Tag Archives: ISAF

A ‘War On Terror’ Or A ‘War On Chaos’?

The European deployments throughout Africa are an entirely different creation to the US-led “War on Terror”. The European “War on Chaos” is one of pragmatic national interest but also of support for those states who play by the rules and protection for the millions under constant threat of violence.

[dhr]

rafale

[dhr]

Two and a half thousand French forces are being deploying in Mali in the largest European military deployment by any EU state since 2001. Supported by British and then American logistics in under a week the French have advanced against both columns of the advancing AQIM affiliated fighters, halting them completely in the East and beginning a counter-attack in the North. Bombing raids have struck Islamist positions behind the front lines as West African forces begin to arrive to double the foreign troops fighting to defend Mali’s capital.

The situation in Mali is the most significant action by western forces since the NATO operation in Libya, another in which the French military lead the way, flying 35% of the total offensive foreign air missions of the conflict and 90% of the helicopter missions. But even that is a fragment of French military involvement in the last year. They are the most active western state in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, formed the bulk of the force which ousted Ivory Coast dictator Gbagbo and are a primary contributor to the European army, the CSDP.

France has never been a passive military power. Ever since its founding as the western branch of Charlemagne’s German Frankish Empire it has been at almost constant war. From its constant conflicts with the British of the medieval period it went on to dominate continental Europe with its huge military and financial strength. Napoleon, perhaps the greatest European tactician in history, conquered the entire continent before his army was struck down by disease. In fact if it wasn’t for this disaster and the allied tactic of attempting to avoid ever facing Napoleon’s genius directly in battle he may have created the first truly European state. It went on to build an empire to challenge that of the British and Spanish, fighting stoically through the First World War and ferociously in the Second, though not always on the same side. As the empires of Europe collapsed France fought over the remains of its global power, only admitting defeat after the disasters of Vietnam and Algeria. Now, after years of struggling to regain its place at the forefront of European military strength it is by far the most active of the Western powers outside America.

Much as this may surprise many, fueled by the completely misplaced British-propaganda stereotype of French as the white-flag-wavers of Europe, it’s not quite as surprising to most as the mere idea of European military action, let alone a dedicated EU military force. The mere thought seems alien to American audiences still unused to their new supporting role in conflicts and horrifying to the eurosceptic English. However, the European CSDP (Common Security and Defense Policy) military has grown from a mere token force to the largest coalition army outside the ISAF in Afghanistan. The European force is now significant enough that it has involved itself in twenty-five foreign operations, all separately from NATO. Presently well over 5,000 European forces operate under the EU flag of the CSDP as well as four naval warships. Alone this is a larger force than any of the militaries involved in Afghanistan other than the United States and Britain.

There is a key difference however between the armed forces of the French and EU compared to that of the USA and Britain, none of these forces have been involved in the reputational suicide of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The unilateral invasion, without international support (unlike Afghanistan or any French missions of the last decade) ruined the international status of the two Atlantic powers as supporters of international order and made them as much pariahs to the developing world as the “Axis of Evil” they fought against. Instead European forces, and 4,500 French forces fighting under the tricolour or the twelve stars, represent a force of stability in conflict-torn areas. They come on invitation and international support and yet lack the need for the sometimes crippling restraint forced on UN peacekeepers.

The European deployments throughout Africa and in potential conflict zones across Europe and Asia are an entirely different creation to the US-led “War on Terror”. The European “War on Chaos” is one of pragmatic national interest but also of support for those states who play by the rules and protection for the millions under constant threat of violence. The French-led war for military stability across the world is mirrored by the German-led battle for economic stability at home in Europe. Together they form two arms of increasingly powerful demands for a unified Europe bringing stability to both its own citizens and those of the world at large. The Germans have expressed their support for the new European military and the French are aligned with them in the push for a new centralised European economic system. A new Europe is being born, one regaining the pride and prestige it had lost for almost a century. The US was forged in the fire of the British Empire, states forced to band together into Union to guard against the return of the world’s most powerful force. The Union of Europe may well be forged from the threat of Eurozone collapse and Islamist terrorism breeding from every failed state and unstable region.

The result may well be a split in the Western world. The liberal continental Europe, one built upon consensus and cooperation, is radically different from the relatively conservative United States, swinging violently between neoconservative interventions and proud isolation, too sure of its own exceptionalism. Between them stands Britain, unsure of which road to take. However, as the Atlantic divides the west and the US turns to the pacific, a lonely island may not have the clout to strike fear as its empire once did. As the French fight in Mali and Somalia, and Germany grants the keys to economic power to the European Union, the European War on Chaos will proceed with or without royal Britannia.

[hr]

Photo credit: Jerry Gunner

Withdrawal Lessons From Iraq

The United States should think twice about how to withdraw while protecting Afghan democracy at the same time.

[dhr]

Us soldier Afghanistan children

[dhr]

On January 11 President Barack Obama declared that the United States is, after 12 years of conflict, moving towards a “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan. His meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai marks an emotional turning point in the conflict. The joint agreement to accelerate the military transition to Afghan forces is a step in the right direction, but it is important not to be carried away. The American fighting role in Afghanistan should end. Yet it is crucial to withdraw responsibly, to avoid the mistakes made when leaving Iraq.

Similar to the choices facing leaders in Afghanistan today, the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq in December 2011 was a difficult one, commensurate with the conflict’s complexity. Yet, despite its merits (which were considerable), the exit underscored the low priority the Obama Administration placed on Iraq; in the rush to leave a draining war, the Administration left a country unready to support itself. The effects of the premature drawdown are being felt across the Iraqi political landscape today, as Nouri al-Maliki continues to move menacingly towards authoritarianism and fissures open between the country’s disparate factions.

The US military withdrawal created a vacuum in which Maliki has been able to abuse the stillborn democratic political system left behind. The leverage that the military presence afforded US diplomats has evaporated, leaving American ambassadors woefully unable to prevent Maliki from abusing government. Instead, he is reinforcing his grip on the military chain of command, using arrests to intimidate dissenters, and ensuring loyalty from his intelligence and judicial services.

These actions, amongst others, are deeply subversive of the envisaged democratic state for which much blood and money were expended. The Iraqi opposition, wary of engaging in the political process, has looked to regional neighbors for support. The protests across Iraq over the past two weeks further underscore this outward search for allies. The opposition leadership is turning to foreign allies among the Sunni Arab states, mostly in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

This situation was not predestined for Iraq, nor is it for Afghanistan if the right lessons are learned. Between 2008 and 2010, Iraq made stunning progress that surprised even the staunchest cynics. Democratic incentives began to influence the Parliament in Baghdad and politicians across the country. Iraqis were pushed to conduct politics in ways that, as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution described, “were uncomfortable and alien for them. Yet they were having to do it, they were all learning democratic processes.”

Yet US leaders did not wait for this fledgling democracy to take root. Their departure just as these processes were beginning to transform Iraq’s political landscape opened the gates for the traditional political culture to reassert itself. American soldiers were, for better or worse, a barrier to the fear that had defined Iraqi politics for decades. Once they were gone, the country reverted to what it once knew: A political system in which a deep distrust of government defined a populace reliant on its own wit to protect itself.

Afghanistan could face a similar fate if American leaders do not understand the lessons from Iraq. Progress in Afghanistan during recent months is worthy of praise, but should be greeted by cautious optimism.

Most importantly, both Obama and Karzai have affirmed their support for negotiations with the Taliban, which has expressed a tentative desire to come back into Afghanistan’s political fold. Each party supports the establishment of an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks, and although all sides have a ways to go before they understand the others’ “red lines,” analysts are hopeful that negotiations are near.

There are, of course, challenges. How much faith can western and Afghan leaders have in their Taliban interlocutors? What role will third party actors like Pakistan can play, in the coming months? Many senior Taliban leaders have refused to negotiate until the Afghan Constitution is amended and Karzai is gone. But within these parameters progress is possible. And if Karzai follows through on his promise to step down next year, a successful start of this conversation will become even more likely.

Negotiations with the Taliban hinge on a synthesis of military and diplomatic lines of operation. The Obama Administration needs to combine military security with increased pressure on politicians to open negotiations. Yet the time to make such a calculation is fast ending. Distressingly, it seems the current administration is sliding towards withdrawal without any attempt to pursue diplomatic options. Obama and Karzai have jointly adopted the transition narrative, emphasizing the transferal of security and administrative responsibility to the Afghan government. Just how ready Kabul is to take over these challenges is uncertain. For Washington, though, this narrative is ideal, as it allows policymakers to hand their problems to the Afghans, without paying a high political price of pursuing negotiations.

Afghanistan stands a great chance of being ripped apart from within and without. Heading a state with no precedent of unity, Afghan leaders must reconstruct a country from political zero. Pakistani, Iranian, and even Indian, Chinese, and Russian influence could further weaken Kabul’s ability to exercise authority over border regions. If conversations with the Taliban break down, internecine conflict could add to these woes.

In this volatile environment, Afghanistan will presumably face a turnover of its government in 2014. Without proper safeguards, Karzai could go the route of Maliki. Like in Iraq, without the leverage provided by a strong military presence, there will be little barrier to such a reversal of democratic progress. The US should think twice about how to withdraw and protect Afghan democracy at the same time. It is a step in the right direction that Karzai agreed to grant US soldiers legal immunity — which Maliki denied — but whether this promise holds is another question.

In Iraq, a good-intentioned but ill-timed withdrawal of American soldiers left a country still finding its political feet without ground on which to stand. The promising developments in the last years of the occupation were largely lost as Maliki reverted to authoritarian practices, the political factions reverted to divisive diplomacy, and the population reverted to the politics of fear. It is yet to be seen whether Afghanistan will follow the same trajectory. The war has cost over 3,000 coalition and countless Afghan lives, and needs to end. But it leaders should examine their own history to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

[hr]

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army

The Race Has Begun For The 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections

The confirmation that the Afghan presidential elections will be held, as per the Constitution, on 5 April 2014 will intensify the already febrile political atmosphere in Afghanistan.

[dhr]

Marjah elders schedule regular meetings, offer bridge to community

[dhr]

The decision of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) underlines recent statements, including from Karzai himself, that the Constitution will be respected and should help to (somewhat) ease suspicions as to the real intentions of the current administration. It also partly addresses a recommendation recently made by the International Crisis Group (ICG) but the IEC must now follow up – quickly and convincingly – with a timetable and practical measures for a new voter registry.

An April election is the best option in that i/ it should calm opposition fears that the Executive will bypass the Constitution and ii/ ISAF will still have sufficient boots on the ground to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in carrying out their duties.

On the latter point, ISAF personnel will limit their role to strategic support, as per the process of security transition which will have reached its final stages by April 2014. The Afghan Police and Army will take the lead in ensuring both physical security and electoral security (e.g. chain-of-custody of ballot boxes). Again, this is consistent with the security transition but more importantly means that the elections of the sovereign Afghan State will be conducted by their own people.

The widespread fraud and vote-rigging that marred the 2009 presidential elections cannot be repeated in 2014. While impossible to fully eradicate, electoral fraud must be significantly reduced if the legitimacy of the next president is not to be undermined. Thus the already complex practicalities of voter registration have become highly politicised, as demonstrated by the recent statement from the Coordination Council of Political Parties (CCPP), a loose umbrella organisation for the political opposition.

Moreover, the opposition have predictably rejected the Palace’s statement that the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) must be solely composed of Afghans [NB: In the past, two of the five Commissioners have been foreigners]. In the short-term, the elections will be fought on these technical issues: nobody is ready yet to identify candidates.

At this stage, it is extremely difficult to predict who will run. According to the Constitution, Hamid Karzai must step down in 2014 after serving two full terms but, according to the ICG, “[t]here are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy.”

This is almost certain but, as yet, nobody stands out as an obvious choice. Arguably, any such individual would not only be Karzai’s straw man but rather that of his current entourage. For example, some believe that Farooq Wardak, the influential Minister for Education, will stand in 2014 but it is equally possible that he will bide his time until 2019, when the conditions for his candidacy may be more favourable, but still maintain considerable influence until then through a proxy.

In truth, there is no certainty whatsoever as to the identity of the Executive’s favoured candidate or even that of his potential opponents, despite ongoing opposition activity.

That said, however Karzai stacks the deck, any candidate supported by the current Executive would almost certainly win anyway as no single political party has their means to reach the majority of the population. The real concern is that if Karzai over-reaches (as in 2009) the fundamental legitimacy of the result will be undermined and that would be highly dangerous in the context of 2014.

An important point to note is that Afghan voters will elect a president but also his running mates on a single ticket. Afghanistan has two Vice-Presidents – currently Fahim Khan, a Panjshiri affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami, and Karim Khalil, a Hazara from a minority faction of Hezb-e Wahdat. That being the case, whichever individual Karzai and his entourage put foward will need to form some sort of coalition with influential blocs in order to ensure a manageable political equilibrium

To put it crudely, enough powerful people must be given their piece of the pie, as always. However, in the current political climate it is crucial that the Afghan people believe – at last – that their elected representatives have been legitimately elected and are genuinely representative.

This is an absolute minimum if the Afghan body politic is not to explode in 2014. The stakes are now much higher than in 2009 so all concerned must i/ ensure that the technical aspects of the elections are conducted properly and, ii/ beginning now, there must be real political dialogue so that, when Karzai steps down, the winner is accepted as legitimate and the losers believe they can best advance their interests through democratic means and not through violence.

This is a very tall order but the Afghans must deliver – for their own sake.

[hr]

Photo credit: isafmedia

Karzai & His Talib ‘Brothers’

Karzai’s desire to secure his legacy as the father of a modern Afghan nation is behind his public olive branches to the Taliban. However, Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions toward the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others.

[dhr]Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai

[dhr]

Last week, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar once again referred to President Karzai and his administration as “stooges” and “puppets” and rejected any notion of negotiation between them. On the other side, Karzai has on numerous occasions referred to the Taliban as “brothers”, including in a graveside oration for his slain [NB: not by the Taliban] brother Ahmed Wali – and has been heavily criticised for doing so.

The relationship between Hamid Karzai and the Taliban is clearly complex, which will pose problems in whatever political dialogue will take place up to and beyond 2014, but it is not as paradoxical as it would seem.

While doubtless very amusing to Americans who have dealt with the Afghan President, the Taliban’s repeated dismissal of Karzai as a US stooge is actually quite rational. From their perspective, the legitimate government of Afghanistan is that of the Islamic Emirate and its legitimate leader is Mullah Omar. To negotiate with Karzai on equal terms is to surrender that legitimacy.

In addition to this question of legitimacy, there are other factors in the Taliban’s relationship with Karzai which are often overlooked by, or simply not known to, western observers. Indeed, there is a history stretching back to the mid-1990s and the very creation of the Taliban – which the young Karzai initially welcomed.

This soon changed and Karzai, in exile in Pakistan, began to work against them. In July 1999, Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad, was assassinated by the Taliban and his son led a massive funeral procession into Kandahar province in open defiance of the Taliban regime.

Over the past ten years, the manner in which Karzai has built his power base (which was non-existent in 2001) has only deepened the enmity of the Taliban. Beginning with his late brother, Ahmed Wali, key Karzai allies in southern Afghanistan are figures of detestation to the Taliban (and many others besides).

Matiullah Khan and Abdul Raziq, the current police chiefs of Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces respectively, are notorious for their brutality towards Taliban fighters. Another hated individual is Asadullah Khalid on the basis of his actions while Provincial Governor of Kandahar and later as overall security coordinator for southern Afghanistan. Khalid was recently appointed Head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan internal intelligence agency, and as such will play a central role in any sort of reconciliation process.

In short, while there are rational political reasons for the Taliban’s public stance towards Karzai, there is also a deep visceral hatred of the President and his allies in the south. This combination must seriously call into question any possibility of meaningful negotiation.

As for Karzai himself, his stance towards the Taliban may appear irrational given all of the above and given the heavy criticism he has received when he has referred to them as “brothers” [NB: On occasion Karzai has even threatened to join the Taliban, although he was not thought to have been serious]. They may not be immediately apparent but Karzai does have his reasons nonetheless.

Karzai’s survival – political and actual – depends in large part on bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan by the end of 2014 when he leaves (or is supposed to leave) office. His desire to secure his legacy as the father of the modern Afghan nation – an Afghan Ataturk, if you will – is a significant factor behind his very public olive branches to the Taliban. The problem there is that Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions towards the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others, for example key power brokers and politicians affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-ye Nazar.

Northern suspicions as to Karzai’s agenda of ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban also stem from the fact that the President’s inner circle has, in recent years, become increasingly dominated by Pashtun nationalists whose politics closely resemble those of the Taliban, at least to northern eyes. This is in stark contrast to the early years of the Karzai administration, during which the Interim President’s massive reliance upon northern powerbrokers (usually Panjshiris) within his Cabinet, such as current Vice-President Fahim Khan, allowed them to effectively run the government.

Today, Pashtuns affiliated to Hezb-e Islami occupy a number of key positions in the administration (e.g. Karim Khurram, his Chief-of-Staff, and Farooq Wardak, Minister for Education) and it is reasonable to suppose that Karzai’s policy towards the Taliban is, in part, a result of their influence.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, a formerly high-ranking Talib, presciently wrote that Karzai is imprisoned within a circle of people who keep him from the truth, adding that:

Karzai is between the tiger and the precipice and he wakes up every day unsure which way to go. He cannot differentiate between friend and enemy.

In the context of a peace process and a nationwide political dialogue, that could spell real danger.

[hr]

Photo Credit: isafmedia

Afghanistan Part 2: The Rise Of ‘Green On Blue’ Attacks

The recent surge of ‘green on blue’ attacks in Afghanistan may be the most successful tactic in the history of this conflict towards this aim, the aim of breaking the will of domestic populations to support the wars for stability and security in the Middle East.

[dhr]

Afghan policeman helping American soldier

[dhr]

This is the second part of a two part series on Afghanistan. View the first part here.

[hr]

By 2014 the ISAF may well have succeeded in creating an Afghanistan which can be secured by the government, supported by the significant infrastructure and well-trained military developed in the latter half of the conflict. In-fighting between Taliban moderates and extremists and the many groups in the Pakistan federal regions may prevent them developing the strength to challenge government forces. The departure of Western forces may kill off the Taliban’s chief propaganda engine and cut their recruits. The ISAF/UN efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan locals, already having shown some signs of success before the recent resurgence of extremist attacks in the wake of the rise of Pakistan-based groups over the increasingly moderate Afghan Taliban, may yet develop hostility towards yet more violence after the war involving the West is over.

What may result after 2014 is an unknown to even the most knowledgeable military thinkers and strategists. However what the withdrawal itself will show is more solid. What began with the retreat from Mogadishu in 1993 will be completed with that from Kabul in two years time. Western inability to stomach the sacrifice of lives necessary to win such long and non-traditional “bleeding” conflicts may prove the defining element of Western militaries in many conflicts to come. There is no lingering over the death of ever Kenyan to die in the fight of Al-Shabaab nor every Columbian kidnapped and executed by the FARC. Extremist knowledge and use of the strategy, outlined and shown at its most crippling by bin Laden, of goading the west with brutal terrorist attacks into wars which will eventually be defeated by their own public may well be the most devastating development since the advent of nationwide guerrilla warfare in 1800s Spain.

The Taliban will continue to fight to break the hearts of the West to win the minds of their leaders. And they will do so by the use of horrifyingly brutal tactics, by sowing sorrow and despair in those populations least able to cope with them. That is what the ‘green on blue’ attacks symbolise, the massacre of happy Afghans whose only crime was to dance, the murder of raped women and accused homosexuals. This is what terror is, to not know whether the man you taught to bear arms for their own freedom will simply wait till your back is turned before aiming that weapon at your head. Hopelessness and terror is their weapon, and as the ISAF prepares to withdraw they may be giving up their fight against it.

Unfortunately bin Laden was right, and is still winning victories long after his death. The major NATO powers, having not experienced a single conflict on their own soil in over half a decade, have lost the tolerance to violence and death our species had developed over millennia of traumatic and brutal existences. By contrast populations of those states ravaged by war in the Middle East have experienced such constant and repeated violent trauma that death and violence have become normalised. The idea that ten fighters were killed in a raid has become a part of life. In comparison every individual death of ISAF forces is broadcast across world media with sorrowful regret and sentimental remembrance of their life.

I in no way intend to criticise the way the West deals with death. I believe the increasing value placed on lives is a great testament to the culture of individuals rights and the freedom from violence and persecution the West continues to develop. However, it does not lend itself well to war. With every death the Taliban suffers, another willing recruit takes their place. Driven by the trauma of a country which has known no peace, to seek the community, purpose and order of extreme Islamism and with no sense of the sanctity of their own lives, only of that of their purpose. By contrast every ISAF death saps the will to fight of western forces and drives domestic populations away from the idea of a war which is worth fighting.

The recent surge of ‘Green on Blue’ attacks may be the most successful tactic in the history of this conflict towards this aim, the aim of breaking the will of domestic populations to support the wars for stability and security in the Middle East. This colloquial term for the attacks by newly trained Afghan forces on their ISAF allies covers the sudden growth of a new tactic to win the hearts and minds of western audiences. To convince them the war in Afghanistan, possibly a vital one for the fight against Islamist terrorism and regional stability, is both unwinnable and unjust. Why, when ISAF deaths are still so high (despite being nearer half of the losses suffered in the Iraq war), should we believe after a decade that Afghanistan can still be saved? Why, when we dedicate so many of our sons and brothers to the conflict, only to have them killed by those they are trying to help, should we believe the Afghans are deserving of our help?

This has even begun to seep into the highest ranking generals in ISAF forces, commanders vocalising their anger, frustration and sadness at the campaign which continues to drag on with no end in sight. This is no Iraq. The enemy are not collapsing, casualties have not been dramatically reduced by a troop surge, the government is not increasingly powerful or secure. In Iraq both military and civilian casualties dived from their peak after a troop surge which broke the back of extremist elements. In Afghanistan the continuous stream of combatants and extremist preachers from neighbouring Pakistan, outside the reach of the ISAF, is instead breaking the back of western morale. The battle for hearts and minds is one we are losing, it is the strength of religious extremists and their brutal tactics. No where is that more evident than when our hearts fall and minds recoil every time Green turns on Blue.

[hr]

Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Afghanistan Part 1: The Failure Of ‘Hearts and Minds’

That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.

[dhr]

[dhr]

This is the first part of a two part series on Afghanistan.

[hr]

The war for the hearts and minds of Afghanistan may be the most important propaganda campaign to the West since its long and bitter fight against Communism over two decades ago. However, unlike the Cold War, it is not a fight between two powers stuck in a precarious balance of equal and all-powerful military might. This is a war of power so disproportionate that it has made the battle of ideals so much more vital, not less so. In a conflict where the military balance is so one-sided, it is the hearts and minds of those both abroad and at home which have become the battlefield for both sides.

The Taliban could never hope to inflict any defeat on ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces large enough to swing the conflict in their favour. To do so would have required numbers, equipment and organisation beyond which the organisation was capable of even at its most powerful. Even the rise of new powerful groups such as the Haqqani network poses no real threat to ISAF forces as a whole. Even a total of three thousand casualties over the last decade is a relatively small loss in real terms against a total strength of over one hundred thousand and very little in comparison to the over twenty thousand Taliban and affiliated fighters killed in the conflict. The worst ever single loss of life for ISAF forces was a helicopter shot down, killing 38.

38 simply isn’t a large loss of life. Six harriers destroyed in the attack on Camp Bastion last month may be a the most serious aircraft loss for the US since Vietnam, but is a drop in the ocean to the US defence budget. With their capability to cause any form of military defeat significant enough to cripple with ISAF forces almost completely out of reach, and the continuing losses to their own more limited forces a constant of their campaign, how is it so many are saying the Taliban is winning the war, and why is NATO drawing out so soon from an unfinished conflict?

The truth lies not in military might and casualty figures but with hearts and minds, and not those of the population of Afghanistan. That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.

By this I do not mean that the Taliban have succeeded in turning western populations to violent Islamist extremism and a fundamental interpretation of Sharia law. Instead they succeeded in doing exactly what Osama bin Laden set out to do in 2001. Even before the war was launched, Bin Laden stated his aim as to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” on Muslim lands, claiming: “since Americans […] do not have the stomach for a long and bloody fight, they will eventually give up and leave the Middle East to its fate.”

When the US and UK forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 their greatest defeat will not be military, it will be psychological. They will withdraw with heads hung and eyes lowered. They will return to countries where their home populations have long seen their mission as pointless, unjust or an inevitable failure. Too many have tied the UN-sanctioned, internationally supported mission with the illegal invasion of Iraq which followed.

If ISAF forces retreat from Afghanistan, and it proves too early, before the Afghan government can itself secure the mountainous country and so releasing Afghanistan into a chasm of extremist violence and chaos, it will prove the most significant defeat in NATO history. It will prove the strategic brilliance of Osama Bin Laden and the success of the brutally unjust tactics of friendly fire in the Green-on-Blue attacks. If the Taliban manage to break the Afghan government they will not inherit Afghanistan. After a decade of war they are too weak to consolidate control that they were not even capable of before the 2001 invasion. Instead Afghanistan will collapse in the face of waves of combatants from the Pakistan federal regions and the battle between Iranian Shia and Pakistani Sunnis which will follow. Afghanistan will become a pump for terrorist attacks far greater than anything seen in a decade.

Read the second part of this series here.

[hr]

Photo credit: The U.S. Army