghan resistance is, in my opinion, growing. Such behavior on the part of the intractable Afghans is to my mind understandable. It is conditioned by centuries of tradition, geography, climate and religion.

"We saw over a period of many years how the country was torn apart by civil war ... But in the face of outside aggressions, Afghans have always put aside their differences and united. Evidently, the [US-led] coalition forces are also being seen as a threat to the nation."

A comparison with the 1980s is in order. The 100,000-strong Soviet army operated alongside a full-fledged Afghan army of equal strength with an officer corps trained in the elite Soviet military academies, and backed by aviation, armored vehicles and artillery, with all the advantages of a functioning, politically motivated government in Kabul. And yet it proved no match for the Afghan resistance.

In comparison, there are about 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan, plus roughly the same number of troops belonging to NATO contingents, which includes 5,400 troops from Britain, 2,500 from Canada and 2,300 from the Netherlands. Nominally, there is a 42,000-strong Afghan National Army, but it suffers from a high rate of defection.

General Jones has asked for 2,500 additional NATO troops. But the major NATO countries - Turkey, France, Germany, Spain and Italy - have declined to send more. In actuality, it is questionable whether 2,500 more troops would make any significant difference in a country of the size of Afghanistan and with such a difficult terrain.

Distinguished British soldier-politician Sir Cyril Townsend wrote in Al-Hayat newspaper this week, "A realistic military appreciation of the situation would be that to gain the upper hand against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and to start winning over the southeast of the country, will require deployment of at least 10,000 extra, highly trained professional and well-equipped troops with matching air support."

Clearly, a huge crisis is shaping up for NATO. Its credibility is at stake. Sir Cyril does not foresee that the alliance will come up with the required military resources "to beat the Taliban on its own ground". No wonder Lieutenant-General David Richards, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan and former assistant chief of the general staff of the British army, ominously warned in a recent television interview, "We need to realize we could actually fail here."

Most observers have pointed a finger at the developing crisis in Afghanistan almost exclusively in terms of the shortfalls in achieving a rapid, high-tech military victory over the Taliban. In the ensuing blame game, there is the recurrent criticism that Washington did not commit enough forces.

Some say that the Iraq war turned out to be an unfortunate distraction for the US administration from wrapping up and following up on the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. Others put the blame on the European member countries of NATO - that the Europeans are far too timid and self-centered to fight wars in faraway lands, even if it is for their ultimate good.

Widening somewhat the gyre of the blame game, almost everyone acknowledges that opium is eating away the vitals of the Afghan state as counter-drug operations have been a dismal failure.

And, of course, there is the perennial accusation that US regional policy during the administration of George W Bush has been on the whole negligent about "nation-building" and that Washington has been tardy in earmarking enough material and financial resources for Afghanistan's reconstruction (in comparison with East Timor or Bosnia-Herzegovina).

All such criticism may contain elements of truth. But germane to the crisis in a fundamental sense is the hard reality that no matter the oft-repeated factor of a reasonably secure cross-border sanctuary in Pakistan, the Taliban have indeed staged a comeback in essence as an indigenous guerilla force capable of waging a long-term struggle. That is to say, the central issue is that the US has simply failed to come up with a winning political and military strategy in Afghanistan.

Comparison has been drawn with the successful peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. General Wesley Clark, former supreme commander of NATO, wrote in Newsweek magazine recently, "In order to succeed, we must adopt some of the lessons and practices we put in place so painfully in the Balkans. We must acknowledge the magnitude of the task and pull in the full authority of the international community. NATO can do much more than just supply troops. We need to acknowledge that, yes, we do nation-building."

But again, the Afghan problem is vastly dissimilar from the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. First and foremost, there is the highly contrived nature of the US intervention in Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, in an international environment where "we are all Americans", as Le Monde famously wrote, no one asked any hard questions as to whether Washington's decision to attack Afghanistan was justified or not. The international community simply acquiesced.

But the fact remains that Washington, indeed, had the option to forgo direct intervention and instead to extend its decisive political, diplomatic and military support to the anti-Taliban Afghan groups that, under the compulsions arising out of the assassination of the Northern Alliance's Ahmad Shah Masoud, were finally rallying under the leadership of former king Zahir Shah and were just about ready by late September 2001 to announce the establishment of an Afghan government-in-exile.

The Afghan king himself was persuaded at long last to give up his reticence about returning to active politics after three decades of exile in Rome. That option, had it been pursued, would have opened the way for a quintessentially "Afghan solution" to the challenge posed by the Taliban regime - a solution that would have enjoyed the full sanctity of Afghan traditions and culture.

But the Bush administration deliberately chose not to take that option. Conceivably, Washington decided that only a spectacular military operation would assuage the US public, which was traumatized by the September 11 attacks, and highlight the decisive leadership in the White House in safeguarding national security.

Arguably, Afghanistan would also have been viewed by the Bush administration as a laboratory where Washington could test its doctrines of preemptive military strike, the "coalition of the willing", unilateralism, etc - doctrines that provided the political underpinning for the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Or, in the medium and long term, Washington estimated that short of a military presence inside Afghanistan and without a client regime installed in Kabul, the US would be unable to ease other regional powers from the Afghan chessboard and reorder the geopolitics of the region as part of its global strategy.

At any rate, the stratagem aimed at exploiting the Afghan problem to seize geopolitical advantages was not so apparent at the beginning. But it didn't take long before it became clear that the US agenda was to exploit the "war on terror" for establishing a client state in Afghanistan, and for gaining a sought-after military presence in Central Asia. And in the event, the US military presence incrementally paved the way for creating a base for NATO in the region.

There was a high degree of sophistry in the US military operations in October 2001 as well. In the initial stages, an impression was created deliberately that the US intervention would be confined to air operations and the induction of a limited number of special forces specifically for the purpose of advising and guiding the Northern Alliance militia.

Thus the Northern Alliance furiously protested when it first came to be know of the sudden arrival of US ground troops at Bagram airport in early November 2001, in the wake of the overthrow of the Taliban government.

Washington also gave different impressions to different interlocutors in the region regarding the nature of the post-Taliban regime it had in mind. Certainly, the mostly non-Pashtun Northern Alliance leadership was led to believe that the overthrow of the Taliban would automatically result in its return to the seat of power in Kabul from where it was evicted by the Taliban in 1996.

Conceivably, regional powers such as Russia, Iran and India, too, were persuaded to fancy that such an outcome was in the cards and that the transfer of power in Kabul to the Northern Alliance leadership would ultimately work to their advantage, given their past material, financial, political and diplomatic backing of the alliance as the spearhead of the anti-Taliban resistance during the period 1996-2001.

On the other hand, Islamabad was given assurances by Washington that a Pashtun-majority government in Kabul was in the making and that incrementally there would be a political accommodation of erstwhile Taliban elements in the emergent power structure. Islamabad no doubt sought and gained an assurance from Washington that under no circumstances would the Northern Alliance be allowed to grab power in Kabul in the post-Taliban phase.

All this while, Washington seemed to have had Abdul Haq, the famous mujahideen leader with long-standing links with US intelligence, as its first choice to assume the leadership in Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban.

But in the event, Haq was assassinated by the Taliban, most likely with the connivance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, which got wind of Washington's hidden agenda and feared that Haq wouldn't be amenable to Islamabad's persuasions once he was ensconced in power in Kabul.

Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance outwitted its US mentors. Contrary to the tacit understanding between alliance commanders and their American mentors to the effect that after the Taliban's ouster Kabul would initially remain a neutral city under United Nations control, the alliance militia occupied the capital and its leadership unilaterally installed itself in power. These leaders hoped (optimistically, as it turned out) that the US would have little choice but to accept the fait accompli.

Thus when the Bonn conference got under way in December 2001, Washington had a two-point agenda, namely to project a credible substitute for the late Haq as the leader of the new setup and, second, to do some arm-twisting to cajole the Northern Alliance to give up its leadership role in Kabul.

Nonetheless, when the US brought up Hamid Karzai's name in Bonn, there was widespread opposition by Afghan groups. In the perceptions of the Afghan participants at the Bonn conference, Karzai simply didn't have enough standing as a political leader in the Afghan scene, having sat in exile in the US for the past several years, and being at a serious disadvantage insofar as he did not belong to a major Pashtun tribe.

But the United States pressed ahead regardless with Karzai's name, given his closeness to the US establishment and his total dependence on US support. The US brought immense pressure to bear on Afghan groups present at Bonn to accept Karzai's leadership. It was with extreme reluctance that the Northern Alliance leader, president Burhanuddin Rabbani, finally handed over the levers of power to Karzai.

While abdicating from power in Kabul in early 2002, Rabbani said he hoped that it was the last time the proud Afghan people would be bullied by foreigners. Anyone familiar with Afghan ethos and character could foresee at that juncture that Karzai would find it next to impossible to consolidate his grip on power, let alone establish his authority over the entire country. Indeed, that is exactly what has happened over the past five years.

The repeated and brazen manipulations by the US during the past five years, especially during the parliamentary and presidential elections in Afghanistan held under election rules that were tailor-made for predictable results, failed to ensure that Karzai commanded respect in the Afghan bazaar.

US attempts to consolidate a Pashtun power base for Karzai have virtually failed. Equally, the episodic attempts to create dissension within the Taliban have also not worked. In turn, these failures led to large-scale Pashtun alienation. US efforts to marginalize the Northern Alliance and to enlarge the ethnic-Pashtun representation in Karzai's cabinet have not had the desired effect of meaningfully tackling Pashtun alienation, either. Arguably, they may have created latent resentment among Northern Alliance leaders, which lies below the surface for the time being.

In other words, there is a fundamental issue of the legitimacy of state power that remains unresolved in Afghanistan. At a minimum, in these past five years there should have been an intra-Afghan dialogue that included the Taliban. This initiative could have been under UN auspices on a parallel track.

The inability to earn respect and command authority plus the heavy visible dependence on day-to-day US support have rendered the Kabul setup ineffective. Alongside this, the Afghan malaise of nepotism, tribal affiliations and corruption has also led to bad governance. It is in this combination of circumstances that the Taliban have succeeded in staging a comeback.

What lies ahead is, therefore, becoming extremely difficult to predict. Even with 2,500 additional troops it is highly doubtful whether NATO can succeed in defeating the Taliban. For one thing, the Taliban enjoy grassroots support within Afghanistan. There is no denying this ground reality.

Second, the Taliban are becoming synonymous with Afghan resistance. The mindless violations of the Afghan code of honor by the coalition forces during their search-and-destroy missions and the excessive use of force during military operations leading to loss of innocent lives have provoked widespread revulsion among Afghan people.

Karzai's inability to do anything about the coalition forces' arbitrary behavior is only adding to his image of a weak leader and is deepening his overall loss of authority in the perceptions of the Afghan people, apart from strengthening the raison d'etre of the Afghan resistance.

Third, it is a matter of time, if the threshold of the Taliban resurgence goes unchecked, before the non-Pashtun groups in the eastern, northern and western regions also begin to organize themselves. There are disturbing signs pointing in this direction already. If that were to happen, NATO forces might well find themselves in the unenviable situation of getting caught in the crossfire between various warring ethnic groups.

Fourth, at a certain point it becomes unavoidable that regional powers will get drawn into the strife. The fact remains that all Afghan ethnic groups enjoy a contiguous presence across the borders in neighboring countries. There is considerable misgiving among regional powers already over Washington's hidden long-term agenda to bring Afghanistan, which has been historically a neutral country, under the NATO flag.

No amount of pious homilies about NATO's role and objectives can obfuscate the geopolitical implications of the Western alliance's occupation of a strategically important country far away from the European continent, which lies at the crossroads of vast regions that are becoming the battleground for global influence.

Without doubt, in the perceptions of regional powers, NATO's defeat in Afghanistan can only mean the scattering of the US blueprint of domination of Central Asia, South Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, stated in testimony at the House International Relations Committee of the US Congress in Washington last week: "Foreign pressures are making Afghanistan the turf for proxy wars. The country is being destabilized by an inflow of insurgents and weapons and money and intelligence. There is collusion from neighboring countries, and this is a problem in itself."

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

© Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.

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