Afghan ‘surge’ just a face-saving exercise doomed to failure

October 16, 2009


The war on terror has truly become a war without end, regardless of who is in charge. Eight years after George Bush and Tony Blair launched it with an attack on Afghanistan – under the preposterous title of ”operation enduring freedom” and without an explicit UN mandate – Blair’s successor Gordon Brown has agreed to send yet more British troops to die for a cause the public no longer believes in.

Granted, we are only talking about an extra 500 troops on top of the 9000-strong British force already there, and the deployment is hedged with qualifications. Brown has nevertheless bowed to pressure from the US, the British military establishment and the warmongering wing of the media, anxious to exploit the Government’s Afghan failures in the run-up to British general elections next year. But if any more proof were needed that foreign wars are not regarded as any business of the voters, this is surely it. The latest batch of polls confirms that the British public’s opposition to the Afghan imbroglio is becoming ever more entrenched. Since last month there has been a 7 per cent increase in support for an immediate withdrawal, according to a poll for The Times, with 68 per cent wanting troops out within the year and the strongest backing for a pull-out coming from Labour voters.

That is feeding the growing disaffection among serving soldiers towards what many see as a futile sacrifice. British Lance-Corporal Joe Glenton, who is scheduled to face a court martial next month after refusing to fight what he regards as an illegal war in Afghanistan, exemplifies a wider sentiment in the army.  Stop the War Coalition activists drumming up support for national demonstrations have reported sympathetic approaches from off-duty soldiers and their families across Britain.

Reports are multiplying of a similar mood among American soldiers in Afghanistan, as US opposition to the war has also hardened. As in Britain, the rampant rigging in August’s Afghan presidential election was a tipping point: dying for Afghans’ right to take part in a sham election is scarcely a noble cause.

But the signs are that Barack Obama is once again preparing to send more troops – even if not the 40,000 demanded by his senior commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

Last week, Obama ruled out any significant reduction in troop numbers or a strategy switch from a ”counter-insurgency” to ”counter-terrorist” (targeting al-Qaeda rather than the Taliban), let alone a military withdrawal.

Instead, the hints are of schemes to buy off Taliban foot soldiers in an attempt to repeat the trick that created US-sponsored Sunni militias out of elements of the Iraqi resistance during the 2007 US surge.

The Iraq analogy is not a happy one, however. The Iraqi ”awakening councils” are already falling apart, notably in what was supposed to be the showcase of Anbar province, where a string of deadly attacks have taken place in recent days.

As Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Institute puts it: ”You cannot break an insurgency that strong with money. It’s not a mercenary force.” In fact, the Taliban now effectively controls up to 70 per cent of the country, according to Pakistani Government estimates, with support fuelled by nationalist anger and the thousands of civilian casualties inflicted by NATO forces.

Meanwhile, years of occupation and intervention in Afghanistan are yielding ever more bitter fruit in Pakistan. The war with the Pakistani Taliban is expected to escalate next week into a full-scale US-sponsored assault on South Waziristan, retaliatory attacks are spreading in Pakistan’s cities, US drone attacks have exacted a relentless civilian death toll and 2 million have already been made homeless by the spillover war.

One after another, the official aims and justifications of the war in Afghanistan have failed or been discredited. It was a war fought to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but both are still at large. It was a war fought to destroy al-Qaeda, whose leadership simply decamped and set up new bases from Pakistan to Iraq. It was a war for democracy, women’s rights, development and opium eradication – all demonstrated to be a hollow joke.

Now we are told it is a war to prevent al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism on the streets of London, which shamelessly turns reality on its head. There were no such attacks before 2001, and both the bombers and intelligence agencies have repeatedly identified the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as a central motivation for those who launch them.

Last week, General Sir David Richards, new chief of Britain’s general staff, conjured up an even more lurid justification: if NATO pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda would seize Pakistan.

The opposite is the case. It is the Afghan war that is destabilising Pakistan and driving the Pashtun rebellion there. The last remaining argument, that withdrawal from Afghanistan would risk ”undermining the credibility of NATO” and the ”international community”, used by Brown last month, is the closest to the truth.

In the wake of its strategic defeat in Iraq, it would certainly signal that the US and its allies can no longer impose military solutions on recalcitrant states.

Which is why US, British and other coalition soldiers are likely to go on dying in Afghanistan. The alternative is not to ”walk away” from the country, but the negotiated withdrawal and political settlement, including the Taliban and regional powers, that will eventually end the war. That’s what most Afghans, Britons and Americans want. But political pressure will have to grow stronger – including, grimly, from a rising soldiers’ death toll – if it’s going to be achieved any time soon.

Seumas Milne is a Guardian columnist.


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