On a secret visit to Kabul on December 20, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the US would increase its troop level by 60,000. At the same time, he warned that this had to be coupled with development programs and better governance otherwise no number of troops will do the job. Nearly ten days earlier, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had made a similar announcement when he landed at the
Qandahar airfield. He praised Canadian troops that control the airfield and are supposed to provide security in the province, for carrying the major burden of fighting, hinting broadly that the US would welcome their stay beyond the February 2011 announced withdrawal date. Nominated by US President-elect Barack Obama to continue in his post even in the new administration, Gates spoke against the backdrop of three Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan on December 5, bringing the Canadian death toll to 100 — an important landmark in Canada’s fateful involvement in the war-torn country. Three more soldiers were killed in the same area on December 13.
Gates’s visit came on the heels of a scathing report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) declaring that the Taliban now controlled 72 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, up from 54 percent last year, and were well on their way to achieving their threat of turning 2009 into a “decisive” year. Ambassadors from the US and Britain tried to rubbish the ICOS report but as Yvonne Ridley, the British Muslim journalist, pointed out in an article following her visit to Kabul: “The reality is none of these people really know what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan because it is not safe to travel and if any of them do venture out it is rarely beyond the confines of Kabul. The reason I know the ICOS report carries weight is because I have just returned from Afghanistan myself and, unlike most politicians, diplomats and journalists who go to the country, I went in unescorted” (“Information Clearing-house”, December 10, 2008). The Taliban are clearly tightening the noose around Kabul and are securely ensconced in Wardak, a province adjoining Kabul. They also control three of the four roads out of the capital.
There were other fast-paced developments as well. In early December, hundreds of NATO supply trucks were attacked and destroyed in Peshawar. On December 5, some 250 armed men attacked a depot in Peshawar and destroyed each and every one of the 100 trucks loaded with goods destined for NATO troops in Afghanistan. The following day, 50 more trucks were destroyed in another part of the city. The daring attacks underscored the vulnerability of NATO supply lines through Pakistan, hence the desperate attempt to find alternate routes through Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Obama’s announcement to send 20,000 additional troops to the “good war” in Afghanistan has been greeted by the Taliban with glee. They regard it as an opportunity to attack a “bigger army, bigger target and more shiny new weapons to take from the toy soldiers.” American generals have talked in terms of 40,000 to 100,000 additional troops, levels that are simply not available. America’s killing of hundreds of Afghan civilians in indiscriminate aerial attacks has been the most effective recruiting tool for the Taliban. Even those Afghans not keen on seeing the Taliban back in power are appalled by the level of brutality inflicted on civilians.
Pubic opinion in Western countries has also turned against the “good war.” For instance, Canada has 2,500 troops serving in combat missions since 2005, primarily to appease the US, but at least 60 percent of Canadians are opposed to the war. It is also a financial burden. Canada will have spent $18 billion by the time its military mission is over. Of this, $17 billion is for military related costs and only $1 billion are earmarked for reconstruction but even from this paltry sum, only half — $500 million — will go toward reconstruction. Western “experts” and “consultants” will devour the other $500 million charging exorbitant fees for their ill-suited advice.
The other leg of the West’s Afghan mission rests on the assumption that enough Afghan security personnel — soldiers and policemen — would be trained to take responsibility for internal security, allowing Western armies to depart. In December 2002, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed a decree capping the Afghan National Army strength at 70,000. Gates has arbitrarily increased the number to 122,000 troops and 82,000 police. So much for Afghan independence! But who would provide the money to pay their salaries? Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid rubbish the recruitment idea altogether. “Current estimates of the annual cost are around $2.5 billion for the army and $1 billion for the police. Last year, the Afghan government collected about $670 million. Thus, even if Afgha-nistan’s economy experienced uninterrupted real growth of 9 percent per year, and if revenue extraction doubled to 12 percent (both unrealistic forecasts) in ten years the total domestic revenue of the Afghan government would be about $2.5 billion a year” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2008; p.34). The writers go on to say that long-term international financing is not feasible.
Regardless of the numbers, Afghan security personnel are notoriously unreliable. This was evident during last April’s independence celebrations. While being addressed by Karzai, the Taliban struck causing absolute mayhem. Far from protecting Karzai, the security personnel fled the scene leaving one member of parliament and several other people dead. Karzai barely managed to escape as he was bundled into a car that hurriedly fled the scene.
US-NATO failures have become glaringly obvious. Even Karzai has realized this. His repeated appeals to the Taliban including their leader, Mulla Omar to come for talks and his promise to provide him “protection” reflect his state of desperation. Western media reports claim that his offer to the Taliban is a “shrewd political ploy” and is meant to win support among the Afghans in preparation for next year’s presidential election. This is wishful thinking. The Afghan society does not operate on Western notions of political stunts when politicians try to buy people’s vote through pre-election campaign promises. The Afghans face far more mundane problems: security, food, water and shelter. They are at the mercy of the warlords, in and out of government, as well as the thuggish policemen. When they have problems, most Afghans turn to the Taliban for redress, not to government officials.
Karzai knows that he has no power outside the walls of the heavily guarded presidential compound. The US and NATO forces are adding to his problems by killing innocent civilians in the thousands. Such brutality simply reinforces the people’s perception that Karzai is an American stooge. The Taliban are gaining ground and Karzai is running out of time. It may already be too late. There is mounting speculation that next year’s elections may be postponed.
Karzai’s outburst in mid-November stressing his determination to talk with the Taliban and offer safe protection to their leader, Mulla Omar, whether the Americans liked it or not, reflected his desperation. When asked whether the Americans would agree to this, he replied, “if I say I want protection for Mulla Omar, the international community has two choices, remove me or leave.” A Taliban spokesman responded that they needed no protection from Karzai or anyone else and that it was the American and other foreign occupation forces that needed protection. He dismissed the idea of talks before all foreign troops were out of the country.
Given that the Russian troops and tanks that had rolled through the Salang Pass into Kabul on December 27, 1979 amid fears that they would never leave Afghanistan, were defeated in less than 10 years, the Americans and their allies may be driven out even sooner. The Americans’, and Obama’s “good war” may turn out to be not so good after all.