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    South Asia
     Jun 1, 2007
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."

The 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 accountable pragmatism.

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.

But Afghans 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."

Beyond a 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.

"When I 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 problems.

"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 seen.

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 Taliban leaders.

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.

"Right 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?'"

Philip 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 (2004).

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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