x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The US should listen to Mr Gorbachev's lessons

At first glance, there is no reason why anyone in Washington should pay attention to Mr Gorbachev, however he organised a successful disengagement from Afghanistan.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Kremlin leader, has offered the Americans some advice about Afghanistan - a subject he knows a lot about, having ordered the retreat of Soviet troops from that country after a 10-year war. "You cannot conquer Afghanistan," he told the BBC. "President Obama is right to pull the troops out."

At first glance, there is no reason why anyone in Washington should pay attention to Mr Gorbachev. The commonly held view in the West is that after the Soviet 40th Army withdrew in February 1989, the Kabul government collapsed, civil war flared, the Taliban took over and Afghanistan became a base for Osama bin Laden. So Washington might well say, thanks Mr G, but we don't need your advice.

In fact, the truth is rather different. Mr Gorbachev organised a successful disengagement from Afghanistan. Seeing that military force was never going to turn the country into a biddable satellite, the Kremlin downgraded its goals, seeking only to turn the country into a "neutral" power. It ditched its communist puppet leader, replacing him with the strongman Najibullah, who set about wrapping himself up in an Islamic flag. Moscow lined up the regional powers to support an independent Afghanistan, hoping to avoid it becoming the fief of Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI.

Najibullah defied American expectations that his regime would collapse in three months. The Afghan army fought well against the mujahideen, inflicting a severe defeat on them at Jalalabad. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 fatally undermined Najibullah, and Kabul fell the next year. Had the Soviet Union survived and continued to support him with fuel and military supplies, he or his successor might be in power to this day.

The Soviet Union, even in its dying decade, had a clear plan of action. It is hard to say the same about the US.

The Obama administration has subjected its military strategy to the dictates of the American electoral cycle: a surge of reinforcements, a massive blow against the Taliban in their stronghold around Kandahar, and in June next year - eight months away - the withdrawal starts. Thus, Mr Obama's re-election campaign will get under way against a backdrop of C-17 transports disgorging the homecoming troops.

Even General David Petraeus, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, cannot really believe this is a plan for victory. More likely it is a recipe at best for a face-saving temporary success against the Taliban.

The US forces have killed thousands of Taliban this year. But that is no signifier of victory, as killing the local population only encourages more to join the insurgent ranks.

Anyone who has watched Afghans at war is struck by how the commanders on opposing sides seem to know each other personally, having often fought alongside each other in the past. Even more surprisingly, they seem to be able to do business on their radios, such as discussing prisoner exchanges.

This explains the slew of reports of President Hamid Karzai negotiating with the Taliban. Some news reports have interpreted these as a sign of the end game, with US forces ready to talk peace with insurgents. We are a long way from that position. The US military is not yet ready to discuss a withdrawal, nor are senior Taliban interested in what Washington has to offer. These contacts are more likely to be the usual traffic that you get between Afghan belligerents taken out of their context.

That might change after the end of the operation in Kandahar province, which should restore the honour of the US military. It could be the signal for a drive towards national reconciliation.

But much more is required if the US is to succeed in a withdrawal that does not multiply the chaos.

The goal of the Afghan campaign needs to be downgraded. The only reasonable goal is that Afghanistan should not be allowed again to become a base for al Qa'eda. This is a goal which the Taliban could agree on.

Currently one of the goals, as set out by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is to enshrine western-style respect for women's rights in Afghanistan. This is a laudable aim, but it confronts head-on the traditions of Pashtun tribal society. After 10 years of fighting it is clear that a foreign invasion is no way to liberate Afghan girls.

Equally important is a regional framework involving Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India and China. Without a regional agreement, Afghanistan will dissolve into even worse chaos. There is a hopeful sign in a warming of relations between the Nato alliance and Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev is to attend the next Nato summit in Lisbon on November 19; the Russians are being encouraged to sell helicopters to the Afghan armed forces, and will provide training on Russian soil for their pilots.

There will be no Russian troops involved - the Russians certainly do not want that after their experience in the 1980s, but they need to be engaged more fully. Their involvement is needed to reassure their old clients in the Northern Alliance, who drove the Taliban out of Kabul with US help in 2001, that they are not being abandoned when the US begins to withdraw.

Mr Gorbachev said it would be "more difficult" for the US to pull out of Afghanistan than it was for the Russians. The international situation is more complex - the US is in a state of economic war with Iran, a neighbour and key player in the stability of Afghanistan. Pakistan is becoming a less functional state, but is determined to control Afghanistan which it sees as "strategic depth" in its conflict with India.

For the Russians, Afghanistan was never seen as an existential threat; rather, the 1979 invasion was a Cold War gamble which went sour. Disengagement is harder for the Americans for whom the 9/11 attacks are forever linked with Afghanistan. But that has changed. More recent terror threats all stem from elsewhere - Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae