Afghanistan: Why NATO cannot win
By M K Bhadrakumar
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).