x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

America's impossible war in Afghanistan achieves nothing

The Taliban are as strong as ever, while the Afghan government and security forces remain dubious bets for maintaining stability after the Americans leave.

'It's very likely that we have tragically lost lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we're going to discover is not do-able." These words were not from some war-weary Democrat ruminating on Vietnam, but from firebrand Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, speaking to Fox News on Sunday.

And when the hawks of the Republican right are willing to concede that a war in a distant land is a lost cause wasting American lives, that's pretty close to a consensus. Although other hawkish Republicans still insist that the US can win its war in Afghanistan, two thirds of the American public no longer support the war - which is why Republicans on the campaign trail prefer not to mention it, because most of America is happy with President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw US forces in 2014.

The immediate context for Mr Gingrich's remarks was Sunday's massacre in Kandahar province, allegedly by a lone US serviceman who wandered off his forward operating base and unleashed a shooting spree on unsuspecting civilians nearby. Everyone knows what comes next: Americans serving all over Afghanistan will become targets for retribution, even by those serving alongside them in the Afghan security forces they're supposed to be mentoring. That's what happened last month, after it was discovered that US soldiers had inadvertently burnt Qurans at Bagram Airbase. It would be nothing short of remarkable if there was no backlash for the latest Kandahar killings.

In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the US is learning that whatever the motivation for an invasion, if it's followed by foreign troops settling in for the long haul, then sooner or later the occupation itself becomes the issue. Even people who have been brutally oppressed by their countrymen don't seem to like foreign occupiers: consider how ferociously the citizenry of the Soviet Union fought against the Germans in the Second World War despite the horrors to which Stalin had subjected them over the previous two decades.

And while there's no reason to doubt that the horrific shooting in Panjwai district was anything other than the rampage of a lone soldier who had lost his mind, many Afghan villagers probably will believe those telling them that this was yet another US attack on their community - not least because many are familiar with the Americans entering villages at night and wreaking havoc in the course of "night raids" aiming to kill or capture local Taliban operatives.

Of course, the US has no intention of staying in Afghanistan. The war is already the longest in US history, and President Barack Obama last year said that the US would withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014. Ever since he came to power, and even before, it was clear that the US couldn't eliminate the Taliban and that America could only end the war through a political solution with the insurgents.

Mr Obama's "surge" that boosted the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 100,000 was predicated on the idea that an aggressive expansion of the war effort would bloody the Taliban and bring them to the peace table as supplicants. But it hasn't worked out that way; the surge turned out to be little more than a game of whack-a-mole with insurgents moving out of areas in which US troops massed and opening up new fronts elsewhere. The Americans could achieve tactical successes; strategically, they were spinning their wheels.

The Taliban are as strong as ever, and feel the wind at their backs, while the government and security forces remain dubious bets for maintaining stability after the Americans leave. A US intelligence report presented to Mr Obama last December suggested that the Taliban still believe they can restore their rule in Kabul, and questioned whether the government of President Hamid Karzai would survive the US withdrawal.

Mr Karzai, perhaps aware of his grim prospects, appears to be hedging his bets by casting the Kandahar killings as "an attack by US forces", and demanding an end to the night raids that Nato say are essential to their operations against the Taliban.

As Henry Kissinger famously said in the Vietnam context, the conventional army loses by not winning; the guerrilla army wins by not losing. And the Taliban, quite obviously, have not lost. On the contrary, they have opened a negotiating office in Doha and just last week received a gesture from the US, which agreed to transfer five key Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to custody in Qatar. But while they may negotiate, there's little reason for them to accept the terms of their adversaries.

The US is leaving, and its ability to determine the fate of Afghanistan after its departure is unlikely to be any greater than its influence over the power struggle in Iraq. The question is the political motivation rather than simply the training of Afghan forces: the Tajik core affiliated with the Northern Alliance that dominates the officer corps will certainly fight the Taliban, as they have done since 1996. So will the Uzbeks. But don't bet on too many of the soldiers from the Pashtun south being willing to lay down their lives for Mr Karzai.

Afghanistan is arguably still locked in the same civil war in which it was gripped when the US forces arrived in late 2001. And as Mr Gingrich notes, close to 2,000 Americans have given their lives in a cause that is clearly lost.

The Vietnam War was also ostensibly ended by negotiation between the US and North Vietnam in Paris in 1972. But while that agreement set the terms for the departure of US forces, the war inside Vietnam ended only in April of 1975 when communist forces fought their way into Saigon and the last Americans left aboard helicopters taking off from the roof of the US embassy. It won't be easy for the Taliban to replicate that experience, but it ought to surprise no one if, right now, they're feeling lucky.


Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst

Follow on Twitter: @Tony Karon