NATO Cannot Win In Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
30 September, 2006
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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