ANALYSIS / A giant failure called Afghanistan
Coalition still unable to defeat Taliban threat, and internal Pakistani politics only complicate the fight.
The connective network that runs between Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan ensures that these killing fields will continue to operate with no foreseeable end. While al-Qaida operations in Iraq are diminishing (even if the number of casualties is not), Taliban operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are on the rise. And while Britain announces a significant troop cut in Iraq, it is reportedly boosting its presence in Afghanistan to 4,500 fighters. France is also planning to send 700 more soldiers to Afghanistan, unless the deaths of 10 French soldiers this month changes the government's decision, and all of these will join some 34,000 U.S. troops.
It seems that these numbers are failing to make an impression on the residents of Afghanistan, or the residents of the Taliban regions in north-western Pakistan. The tragic incident on Saturday in which 90 Afghan civilians were killed according to a United Nations-approved Afghan report, or alternately 30 Taliban fighters were killed according to U.S. reports, brought about one of the greatest failure of the military efforts in Afghanistan since 2001.
First and foremost, the failure stems from the fact that the reports cannot be corroborated because the village that was bombed was under the complete control of the Taliban and other militias. Even police forces that were deployed in the region could not ascertain what exactly had happened because they were pushed inside a police station by protesting civilians and remained holed up inside it.
In any case, this is the second incident in recent months in which U.S. forces hit civilians (the last incident, in July, left 50 civilians dead at a wedding party). All in all, some 900 civilians have been killed this year according to Afghan human rights groups.
In the violent U.S. campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan it is no longer clear what the target is, or who is in charge where. Seven years ago, when the U.S. decided to launch an offensive campaign in Afghanistan, two main goals were defined: removing the Taliban rule and capturing Osama bin-Laden and his close associates. Seven years later, coalition forces find themselves bogged down in an entanglement reminiscent of the situation faced by the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The role reversal in Afghanistan between Russia and the U.S. is impressive. Like back then, this is a war whose main goal - the changing of the regime - has been achieved, but the new regime doesn't have the power to actually run the country. And like in the case of the Russians, the Americans too did not achieve their second goal, which was consequently replaced with a wholesale goal: to kill as many Taliban, even though coalition troop deaths in the country steadily rise as well.
Two battles are being waged in Afghanistan. One, dubbed "Operation Enduring Freedom" includes some 20,000 coalition soldiers operating in the southern part of the country and the regions populated by Taliban forces. The second battle, waged by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is being let by NATO and includes some 47,000 troops in the country to stabilize the region's security.
Now, the commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan is asking to boost the American presence by 1,000 troops. Where will that kind of manpower come from? Maybe from mobilizing soldiers currently stationed in Iraq, but in the meantime, the U.S. is having difficulty striking an agreement with the Iraqi government on the status of the U.S. troops after December, when the UN mandate granted to international forces in Iraq expires. It is expected that the future deal will call for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for at least another three years.
And what will happen in Afghanistan in the meantime? Another question is who will decide to boost the American presence there - will it be the Bush administration or will Afghanistan become Barack Obama's Iraq (if he is elected). In his campaign, Obama stresses the need to pull out of Iraq and widen the presence in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, even the goal that was in essence achieved - removing the Taliban from power - did not create a worthy replacement. In an interview with the news agency The Associated Press, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that his country did not have a functioning government yet and that corruption was rampant. He neglected to mention that his brother is a known drug dealer and that his regime relies heavily on American security forces, because the Afghan army is unreliable. He does command over some 75,000 soldiers armed with advanced weapons financed by the U.S. government, but this year it emerged that a 22-year-old arms dealer named Efraim Diveroli was supplying the Afghan army with weapons, in accordance with a U.S. contract.
Diveroli is currently being investigated by the U.S. Congress on suspicion that the $200 million-worth of weapons he supplied to the Afghan army was outdated, rusted and in part unusable, having been recovered from Soviet and Chinese caches. This affair does not reflect on the Afghan army's ability to fight the Taliban, but rather reflects on Washington's view of this army.
On the strategic front, there have been numerous problems and disagreements in the cooperation between the U.S. and the Afghan forces. These conflicts are not new, but when Karzai dismisses the Afghan army commander in charge of the western part of the country, where Saturday's bombing took place, it is difficult to anticipate the direction that the relations between Karzai and Washington will take, especially when Karzai sees himself as a candidate for another presidential term, in elections are scheduled for next year.
Who is the ally in Pakistan? The division between the United States and President Karzai doesn't only effect the way coalition forces fight their war against the Taliban. Karzai, who has allowed for negotiations with Taliban forces in his country, has also attacked Pakistan, saying the U.S. ally has provided refuge and training bases to Taliban fighters in their country. Karzai has also criticized Washington for allegedly ignoring what he calls the helplessness of Pakistani forces in fighting the Taliban.
Washington, which up until last month knew who its allies were in Pakistan, must now guess which ways the new Pakistani government will turn, who its next president will be, and how the Pakistani army will operate from here on out.
This week, the Pakistani government reached an encouraging decision, that is to criminalize the Taliban, after heads of the organization in Pakistan praised a series of recent suicide attacks that killed dozens of Pakistanis. The last attack, which killed 46 at a weapons factory, showed the Pakistani government to what extent their security forces are unable to deal with the terrorist threat, and also how much their ranks have been infiltrated by Taliban supporters.
On the same day the government decision to ban the Taliban was published, the main coalition member from the Pakistan Peoples Party, Nawaz Sharif, announced his resignation from the government. The division between Sharif and the head of the People Party, Asif Ali Zardari, derived from disagreements over the nomination of the country's next president and over whether to return to their posts judges who were removed by Musharraf.
Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, is not in favor of returning the judges to their seats, saying that he won't support the move until he can be assured that corruption investigations against him will not go forward.
Zardari also has expressed his desire to become president, but has stated that he wants the same conditions that Musharraf enjoyed, namely the ability to dissolve the parliament by executive order. Sharif refused to support this move, and when his calls to amend the constitution to prevent future presidents from dissolving the parliament went unanswered, he decided to resign.
The complicated politics of Pakistan are one issue, but the larger problem is that without the support of Sharif, Zardari will have to seek the support of opposition parties, including those who supported Musharaff and others who support the Taliban.
This will raise the questions how much will the Taliban really be illegal, if parties linked to them are to sit in the government, and furthermore, how much the Pakistani army and coalition forces will be able to fight Taliban forces in Pakistan.
The Pakistani government must find answers to all of these questions, but the matter of whom or where to turn to solve them, has still not been decided.