Western coalition unraveling under pressure from resistance in Afghanistan

The US and its allies are not only losing the war in Afghanistan, but their military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), is also on the verge of unravelling as a result of this failure. Several Western officials, including US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, defence secretary Robert Gates, British foreign secretary David Miliband and Lord Paddy Ashdown, a British peer, have in recent days given dire warnings about NATO’s impending collapse. Some of this is clearly hyperbole from worried US officials who are unable to fight alone an ill-conceived war launched in a fit of temper, hoping to persuade their reluctant allies to commit more troops to Afghanistan, but there is unmistakable truth in their assertions about a disaster-in-the-making. The Taliban have regrouped and, thanks to the US’s indiscriminate bombing of villages, entire tribes in the south and southwest of the country have joined the resistance. Unlike the past, this year resistance activities have continued despite an unusually harsh winter. It has been so cold that several hundred (perhaps a thousand) Afghans have frozen to death.

In the mean time, resistance activities have escalated. A bomb exploded near a Canadian military convoy in Spinboldak on February 19, killing 36 civilians and injuring 42 others, four of them Canadian soldiers. The day before, a suicide bomber detonated his bomb while people were watching dogfights in Argandab, just north of Qandahar. The bomber’s target was Abdul Hakim Jan, a hated police chief, who died with six of his bodyguards. Altogether, 100 people died in the explosion, one of the deadliest since the US invasion. Such attacks and roadside bombs have become much more frequent.

General Dan McNeill, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, admitted at NATO’s defence ministers’ summit in Vilnius (capital of Lithuania) on February 8 that 400,000 troops would be needed to defeat the insurgency. No member-state of NATO is willing to contribute such huge numbers, or capable of it. While the Canadians are complaining about carrying too heavy a burden in Qandahar, the Germans (with 3,200 troops) have adamantly refused to re-deploy from the relatively calm north to the rebellious south. Neither in Canada nor in Germany is there much public support for their militaries’ missions, embarked upon essentially to appease the US. In addition, the Germans cannot afford to upset Russia, their major gas supplier: Russia regards the war in Afghanistan as part of America’s incursion into Central Asia to seize its oil and gas resources. In recent months the Russians have started to flex their political and economic muscles to keep the US in check.

As in Iraq, senior US officials make periodic but unannounced forays into Afghanistan to “demonstrate” their confidence in the ill-defined mission, though all they achieve is to expose the impossibility of defeating the insurgency. On February 8, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, accompanied by her British counter-part Miliband, descended on Qandahar, only to reveal the deep fissures in the alliance when she candidly admitted that the mission would fail unless the US’s allies would commit more troops. If the purpose of her visit was to scare the Taliban, she may have achieved far more by her frightening looks than the military prowess of American or allied troops has.

Upon returning home, Miliband admitted in the Sunday Telegraph (February 10) that there was no military solution to Afghanistan and that Britain’s strategy had to combine fighting the Taliban with economic development and clean government. There is scant prospect of success on any of these fronts. The UN Human Development Fund has reported that Afghanistan has declined in every category: average life-expectancy has gone down, malnutrition is more widespread, literacy has decreased, and more than half the population is living below the poverty line, since the US invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced by the war. The occupation has created plenty of misery; Afghanistan has also earned the dubious distinction of supplying 92 percent of the world’s opium. It is now the world’s largest narco-state, thanks to the US intervention.

The Taliban are no longer alone in resisting the occupiers; entire tribes have joined the fighting, which has spread to Pakistan, specifically to the tribes that straddle the border. As a result of widespread corruption and Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s reliance on the much-hated warlords for support, no amount of economic aid will ever be sufficient: their very deep pockets are impossible to fill. Miliband’s hopes for a “clean government” are based on unrealistic expectations; Karzai has repeatedly appealed to officials to show some restraint when taking bribes; he does not have the power to stop them. But he mustered enough courage to say no to the appointment of Lord Ashdown as the UN’s “super envoy” for Afghanistan because it would have undermined his already limited authority. Rebuffed, Ashdown declared Afghanistan a “failed state”. Few would disagree, but who is to blame for this state of affairs?

“The war in Afghanistan is almost certainly un-winnable. Instead of going in deeper, as the US is urging, NATO should plan an exit strategy. That would be the sensible option,” British journalist Patrick Seale advised in the Gulf News on February 8. He also lamented the Afghan Army’s unreliability and corruption in the police force, on whose training the US and its allies have spent billions of dollars. Another Western journalist, Eric Margolis, one of the best-informed about the region, wrote in his column on February 11 that US defence secretary Robert Gates’ angry outburst at Vilnius, accusing “some Europeans of not being prepared to ‘fight and die’ in Afghanistan in the battle against the Taliban,” was quite true (the Sunday Sun). The fact, however, is, “Most Europeans regard the Afghan conflict as a) wrong and immoral; b) America’s war; c) all about oil; or d) probably lost.” He added: “To many Europeans, the NATO alliance was created to deter the real threat of Soviet aggression, not to supply foot soldiers for George Bush’s wars in the Muslim world.”

As American control of Afghanistan becomes untenable, the Americans are extending the war into Pakistan in hopes of undermining support for the Afghan resistance. This is a dangerous game, similar to the failed policy adopted in the early seventies when the US was on the verge of defeat in Vietnam. The war was extended into Laos and Cambodia with frightening consequences, including the deaths of an estimated 2 million people in Cambodia. The Americans have launched numerous attacks on tribal villages inside Pakistan. In recent weeks, tribesmen sympathetic to the Afghan resistance have struck back. On February 1, the Kohat tunnel was blown up in a spectacular operation, shutting it down for a month. The tunnel, built by Japanese engineers, linked the tribal area of Dara Adamkhel with the garrison city of Kohat, and was a major supply-route for US forces in Afghanistan. The Kohat base serves as headquarters for military operations in Waziristan, the other tribal region in the throes of a full-scale uprising. There have been frequent attacks against military personnel and installations in Kohat and Major-General Javed Sultan, the top military commander, together with two brigadiers, a colonel and four captains, was killed in a helicopter crash in Waziristan on February 6. It is not known whether the helicopter crashed because of a technical fault, as claimed by the military, or whether it was shot down by militants, as most people have speculated. The answer may never be known for certain.

These blows were followed on February 11 by the abduction in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency of Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, as he travelled by land to Afghanistan. He remains untraceable. Such is the reach of the militants that they can mount daring operations inside Pakistan while the government, despite having deployed 100,000 troops in the tribal belt, remains powerless. Pakistan is paying a heavy price for America’s “un-winnable” imperialist war. The US seems quite happy to fight to the last Pakistani soldier, and General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani dictator, is prepared to oblige in order to save his own skin.