And now, into the dead end in Afghanistan

February 27, 2012

When the history of the Afghan war is written, the protests over the burning of copies of the Koran will certainly be defined as a watershed. What remains to be seen is whether they become the moment the United States lost the war, or rather, when America lost patience.

The anger of Afghans is evident, whether it be over the sense of religious insult or the sheer frustration with a war that has gone on too long and yielded too  little.

Less evident, but perceptible and equally important, however, is the American response. “2014 cannot come fast enough,” was one comment on Twitter about the date when the United States and its allies are meant to hand over control of security to Afghan forces.

“It’s reasonable to wonder what we have gotten out of more than a decade of investment-including 1901 US and 2901 total NATO Coalition deaths-in an effort to forge, as President Obama put it in his speech at West Point, a “partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect – to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron,” wrote James Joyner at the Atlantic Council. “Aside from hastening the day when our troops leave, none of those goals seem any closer than they were in 2001.”

Contrast that with the reaction to last September’s assault on the U.S. embassy on Kabul, which was erroneously compared to the Tet offensive, when Vietnamese insurgents attacked the U.S. embassy in Saigon 1968 and convinced the American public that – although the attack was defeated - the war was lost.  Last year, the attack on the embassy in Kabul was blamed on Pakistan.  This year, while that accusation stands, the protests over the burning of the Koran are delivering the more authentic message of the Tet offensive – that wars are lost on the home front of public opinion more often than they are on the battlefield.

Andrew Exum from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) summed it up best in his complaint on Twitter that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had appeared to take sides with the protesters against the Americans. “In a reversal, with each passing day, Karzai needs U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 more than the U.S. does. Does he realize that?” he wrote. “The U.S. has interests in Afghanistan, but surely Karzai sees how they have become less and less important for the U.S. government & public.”

Yet stop for a moment and consider how this jars with U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Along with its allies, the U.S. aim is to build up Afghan security forces to the point where they can hold their own against an insurgency after 2014, with or without a peace deal with the Taliban.  The sequencing in the rather confusing U.S. mantra of “fight, talk and build” requires an ability to project enough power - or at least pretend to do so - that the Taliban might find they have more to gain from negotiating a settlement while U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan than by fighting their way to Kabul in a civil war.

Do also remember that the U.S. strategy, not too long ago described in the “AfPak” five-letter word, was clear that American success in Afghanistan was meant to encourage Pakistan to challenge its own Islamist militants. Yet Pakistan is more fragile than ever. Aside from its many economic and security problems, it is fighting a separatist revolt in Balochistan; its army is driven by a perceived threat from both Afghanistan and India - neither of whom have recognised its borders; and its heartland Punjab province is playing host to  a new and powerful Islamist/jihadi alliance  whose primary slogan is “Go America Go.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. strategy is, and has always been, internally inconsistent. At one level it wants to retain military bases in Afghanistan after 2014, which could be used for drone strikes and other military operations against Pakistan where many of the Islamist militants are based. Yet it needs Pakistani endorsement for a deal with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose support is required to bring the rest of the movement on board and who is, despite Pakistani official denials, believed to be living in an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) safe house, most likely in Karachi.

In short, however inconsistent the strategy, it has depended on bluff. And that bluff is weakening.

I am increasingly reminded of the words of one western official speaking last year on Afghanistan: ”We stay we lose, we leave we lose.”  But I am also, troublingly, reminded of something else – the projection of power that the British used in India for 200 years to maintain the rule of the very small minority over the majority.  That legacy left deep scars in South Asia and, with the hurried British departure in 1947, created all the worse pain for its sudden withdrawal. 

But if we were to define the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, it has depended – rightly or wrongly – on a projection of power. In its response to the Koran-burning protests, the United States just turned its two of clubs face upwards on the table. That demands attention.


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