A downward spiral
The US’s plans for Afghanistan suffered a twin blow the other day when the Afghan Taliban broke off the tentative talks with the US in Qatar and Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded the US and NATO forces leave the rural areas of the country, handing over security duties to the Afghan military and police. The Taliban complain that the US is adopting contradictory positions in the talks, breaking its earlier promises, and seems subject to either confusion or dissembling. Karzai is responding to the horrible incident the other day when a rogue American soldier ran amok and killed 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children.
The Taliban may or may not have legitimate grievances against their purported peace talks ‘partner’, but an additional factor could be the tense anti-foreign forces anger that has gripped Afghanistan since the burning of the Qurans and the civilians’ massacre. Their ostensible ‘breaking off’ the talks (which had barely begun in any case) may reflect a hardening position in the light of the US/NATO forces’ new difficulties in retaining some semblance of respect and acceptance of their presence on their soil by the Afghan people. Karzai’s call for re-deploying the US/NATO forces out of the villages and into their bases comes on the heels of the civilian massacre, but is the latest episode in a long series of demands by Karzai for the foreign forces to avoid night raids and violating local cultural norms by storming into people’s homes.
The US State Department, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and NATO are all treading furiously in the water to put a brave face on things. The State Department appears to be indulging in wishful thinking when it speculates out loud whether the withdrawal from talks applies to all factions of the Taliban or are there some elements opposed to the withdrawal. Panetta, on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, still hopes a strategic agreement for US troops to retain a presence in the country after the 2014 withdrawal date is possible, if not probable. NATO has responded to the latest developments by reiterating its aim to hand over security duties to the Afghan force as soon as it is possible or practicable. None of this smacks of a confident stance on a ‘mission’ fast spiralling downwards towards ignominy. While Karzai’s demand could leave the civilian contractors working in the Afghan countryside on development projects vulnerable and at risk, a wholesale pulling out by these contractors would damage not just Afghanistan’s future, it could trigger a string of law suits against the US government by these contractors for breach of contract (which presumably guaranteed security). Any US/NATO withdrawal from the countryside would hand a golden opportunity on a platter to the Taliban to stage their own ‘surge’. Meantime Islamabad seems to be crowing after the Taliban withdrawal from talks: ‘I told you so’. The US’s attempt to bypass both Pakistan and Afghanistan in the talks channel in Qatar brought the latter two countries closer together and although the talks may have stalled for their own reasons, the sense of triumph at least in Islamabad is unmistakable.
When historians look back on the wars launched by George Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq, they will inevitable draw comparisons between the two. Some observers feel Afghanistan, which Obama though was a war worth fighting in the US’s security interests, unlike Iraq, for which he had little enthusiasm, is increasingly looking like the last days of the US presence in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq, overthrow and hanging of Saddam Hussein has left the country unstable, struggling to put together a credible and inclusive political system, and staring into an uncertain future. These characteristics, with minor differences, can also be detected in Afghanistan. Obama’s wars may therefore receive as unkind treatment by historians as Bush’s adventurism.