Afghanistan: the 20-year war?

October 13, 2008

America is in Afghanistan for the long haul and the sooner it tells its people the better it would be for its own sake, says top U.S. military scholar Anthony Cordesman in a study published by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Warning that the United States faced a crisis in the field, Cordesman says Washington has no choice but to commit more troops, more resources and time to stop the haemorrhaging. And even if the Taliban/al Qaeda momentum is decisively reversed in 2009/2010, this is a war that will last into the next presidency.

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Some of the Powerpoint slides developed by the U.S. command in Afghanistan show timelines through 2019, he says. So, he says, it’s time to tell the American public the truth.  ”We need to stop the spin and liar’s contests and provide honest public reporting. We need enough transparency and credibility to get sustained Congressional, media and public support for a long war.”

“Stop “bs-ing” the American people. Tell them what new draft US intelligence assessments say, provide the level of transparent and honest reporting that prepares them for the necessary level of sacrifice.”

Others, notably the British, have spoken about the war in Afghanistan as unwinnable, amid reports on the possibility of opening talks with the Taliban. But Cordesman argues this is exactly the capitulation the Taliban are looking for. “The Taliban and its allies win if they simply outlast the NATO/ISAF and the U.S. and force the Afghan government in ways that make them part of government or give them de facto control of territory.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said that comments by the British military commander were “defeatist.” 

Incredible, actually, when you think about how the Taliban and al Qaeda have proved more than a match for the world’s only superpower, backed by some of the finest Western armies in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Rahimullah Yusufzai, journalist and an expert on Pakistan and Afghan security issues, says given the obvious inequality of the Afghan battle, it is remarkable how the Taliban have fought their way furiously into a position that has made them stakeholders in the fractious nation’s power game.

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A small ill-equipped army of, at best, 5,000 Taliban fighters has made life difficult for the 70,000-plus U.S. and NATO forces, the 85,000-strong Afghan National Army, the more than 70,000 Afghan National Police, and scores of government-funded village defence militias.  

“The unthinkable has happened. The Taliban dreaded by many, loved by few, are back in contention,” he says in an article in The News. They first made their presence in the traditional southwestern strongholds of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul. Nowadays they are able to organise attacks and maintain bases in faraway provinces such as Badghis and Faryab on the Turkmenistan border, Herat and Farah on the Iranian border, and finally provinces around Kabul such as Ghazni, Wardak, and Kapisa.

A colleague during a trip I made to Kabul last month told me he had seen a map in an aid group’s office which showed a large swathe of the country marked either in red,  indicating a no-go area, or yellow, which meant high risk. Only a small stretch of the north out of Kabul was green, considered safe to travel.

“We currently are losing and the trends have been consistent since 2004,” says Cordesman in his report.  There would not be any single moment of crisis in the Afghan-Pakistan War, but the militants would have the initiative if America went through another year of ”a flood of ideas, concepts and Powerpoint oversimplifications,” he says. “In practice most of them range from well-meaning nonsense to  re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

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 His prescription: the U.S. must accept this is its war and there is no running away from it.  “Almost all the necessary added resources will come from America. They will not come from our allies, by creating an effective central government in Afghanistan  or by U.S. efforts to pressure or win support in Pakistan. The problems with NATO/ISAF, Karzai, Pakistan are known quantities where improvement may be possible to some degree, but this war will be won or lost by U.S. resources and actions.”

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