x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A strategic dilemma for the West

With an intensifying debate over Afghanistan, the arguments for and against the war are examined.

Almost eight years after the invasion, the war in Afghanistan is again at the forefront of foreign policy concerns in Europe and the United States. There are those who believe the fight is necessary and must continue for the sake of international security. Others say troops and civilians are dying in a conflict that can never be won. Chris Sands, foreign correspondent, examines both sides of the debate.

IN FAVOUR KABUL // When Haroun Mir hears the doubts surrounding the increasingly bloody struggle in his homeland, his mind goes back to a meeting he had 12 years or so ago. At that point he was a close confidant of the late mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and Washington had all but abandoned a country known as "the graveyard of empires". The Northern Alliance had detained a group of Taliban buoyed by their movement's unstoppable march into Kabul and beyond. Among the prisoners were 15 Pakistanis. "One Pakistani was a bright guy and we talked not like in the way of the media, but as the two young men we were then. I told him I have a beard, I pray five times a day, I am a Muslim, why should you fight us? He said, 'Afghanistan is just a first step. You guys are an obstacle for us. Our objective is not Afghanistan. We want to move forward towards central Asia'. "These people are brainwashed," he added, warning, "Their ultimate enemies are western countries." When the US and its allies agreed to invade Afghanistan there was none of the widespread anger and controversy that would later scar the build-up to the Iraq war. It was, the White House said, a battle for the very survival of the civilised world. Mr Mir is certain that the same argument still rings true. He believes the big mistake of the United States and Nato is not that they are too involved, it is that they are not involved enough. "There is no alternative for Afghanistan," he said. "You cannot say, if you leave today then tomorrow the Taliban will come back to Kabul, probably form a coalition government and rule the country. That is not the case. If they return to Afghanistan then al Qa'eda will be on top of them." Soon after becoming US president, Barack Obama promised to bolster the number of troops here by 21,000. The surge is now well under way, but one result has been a massive increase in the fatality rate. At the time of writing, 226 foreign soldiers have died already this year compared with 294 in the whole of 2008. In his current role as the director of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies, Mr Mir insists the sacrifice is worth it and would like to see even more troops deployed. "I think the military surge from America and other Nato forces at least will disrupt the Taliban," he said. "If the Taliban are disrupted from Afghanistan and not ready to regroup as easily as they did before, then it will allow for the build-up of the Afghan security forces.". The London-based International Council on Security and Development has been hugely critical of the war effort in the past, most notably claiming last winter that the Taliban had a permanent presence in 72 per cent of the country. Yet despite often issuing stark assessments, the think-tank has never been against the occupation. That remains the case today, when it wants a greater commitment of resources. Jorrit Kamminga, a senior policy analyst with the council, said the extra soldiers were welcome, although numbers were still not at the levels required. "The whole point is that this is not about a military victory against the Taliban," he said. "It is about making them irrelevant. "That is only possible with a hearts and minds campaign that is not only implemented in rhetoric, but actually materialises on the ground." While describing the fighting as "good if you manage to kill the fundamentalist part" of the insurgency, he said battles like those now taking place in the Helmand River valley were frequently against ordinary Afghans. "We can only win if we somehow manage to convince these angry young men, who are disillusioned by our failure to provide them with a better future, that joining our side of the struggle is better for them," he said. A similar stance is taken by Sher Mohammed Akhunzada. He served as the governor of Helmand until he was dismissed following claims that he was involved in the drugs trade. He is bitter about the allegations, but insists he has not turned against the occupation. The deployment of US marines to the province was a positive step, he said. Now he wants a greater engagement with religious and tribal leaders, and US forces sent openly into Pakistan. "If the terrorists come back to Afghanistan and control they will make the situation worse all around the world," he said. csands@thenational.ae

AGAINST KABUL // While Washington declared that the 2001 invasion was bringing freedom to the people of Afghanistan, Marc Herold kept a tally. It recorded the number of civilians dying in incidents few journalists bothered to notice. He has continued ever since, compiling charts and tables that appear to show a rapidly escalating disaster. "The only way forward is to withdraw as soon as possible. This needs to be clearly announced to all parties and efforts need to be made to begin a process of inter-Afghan negotiations," he said. Mr Herold is a professor of economic development at the University of New Hampshire in the US and he has been documenting the human cost of the conflict from its outset. According to his research, a minimum of 7,605 civilians have died as a direct result of coalition military actions alone. He also claims the ratio of innocent people killed per 10,000 tonnes of bombs dropped surpasses the infamous US air strikes on Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s and its Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Acutely aware of this kind of criticism and growing anger among Afghans, the commander of the US and Nato forces issued orders designed to reduce civilian casualties. But for Mr Herold, the deaths of more women and children are an inevitable part of what he believes is an unwinnable guerrilla war. "Counterinsurgency literature says that to control Afghanistan would require 400,000 soldiers," he points out, before going on to say the Taliban would not repeat the mistake of harbouring al Qa'eda if foreign troops left. Opponents of the occupation and President Barack Obama's surge are a minority in the US, where American involvement is still seen in the context of September 11. However, activists are starting to turn their attention towards this part of the world after years of being distracted by Iraq. Rethink Afghanistan aims to spark debate via a series of short films posted on its website that look at everything from the growing unrest in neighbouring Pakistan to the massive economic costs of sustaining the war. Robert Greenwald, the project's director, said, "The issues raised by 9/11 and since 9/11 require smart, tough thinking. Following the tired old path of invasion and occupation has proven a failure over and over again. "Further escalation of militarising this problem will lead to a further increase in death, destruction and strengthening of the Taliban." This summer, insurgents have shown signs of adapting in response to the thousands of additional troops. In June, there were 736 incidents involving improvised explosive devices, far surpassing the previous record. A number of co-ordinated missions against government forces have also occurred in the east of the country. This week gunmen and suicide bombers struck a series of targets in the city of Khost. A similar attack happened earlier in Gardez, when some of the militants were even disguised as women. Antonio Giustozzi is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science in Britain and has long studied Afghanistan. He believes the guerrillas' skills "are constantly improving" as they look to adopt new techniques, including the use of anti-aircraft weapons and more snipers. He has severe doubts about the impact that extra US troops will have. "They claim this time they will stay and hold territory, building outposts in village areas. However, it's not clear how long they will really stay there. I doubt it will be for years. That's the decisive issue," he said. All the signs are that the war is also moving far beyond the provinces the latest US soldiers have been sent to. Large swathes of the north, including parts of Kunduz, Baghlan and Kapisa, have become extremely dangerous in the last year or so, as the Taliban pick and choose their battlegrounds. A deterioration in security since 2001 is undeniable, but that is not the only thing to have changed. The political rhetoric in London and Washington has toned down as the enormity of the task ahead begins to dawn. While there is still no obvious exit plan, Mr Obama has warned against expecting a decisive victory and elements of the Taliban are now seen as people who can potentially be bargained with. Mr Giustozzi, however, believes the reality is even starker than the US and its Nato allies like to admit. "Unless they can turn the Afghan state into something more functional, ultimate defeat cannot be avoided," he said. csands@thenational.ae