by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1433)
Will American troops last until 2014 when attacks by Afghan soldiers and policemen on American trainers have escalated alarmingly?
The noble mission to deliver Western-style democracy through cruise missiles to “backward” people in other parts of the world and indulge in the other favorite hobby of imperialism — nation building — received a setback when US and NATO commanders announced on September 18 that joint NATO-Afghan patrols in Afghanistan would be suspended. The announcement came on the heels of two developments, both worrisome for US-NATO troops. There has been a major spike in Afghan soldiers attacking their Western mentors in what is referred to as “green-on-blue” attacks. Concurrent with this, massive protests have rocked Kabul and other Afghan cities condemning the blasphemous US-made movie denigrating the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).
It was revealing that the demonstrators not only condemned the producer of the movie as well as the US, but also demanded that Afghanistan terminate its Strategic Partnership Agreement with Washington that President Barack Obama had signed in Kabul on May 1 and expel the US ambassador from Kabul. Sensing the deep public anger over the blasphemous movie, Afghan President Hamid Karzai also joined in the condemnation and implied that the Obama administration was responsible for it. Karzai then went on to condemn in strong terms the air raid in Laghaman province that killed scores of Afghan civilians including nine women and girls on September 16. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that acts as a front for the US in Afghanistan accepted full responsibility for the attack calling it a “mistake” and admitted there were civilian casualties.
These developments occurred against the backdrop of escalating attacks by Afghan troops on US and NATO forces that by September 15 had reached a total of 51 this year (in August there were 13 such fatalities). In two separate attacks on September 14 and 15, six NATO soldiers were killed by Afghan security personnel. Under the circumstances, US and NATO forces considered it prudent to suspend joint patrols with Afghan troops since their loyalty was suspect. While the Americans have put a brave face on the issue saying that Afghan officials are rechecking the background of Afghan recruits, there are few practical steps that can be taken. Thousands of Afghan soldiers have been suspended but this can hardly assuage the deep fear that now grips foreign troops.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta tried to minimize the impact of suspension of joint operations saying this was the “last gasp” of the Taliban but the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey was more forthright. In a September 15 interview, he called the attacks “a very serious threat to the campaign” to train Afghan troops that are supposed to take over security responsibility once foreign troops leave. “You can’t whitewash it,” said Dempsey. “We can’t convince ourselves that we just have to work harder to get through it. Something has to change.”
Dempsey’s candid assessment reflects the fact that he was not the architect of this policy but he has been left with addressing its consequences. Given the ground realities, Dempsey has grasped that he has been handed a very bad deal. Even before the eruption of protests over the scandalous movie, attacks by Afghan security forces on NATO troops were quite frequent. Since the movie, the Taliban have urged on their website for increased attacks against US forces. When viewed in the context of the desecration of copies of the Qur’an last February and several days of massive protests that resulted in some 20 Afghan deaths, more attacks on US and NATO troops can be expected.
Worrisome as these attacks are — the Americans and their NATO allies do mind dying — there have been some spectacular Taliban operations carried out against US and NATO military installations in recent days. For instance, on September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion that is situated in the middle of the desert in Helmand province with excellent visibility all around. The Camp is heavily fortified yet the Taliban were able to stage a daring attack killing two US marines and destroying six Harrier jump jets each costing $30 million. Buildings at the base were also set ablaze. Britain’s Prince Harry, who began a second tour of duty at the base just over a week ago, was said to be unharmed but news of the attack caused panic in Buckingham Palace.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who was visiting Camp Bastion just a couple of days before the insurgent attack, claimed in an interview to the Guardian that his commanders were now advising that British troops could be withdrawn more quickly than originally thought. It is probable that the major part of the 9,000 British troops now in Afghanistan will be withdrawn in 2013 leaving only a skeleton force in place till full withdrawal in 2014.
Interestingly, Hammond also spent some time in the interview talking about the urgent need for reconciliation. He said, “The Afghan government needed to do much more to bring about a political settlement with the insurgents because the diplomatic effort was lagging behind the military campaign” and that any peace in Afghanistan will need to involve “reaching out Northern Ireland-style to at least the moderate part of the insurgency, to try to bring it inside through reconciliation and integration”. He suggested that the “Afghan government needs to do more and the neighbours who have influence [Pakistan] also need to maintain pressure on those parties… to come to the table”.
Speaking of the objectives of the British in Afghanistan he maintained that al-Qaeda having been “eliminated” it would not be right to ask British troops to risk their lives for nation-building. His view was, “Even if we had achieved nothing lasting, every year that goes by keeping the bombers at bay, keeping them off our streets, is a significant achievement in itself. But we have clearly built the basics of a future that will deny the space of Afghanistan to those who would seek to harm us.”
The British do from time to time have differences with the Americans. Hammond said as much when he asserted that “tracking people down and removing them from the battlefield” was not the best way of finding a settlement, calling into question the American campaign to eliminate mid-level commanders. One assumes he was reflecting the views of the NATO alliance as a whole. If so, it would be fair to suggest that not only will NATO forces face greater military difficulty in the months ahead but the maintenance of a residual American military presence after 2014 may also be called into question.
Whatever the Americans may ask for, the fact is that there is little that the Afghans will be able to do given the unwieldy size the Afghan security forces have acquired and given the American insistence on enlarging the Afghan Local Police from 16,000 to 30,000. It is said that recruitment has now been suspended; but since the Americans do see it as a means of countering the Taliban in the rural areas this suspension is likely to be lifted.
Hammond is also at loggerheads with the Americans regarding their insistence, even while handing over control of the Bagram prison, on holding some 60 high-value prisoners.
Now this latest set of insider attacks has prompted a harsher reaction with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey stating bluntly that the Afghan authorities have to take the problem seriously.
The attack on Camp Bastion was preceded on September 11 by a Taliban attack on Bagram Airbase that destroyed a heavy transport helicopter and killed three Afghan soldiers. A number of Americans were also wounded. Three weeks earlier (August 21) in a similar atttack on Bagram the Taliban had damaged Dempsey’s aircraft. While the general was not in the plane at the time of the attack, several American technicians servicing the aircraft, were wounded.
These escalating attacks as well as the green-on-blue killings have left US-NATO policy for Afghanistan in tatters. While it has not become a US campaign issue primarily because Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney knows little about foreign policy, and if he raised it, President Barack Obama would chew him up, Americans are becoming increasingly frustrated with a mission they see as having gone horribly wrong. They say that since Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda has been badly degraded (this has been official American mantra for several years), what is the rationale for staying in Afghanistan any longer, especially in view of insider attacks on American and NATO troops. A clear majority of Americans want the troops out now, not wanting to wait until 2014. What is the point of waiting for another two years and sacrificing more American lives when the people being trained are turning their guns against the Americans, they ask.
Other major powers, notably China and Russia, reading the situation accurately that the US-NATO presence is in its dying days, are positioning themselves for post-US Afghanistan. Zhou Yongkang, China’s top security official, made the first high-level trip on September 22 to Afghanistan by a senior Chinese leader in nearly half a century. His visit was not publicized in advance but Zhou had a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.
The Chinese visit to Kabul will be followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pakistan later this month. Putin’s visit is also historical. Again, it will be the first visit by a Russian leader since Russian Prime Minister Alexi Kosygin visited Pakistan in 1964. Observers are attaching great importance to Putin’s visit to Pakistan since the two countries have not had cordial relations primarily because Pakistani rulers have historically shown great subservience to the US. With America’s days in Afghanistan clearly numbered, the Russians are making a move to position themselves favourably.
These developments are the direct result of American hubris and the Afghans’ determination not to allow any foreigners to occupy their country. They have proved once again that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. The latest in this long list is the American empire.