Page 1 of 3 'We're not going to win this war'
By China Hand
As the US public is dimly aware, things are not going very well in Afghanistan.
The most recent United Nation situation map for Afghanistan issued September 3
paints a grim picture: there are large swaths of the country where things are
getting worse. This includes the entire area surrounding Kandahar on the
Pakistan border in the south, as well as areas on the Pakistan-Tajikistan
border in the northeast and other areas on the Turkmenistan border to the
Despite the deterioration of security in the Afghan countryside - illustrated
by the recent massacre of 24 bus passengers by the
Taliban on a major highway in Helmand province - a Taliban reconquest of
Afghanistan is unlikely. (See
Death stalks the highway to hell, Asia Times Online, October 24, 2008)
Recall that it took years, US$5-6 billion in CIA funding matched dollar for
dollar by the Saudis, and a concerted national effort by the United States,
Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan assisting a variety of domestic and foreign fighters
to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It also took officially sanctioned
safe havens in Pakistan that the Russians wouldn't violate, and a supply of
Stinger missiles to negate the vital Soviet advantage in helicopter-based
mobility and firepower.
None of these conditions currently exist in Afghanistan.
The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) can't be
driven from Afghanistan militarily. Nor, however, can the Taliban be crushed in
the foreseeable future.
The political will inside the US to remain in Afghanistan is not lacking,
especially since the Taliban insurgency is tangled up with the unresolved issue
of Osama bin Laden, who has still escaped American retribution in the
Taliban-controlled or Taliban-friendly areas of eastern Afghanistan and western
Democratic Senator Barack Obama, the likely victor in the upcoming presidential
elections, has made support for the "Good War" in Afghanistan the necessary
counterweight to his condemnation of the "Bad War" in Iraq, and has vowed to
send two to three more brigades to Afghanistan in order to turn around the
situation there. He is not going to put his administration on the wrong side of
the "Are the Democrats too weak on national security" debate by trying to
disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.
The US is going to be in Afghanistan for years to come. The only thing that's
going to change in Afghanistan is the objectives.
The Afghan adventure is expensive, onerous, and unpopular, and most of the 40
or so countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force
and the host of NGOs trying to better the lives of the downtrodden Afghani
people would like to see a new policy. Specifically, one that separates the
existential goal of crushing al-Qaeda from the strictly local issue of what
political grouping gets to run the failed state of Afghanistan, and tries to
slice and dice and co-opt the insurgency instead of pursuing the impossible
goal of crushing the Taliban's entrenched power in Afghanistan's mountains and
The world has made its voice heard, and America has apparently listened.
All the indications are that the US military and foreign policy establishment
has already abandoned the ambitious neo-conservative objective of crushing the
Taliban and remaking Afghanistan as a functioning democracy.
America's Afghanistan policy is falling into the hands of the realists, whose
highest priority is maintaining a tractable and viable client in Kabul, keeping
Afghanistan securely inside the US sphere of interest, holding on to a key
chess piece in Central Asia's "great game" of energy resources and pipeline
infrastructure, and offering the Pentagon another basing option to bedevil
Russia and Iran.
Despite the absurdity of a multi-year, multi-billion dollar entanglement in
Central Asia that will do little more than advance unilateral US security
objectives, America's allies will be willing to demonstrate their support for
new US leadership after the disastrous George W Bush years, and will probably
heed an American call for a redoubled effort in Afghanistan.
The key suppliers of money and manpower to the NATO effort in Afghanistan -
Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and Australia - are all under administrations
that have made continued engagement in Afghanistan a cornerstone of their
foreign policies but now demand a fundamental change in course.
With a broad international consensus on Afghanistan, the US will now seek to
impose a firm hand on the emerging policy process - and prepare public opinion
still mired in the obsolete death-match-versus-the-Taliban-and-al-Qaeda mindset
pursued over the past six years at the cost of thousands of lives and tens of
billions of dollars for a brave new world in which the Taliban enter the
government and Afghan democracy goes out the window.
Time is of the essence - in order to halt the military decline inside
Afghanistan and to co-opt a burgeoning non-US peace initiative for the region
that might pre-empt US direction of the effort in Afghanistan. Otherwise,
control of the terms of engagement in confronting Afghanistan's Taliban
insurgency might slip from America's fingers.
In counterinsurgency, the US military learned from Vietnam that the battle is
not won or lost only on the battlefield; victory in the op-ed pages of the
homeland is vital as advocates of a prolonged fight in a distant land struggle
to sustain the flagging will and interest of the weary populace and wary
Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus, the canny and able general
who skillfully orchestrated congressional testimony, opinion pieces by himself
and conservative public intellectuals, and media coverage to recast the
political terms of debate, and adroitly channel the 2006 wave of US domestic
opposition to the Iraq war - and the Baker-Hamilton report intended to serve as
its enabling document - into the surge that, for better or worse, will keep
American military power at the heart of Iraq's security equation for the
General Petraeus will take the top spot in US Central Command, responsible for
the entire Middle East, on October 31, and is already preparing his plan to
rescue the faltering Western effort in Afghanistan.
He recently gave the Washington Post a tour of the virtual armory in which he
is forging his weapons in the battle for public opinion - the Powerpoint
presentations, op-ed pieces, leaks, and favorable coverage by pundits and
reporters that will encourage a new president hungry for a national security
triumph to give him a free hand.
From the October 16 edition of the Washington Post:
General David H
Petraeus has launched a major reassessment of US strategy for Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the surrounding region, while warning that the lack of
development and the spiraling violence in Afghanistan will probably make it
"the longest campaign of the long war".
The 100-day assessment will result in a new campaign plan for the Middle East
and Central Asia, a region in which Petraeus will oversee the operations of
more than 200,000 American troops as the new head of US Central Command,
beginning October 31.
... experts and military officials involved said Petraeus is already focused on
at least two major themes: government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic
initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war. ...
Petraeus' Joint Strategic Assessment Team ... is reaching out to handpicked
experts as well as State Department, Pentagon and other civilian and military
officials with experience in the region.
The team will comprise about 100 people, organized initially into six
subregional teams, tasked with investigating the root causes of insecurity in
the region with the goal of finding solutions that integrate military action,
diplomacy and development work.
Petraeus' vast authority,
resources and latitude in setting the terms of the Afghanistan debate should be
a source of concern. As a noted authority on South Asia asserted, "General
Petraeus is not in charge of our diplomacy. He can't decide whether we try to
form an international contacts group on Pakistan," Barnett Rubin commented.
Ironically, Dr Rubin's allegiance to the quaint concept of civilian control
over foreign policy may have cost him a seat at General Petraeus's round table
of knights questing for the counter-insurgency grail.
Jim Lobe reports that Rubin's collaborator on the think-piece "From Great Game
to Grand Bargain", one of the seminal documents of the Taliban engagement
policy, Ahmed Rashid, was invited to join the general's brain trust. But Dr
Rubin apparently was not.
After eight years of catastrophic civilian foreign policy leadership, maybe the zeitgeist
of that war is too important not to be left to the generals.
But fear not. In classic milspeak, we are reassured that the military will keep
an eye on the military. There's a plan:
An overview of the review
team's mission obtained by The Post says that including other government
agencies and other nations in the planning will "mitigate the risk of
over-militarization of efforts and the development of short-term solutions to
Indeed, the trends both in the NATO
countries and in the key South Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan all
point to a consolidation of expert consensus in favor of an Afghanistan change
of course and a concurrent media campaign to enlighten and guide the befuddled
populace in support of the new policy, all under military direction.
Already, the British flank has been secured - apparently, the UK is always
needed to provide the figleaf of multilateralism for these sorts of things -
with the appointment of a new numero uno for the British Army eager to
support another push in Afghanistan.
In a sign of how things are changing, this development was reported as an
exclusive by Kim Sengupta in Britain's left-of-center newspaper, The
Independent. Those with memories of the run-up to the Iraq war will remember
that these sorts of exclusives used to be the preserve of neo-con outlets like
Conrad Black's Telegraph.
A general who believes a "surge" of 30,000
more troops is needed in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban will be appointed as
the new head of the British Army today, The Independent has learnt.
General Sir David Richards, who will take over from General Sir Richard
Dannatt, is believed to favor sending up to 5,000 more British troops to
Afghanistan on top of the 8,000 already in the country. The other 25,000 troops
would be made up of US reinforcements and newly trained Afghan soldiers.
In the same issue, The Independent also obligingly excerpted a platitudinous
speech given by US Secretary of Defense (and possible holdover in an Obama
administration) Robert Gates - to the US Institute of Peace! - apparently to
reassure Europe that the Pentagon had moved beyond the Bush administration's
knee-jerk reliance on military force and is prepared do things in Afghanistan
in a holistic hearts-and-minds way:
We must be prepared to change old
ways of doing business and create new institutions – both nationally and
internationally – to deal with the long-term challenges we face abroad. And our
own national security toolbox must be well-equipped with more than just
The context for all this reasonableness is, of course,
the fact that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, even with the support of 53,000
foreign troops (23,000 US troops under US command, 30,000 US, British, and
other troops in ISAF - the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force),
has failed to gain traction in the Taliban areas and in fact is referred to as
"The Mayor of Kabul" in a mocking reference to the shrinking size of his realm.
LONDON, Oct 5: The UK's commander in Helmand has dampened
Britain's hopes of a "decisive military victory" in Afghanistan saying that the
aim of the mission was to ensure the Afghan army was able to manage the country
on its own.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times that this could involve
discussing security with the Taliban. ... Carleton-Smith is the Commander of 16
Air Assault Brigade which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan.
He paid tribute to his forces and told the newspaper they had "taken the sting
out of the Taliban for 2008". But he stated: "We're not going to win this war."
He said: "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table
and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of
progress that concludes insurgencies like this."
"That shouldn't make people uncomfortable."
Well, it doesn't
make the Financial Times uncomfortable:
LONDON, Oct 11: Britain's
Financial Times newspaper has advised the US and NATO to review their present
policies in Afghanistan and come to some kind of a peaceful settlement with the
"It may be shocking that the military might of the West cannot defeat the
Taliban, but it is true," said the daily in an editorial: "The unwinnable war
The French did their piece by leaking a cable
from France's top