Missions impossible: NATO's Afghan
dilemma By Philip Smucker
KABUL - Beaten and ridiculed by the
Taliban for teaching in a clandestine girl's
school, Shukriya Barakzai welcomed the US invasion
in 2001 with an open heart and hopes for the
future. Now, she wants to know just what the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) thinks it is
doing in Afghanistan.
"They are too
worried about getting shot themselves," the
Parliament member says. "Just who are they here to
protect - the Afghan people or themselves?"
Nearly six years after US forces invaded
Afghanistan to topple the
Taliban and hunt down
al-Qaeda operatives, expectations about what the
US and NATO can and will do have plummeted, say
Afghans and Westerners.
"One of the
problems is that the US and its allies raised
expectations so high when they came here," says
Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat in Iraq
and the director of the Turquoise Mountain
Foundation, a non-governmental organization
helping to develop Kabul's crumbling inner city.
"By talking so much about democracy and propping
up warlords without delivering serious progress,
we have managed to discredit a lot of our basic
notions in the eyes of the Afghans."
US and allies arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 with
burning ambitions and high ideals to turn
Afghanistan into a model for development in an
underdeveloped part of the world. Many Afghans
placed their faith in Western promises that have
gone largely unfulfilled.
Many - if not
most - Western development workers in Afghanistan
now believe that the US and its allies have
overreached and need to retrench with a new and
With a vast agenda
of "gender equality, civil society, open media,
democratic transformation, capacity-building,
counter-narcotics and religious tolerance",
Western do-gooders have bitten off more than they
can chew, they say. "The more of these agendas we
take on the more we doom ourselves to failure,"
says one Western aid worker.
themselves also question how Western governments
and their carefully chosen Afghan partners have
managed to spend billions of dollars in
development assistance with little other than
several unsafe highways to show for it.
"People's expectations were so high and
they were raised more by the international
community than anyone else, particularly when they
heard about the billions of American dollars
committed to Afghanistan," says Saad Mohseni, the
Afghan-Australian director of a large media
conglomerate in Kabul. "Afghans are asking what
has happened to this money."
sputtering economy, however, increasing numbers of
Afghans wonder how with nearly 50,000 foreign
troops in their country security could have
diminished in the past two years.
arrived here in 2002, it was just a fear of these
international forces in the country that enabled
Afghan society to function," even without a police
force, says Mohseni. "Today, the new Afghan police
force is something that people fear. It has become
synonymous with crime in the minds of the public."
Afghan citizens also appear befuddled at
the prospect of endless fighting in the
hinterlands, particularly in the south of the
country. NATO's consistent failure to capture
Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant Ayman
al-Zawahiri in nearby Pakistan confuses many
Afghans, but many consider it the least of their
"For Afghans, the 'global war on
terror' was something for the rest of the world,"
says Sanjar Qiam, the general manager of a leading
national radio station. "For Afghans it was about
getting rid of the Taliban and getting rid of the
Northern Alliance, but we still have both of them,
and they seem to be getting stronger by the day."
Indeed, both the US-led peacemaking and
US-led terror-fighting missions in Afghanistan are
squeezed between a rock and a hard place.
The hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban forces
promises to run on for years while accidental
killings of Afghan civilians mount steadily. For
his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, fending
off his own internal critics, regularly complains
to the media about the inaccuracy of NATO
firepower. Still, Western diplomats and analysts
regularly admit in public that there simply are
not enough "friendly" foreign forces on the ground
to secure borders and stabilize the country.
When the US military led the invasion of
Afghanistan, the commanding general, Tommy Franks,
stated in the wake of the now-infamous siege of
Tora Bora that it was not his intention to get
embroiled in a Soviet-style long-term engagement
as in the 1980s, wherein Afghans would turn on
tens of thousands of foreign occupiers. Now,
ironically, the Pentagon is pressing its NATO
allies to provide larger troop contributions to
honor past commitments to stabilize the country.
Stewart insists, however, that "the will"
is lacking and so the West must now begin to
acknowledge its limits.
"We have a very
difficult series of choices to make in
Afghanistan," he says. "We have to acknowledge
that we do not have the commitment, the will, the
forces, the [political] intelligence or the
understanding to fight a 20-year counterinsurgency
campaign in Afghanistan. For that, you would need
to exert control over the local government. It
worked very well for the British in British
Malaya. But that was a colonial government."
An enlightened British military command is
now leading a push on the European side of the
Atlantic to stress economic development over the
hunt for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Just how much
they can convince their US military counterparts
and their highly engaged special forces to ease up
on the "war on terror" in Afghanistan is still be
The British are also pressing the
United Nations mission in Afghanistan to launch an
inclusive peace process that would - in theory -
sever the Pashtun-led insurgency from its al-Qaeda
mentors and siphon off support for hardcore
Many observers believe,
however, that the time for compromises with
extremism is not now, particularly when the
Taliban are in the process of strengthening their
hand through military operations in the south of
the country. Western and international coddling of
Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980s, they add,
helped bin Laden establish al-Qaeda, the
inauspicious phoenix that rose from the ashes of
the Soviet conflagration.
"There is a lot
of confusion about what NATO is doing and will do
in the future," says Mohseni. "I mean, NATO is not
a cohesive force - some NATO troops refuse to
fight at night, some NATO troops refuse to fight
at all - all these caveats make it very difficult
for NATO to have a very consistent policy right
across the country."
Stewart agrees, but
he argues that these divisions are a prescription
for disaster if there is not a drastic change in
Western strategy. "It is no good having thousands
of troops on the ground if they are not going to
leave their bases and attempt to dominate the
soil," he says.
Until NATO and the United
States decide what their real mission is, he adds,
perplexed Afghans are bound to grow increasingly
bitter toward foreign occupation.
now, NATO soldiers are flying 10,000 miles to
maneuver through Afghan villages in full body
armor and a tank," he says. "Villagers just think,
'Yes. And the Taliban are trying to kill you, and
you are insisting that you are just here to build
a girl's school?'"
Smucker is a commentator and journalist based
in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the
author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The
Military and the Media on Terror's Trail