One of incoming US President Barack Obama’s first foreign policy decisions was to announce plans to scale down the US military presence in Iraq, until all troops had been withdrawn by 2011. It was official recognition, at last, of the previous White House Administration’s failed policy of adventurism in the tormented Middle Eastern nation. But even as US troops began pulling out of the Gulf, plans to scale up the military presence in the other theatre of war were already underway. The number of US troops stationed in Afghanistan has already increased dramatically, from 39,000 to 57,000 since the beginning of 2009. The number is expected to rise to 68,000 later in the year, with some prognosticators claiming an eventual target of 134,000 US troops stationed in the region. The scaling up of the war comes to the backdrop of a deteriorating situation of lawlessness in Afghanistan, with attacks on Coalition forces rising dramatically over the past year. Fifty casualties so far in July make it the deadliest month for the Coalition yet.
All of which begs the question: What is it that Obama and his Coalition allies actually hope to accomplish in Afghanistan? If there really is a serious effort to break from the previous Administration’s policy of international adventurism, then why is a conflict they instigated being drastically scaled up? And is this a war that is at all sustainable, or liable to confer any particular advantage to either the West or to Afghanistan’s long suffering population in the long term? Despite Obama’s repeated contention that the war is “winnable”, the reality on the ground is that Coalition forces have gradually been losing control of Afghanistan to the regrouping Taliban for some time. After nearly eight years of military operations in Afghanistan, tens of thousands dead and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of expenditure, Taliban resistance to the Coalition invasion burns more fiercely than ever. The Afghan War, as was the case in Vietnam and in the ongoing conflict in Iraq, is bearing all the hallmarks of another grisly failure of US foreign policy.
The historical precedent for a successful US campaign in Afghanistan is not good. Traditionally, the region has always been a tough nut to crack. Even when conquered by various waves of Arabs, Mongols and later, the British Empire, the loose collection of feuding clans and tribes that has come to be known as Afghanistan never remained in subjugation for very long. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 on behalf of its PDPA Communist government, the war dragged on for an interminable nine years in the face of fierce resistance from the Mujahideen. The Russians were eventually forced to withdraw, having accomplished little other than inflicting massive civilian casualties and the devastation of Afghanistan’s fledgling infrastructure.
Throughout the history of the troubled region, there has rarely been a moment’s respite from an almost constant state of war. Where there is no conflict with external forces, there are feuding clans and violent internal power struggles. As with other such mountainous regions populated largely by martial clans – Chechnya for example – Afghans are typified by their fierce pride, strong tribal loyalty and a steadfast refusal to accept subjugation. Through centuries of eternal conflict, the Afghans are a people conditioned for war. The forces assembled by the Taliban – chiefly derived from militant Pashtun clans – will never surrender to the US. Like they did with the Soviets, these people will suffer massive casualties and unendurable hardship in the name of resistance, until the foreign invaders give up and go home.
The nature of the Taliban, their outlook on the world and their relationship to supposed allies such as Al Qaeda, has been widely misinterpreted throughout the West. Apparently wilfully so, on the part of the Coalition governments in the initial push towards war. From a document entitled “Responsibility for the Terrorist Atrocities in the United States” released by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office in the wake of the September 11 attacks:
“Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Taleban regime have a close and mutually dependent alliance.
Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda provide the Taleban regime with material, financial and military support.”
The case made by the Coalition was that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda existed in a sort of symbiotic relationship. That for all intents and purposes, they were essentially the same thing. Retribution for September 11, then, would naturally involve retribution against the Taliban as well as Al-Qaeda. The distinction between the two groups was generally blurred in the Western media, apparently under the misapprehension that all militant Islamic activity essentially falls under the same branch of the tree – rather than encompassing a massive diversity of ethnic and political sub-divisions, often with widely diverging objectives – as it actually does.
The Taliban had indeed provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, after he was expelled from Sudan in 1996. Bin Laden had, after all, fought alongside the Mujahideen in the struggle against the Soviet invasion, elements of which eventually went on to formulate the Taliban. Pashtun codes of hospitality granted Bin Laden a measure of shelter and support from Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Islamic government. But the truth of the matter is, the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda was often an uneasy one, characterised by periods of mutual uncertainty.
Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden came from vastly different backgrounds, informing what could only be described as widely divergent worldviews. Omar was a dirt poor Pashtun clansman, while bin Laden was the scion of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families. Omar never received much in the way of education, and only had the narrowest conception of the outside world. Bin Laden was well travelled and experienced, with access to the revolutionary Muslim ideology of Sayyid Qutb and militant firebrands such as eventual Al-Qaeda overseer, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden saw militant Islamic action as a positive force to combat social injustice across the world. Omar was not especially interested in events beyond his own borders.
Al Qaeda was committed to international militant activism, then, but the Taliban were chiefly concerned with the governance of Afghanistan according to strict Islamic doctrine and traditional Pashtun tribal codes. They did not necessarily share Bin Laden’s view of the world as part of an eternal, cosmic struggle between the forces of Islam and the Infidels, or his antipathy for the West.
For much of his tenure in Afghanistan, then, Bin Laden’s acts of international terrorism were a source of embarrassment and concern to the Taliban. On several occasions, the Taliban had been quite prepared to expel Bin Laden from the country and hand him over to external authorities. If this had taken place, much trouble and bloodshed might have been prevented. But a series of diplomatic blunders and misunderstandings effectively sabotaged Bin Laden’s planned extradition.
In actual fact, the US had the chance to apprehend Bin Laden as early as 1996, when he was still based in Sudan. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir wanted the US to lift trade sanctions against Sudan, introduced in response to the state’s alleged sponsorship of international terrorism. In exchange, Bashir offered to arrest and extradite Bin Laden, who was thought to be involved in the assistance of various militant operations in Yemen, Algeria and Egypt. The overture, however, was turned down by the US. Then US President, Bill Clinton, later confessed:
“Mr. Bin Laden used to live in Sudan. He was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991, then he went to Sudan. And we’d been hearing that the Sudanese wanted America to start dealing with them again. They released him. At the time, 1996, he had committed no crime against America, so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America. So I pleaded with the Saudis to take him, ’cause they could have. But they thought it was a hot potato and they didn’t and that’s how he wound up in Afghanistan.”
Bin Laden was actually forced to leave Sudan by the government, under pressure from the US. Saudi Arabia were not interested in taking him back at this time, having recently revoked his passport. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for Bin Laden.
But by 1998, Saudi Arabia’s stance had changed. Bin Laden’s continued sponsorship of militant activity in various Islamic hotspots had become a source of diplomatic tension. Prince Turki al-Faisal, son of King Faisal and then head of Saudi Arabia’s Secret Service, made overtures to Mullah Omar about the possibility of extraditing Bin Laden to Saudi Arabia. According to Prince Turki, Omar was receptive:
“I met with him twice, in June, 1998, to ask him to deliver Osama bin Laden to the kingdom in order for us to try him. And at the time he seemed amenable and he told me that, let us discuss the modalities and let us form a joint committee that will look into this subject.”
However, outside circumstances would intervene to drastically alter Mullah Omar’s attitude of receptiveness. In August 1998, truck bombs were exploded outside the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The terrorist attacks were linked back to Bin Laden and his allies, and he was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for the first time. In response, the US launched cruise missile strikes at a factory in Sudan and at militant training camps in Afghanistan. The Sudan plant was thought to be a repository of chemical weapons, although later investigations revealed that it was more likely to have been manufacturing medicinal pharmaceuticals, of crucial importance to the Sudan’s impoverished civilian population. The Afghan training camps were linked to Bin Laden’s operations. Mullah Omar, furious over the US missile strikes on Afghanistan, rejected any further overtures from Prince Turki al-Faisal.
After the embassy bombings, the US stepped up its own efforts to extradite Bin Laden. Over the course of three years, right up until days prior to the September 11 attacks, US diplomatic negotiators met with the Taliban on at least 20 different occasions. During the course of the negotiations, the Taliban repeatedly offered to hand over Bin Laden to a third party, preferably for trial by a Muslim court. However, US State Department officials refused to concede their demands that Bin Laden be trialled in the US justice system. There was apparently an inability to find common grounds for constructive communication between the hardline US diplomats and the Taliban clerics, unaccustomed as they were to the protocols of modern international diplomacy. According to Milton Bearden, a former CIA chief stationed in Afghanistan:
“We never heard what they were trying to say. We had no common language. Ours was, ‘Give up bin Laden.’ They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’ “
Bearden understood well enough that the Taliban considered Bin Laden to be as much a liability as he was an ally:
“I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck.”
After the events of September 11, there was a climate of vengeance in the US. It was repeatedly insisted that the Taliban were refusing to co-operate in handing over Bin Laden, and that military action was necessary to bring him to justice. The official statements, however, were quite a distortion of the actual case. The Taliban, once again, was open to the possibility of handing Bin Laden over to a third party, possibly Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. But the White House was in no mood to brook conditional negotiation. George Bush’s response was unequivocal:
“There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty. Turn him over.”
The Taliban requested evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement in September 11, which the US ignored. And not without reason. Apparently, there was no concrete evidence to link Bin Laden with September 11. In fact, to this day, Osama bin Laden has never been indicted by the FBI in connection to the September 11 terrorist attacks. When asked why this was the case, Rex Tomb, Chief of Investigative Publicity for the FBI, responded:
“He has not been formally indicted and charged in connection with 9/11 because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11.”
Quite a startling admission, and it’s not difficult to imagine why the Taliban might have been reluctant to cave into US demands under the circumstances.
Throughout the negotiations, there was a complete disregard for any kind of diplomatic sensitivity on the part of the US. The Taliban had been placed in an extremely delicate position. On the one hand, they did not want to invite a US military response, but on the other, they felt honour bound to provide a measure of support to their “guest” and one time ally. Although they might have preferred to rid themselves of Bin Laden, they could not be seen to be intimidated by the aggression of a hostile Western state. Nonetheless, the Taliban remained open to alternative possibilities. Within weeks of the September 11 attacks, leaders from the two Islamic parties of Pakistan negotiated with the Taliban for the extradition of Bin Laden to Islamabad, where he would face an international tribunal charged with the decision of whether or not to hand him over to US authorities. According to reports emanating from Pakistan at the time, the deal had the approval of not only the Taliban, but Bin Laden himself. But the deal was eventually vetoed by Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf, who claimed that he “could not guarantee Bin Laden’s security”.
It’s not a very convincing excuse. Given Pakistan’s status as an emerging US ally, pressure could have been applied to carry through with the extradition. That is, if the US had really been serious about pursuing a diplomatic alternative to war. Extraditing Bin Laden to Pakistan might not have been considered the ideal scenario by the US in seeking justice, but it could have prevented the launching of a bloody eight year war of attrition in Afghanistan, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. Which once again raises the issue of precisely what it is that constitutes a just cause for war. As was very much the case with the US / Iraq Persian Gulf War of 1991, the first priority of exhausting all diplomatic and other non-violent alternatives had not been exercised. Blind vengeance was permitted to carry the day, where rational foresight might have served better.
As is by now well known, the Coalition invasion of Afghanistan has completely failed to turn up Osama bin Laden or any of the Al Qaeda operatives allegedly involved in the September 11 attacks. Not only are Bin Laden’s whereabouts now totally unknown, nobody can be sure if he even remains alive. Having failed to secure Bin Laden and with no prospect of now ever finding him, what purpose did the Afghanistan invasion serve, and what need is there for Coalition troops to remain? As has been very much the case with Iraq, the official reasons for the Coalition’s presence in Afghanistan remain shrouded in a haze of half explanations and vaguely stated objectives. Ostensibly, the US and its allies remain committed to flushing out pockets of militant Islamic activity, in the interests of protecting Western security. Totally ignoring, of course, that all of the militant activity in Afghanistan is now directed precisely at the invading Coalition forces, and would dissipate if those forces were no longer there. No more invasion then no more security threat, in other words.
But even if we accepted the official justification for the Coalition presence in Afghanistan, we would still be faced with the fundamental futility of what it is they are trying to accomplish. In order to eliminate militant insurgency in Afghanistan, the Coalition has had to invade the country and depose the government. They now face three almost insurmountable obstacles:
A) Holding military positions against retaliatory guerrilla strikes from the insurgent uprising.
B) Policing a desperate civilian population that is – in many cases – hostile to the invasion and either sympathetic to or intimidated by the insurgency movement.
C) Targeting and locating insurgents and differentiating them from the civilian population.
Obstacles A and B are extremely difficult. Obstacle C is a near impossibility, given the conditions that Coalition military forces have been trained and prepared for.
There is vast misunderstanding on the part of the general public regarding the nature of insurgency warfare, as there has been on the part of the Coalition military planners, who are still grappling with the nature of this problem, trained and prepared as they are for conventional warfare.
By and large, conventional warfare went out with World War II. Equivalent powers battling it out over specific military targets in open confrontation is no longer plausible. The conflict in Afghanistan is a case of a military giant targeting an insignificant backwater. By the very nature of the insurgency movement, the resistance will not seek direct and open confrontation with the invaders, which would result in obliteration. Instead, they strike on the quiet, acting in secret against the points where the invaders are at their most vulnerable.
Imagine the kind of scenario actively sought by an Afghan insurgent. It might involve hiding out in a bombed out apartment building with a Russian made RPG rocket launcher, waiting for the tank convoys to rumble down the street. Then you pop up, loose off a few rockets, and get out of there. You’ve killed a few US troops or blown up a tank, and escaped before the enemy knows where the shooting is coming from. They can’t even distinguish you from the civilians in the area. You don’t look any different. You’re just another guy with a beard and a head dress. When the Coalition troops shoot back, civilian casualties are inevitable. The casualties lead to greater hostility in the civilian population, which leads to greater support for the insurgents. It’s a vicious, bloody cycle that gets worse the deeper you get entrenched in it. The Coalition has been mixed up in precisely such a quagmire in Afghanistan for nearly eight years now.
Modern insurgency warfare is inevitably long, messy, and ultimately, unwinnable. And the Coalition forces will get tired of these bloody games long before the insurgents they are fighting. These people have grown up with misery and warfare. They are conditioned for it. They have nothing to lose. They are not concerned with the casualties they sustain in comparison to casualties inflicted. They will keep fighting and fighting until the invaders give up and go home, which one day, will become inevitable.
On August 20, 2009, Afghanistan will hold its second US sponsored “democratic” election. But it’s largely a sham when you consider that the central government in Kabul has no recognised authority in the Taliban controlled Afghan provinces. And what people are forming the basis of the new democratic government? Many of them are derived from the so-called “Northern Alliance” – a loose organisation of rival factions that assisted the US in its overthrow of the Taliban, many of them precisely the same Warlords and clan leaders who terrorised Afghanistan in the years between the collapse of the Soviet invasion and the rise of the Taliban. Men such as Mohammed Fahim, strongly implicated in a series of human rights abuses, but currently acting as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s running mate in the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan is spilling over the borders and into Pakistan. Pashtun clansmen in the autonomous-in-all-but-name mountainous border region are rallying in support of their brethren in Afghanistan. The US has been launching drone missile strikes against suspected insurgent targets in Pakistan as early as 2004, but the campaign has drastically been stepped up under Barack Obama in 2009, risking further destabilisation in the nuclear armed state. It’s a situation eerily reminiscent of the US expansion of the Vietnam War through bombing strikes into Cambodia and Laos, resulting in mass civilian devastation.
Barack Obama swept into power in the White House on the back of promises to do away with the policies of international aggression established by the previous Administration. But even as he takes steps to scale down the war in Iraq, he moves to expand military operations in Afghanistan. The escalation of aggression on the part of the Taliban in striking back fiercely against Coalition targets in recent months demonstrates that the resistance to the invasion is far from dimmed. In fact, it’s flourishing stronger than ever. Far from becoming the saviour of America’s international image he has been acclaimed to be, Obama risks creating his own version of the disasters in Vietnam and Iraq, by refusing to acknowledge the futility of the Coalition adventure in Afghanistan. Just like Bill Clinton, his Democrat predecessor in the White House, Obama apparently suffers under the misconception that he can force “democracy” on a war torn and underdeveloped nation at gunpoint. But Afghanistan is not ready for an American version of democracy. It has not undergone any of the historical developments necessary to make such a set of circumstances at all viable. And the longer the Coalition war in Afghanistan is sustained, the further the tortured nation will be from ever finding peace.