Afghanistan: a lost cause?
That is the view of many, five years after 9/11, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad
Brigadier Ed Butler was blunt. "The violence in Afghanistan is now worse than in Iraq," he told a meeting of NATO's defence chiefs last week. He was referring to the ferocious battles that have assailed NATO troops since they took over most combat operations in Afghanistan from US-led forces in August.
Butler is head of NATO's 4,500 strong British contingent. He says "hundreds" of Taliban guerrillas have been killed in the fighting. But so have dozens of NATO soldiers and scores of civilians, including 14 in a suicide attack in Kabul on 8 September. Canadian Defence Minister, Gordon O Connor, was more sober in his assessments gleaned from a tour of NATO Canadian troops in Afghanistan's restive southern provinces. "We cannot eliminate the Taliban," he said simply.
This will come as news to his people, as well as to those of the 25 other NATO nations. For regime change in Afghanistan has been sold as one of the few unalloyed successes of the new world born of the 9/11 attacks on America.
Less than two months after the planes hit New York and the Pentagon, the Taliban had been driven from Kabul and Osama bin Laden from his mountainous Afghan redoubt. Unlike Iraq, the invasion had the sanction of the UN. It also had the support of most Afghans, with 70 per cent of the electorate turning out for presidential elections in 2004. How then -- five years on -- is Afghanistan so near collapse?
The answer can be given in one word, says veteran Afghan watcher, Ahmed Rashid: "Iraq: Washington's refusal to take state-building in Afghanistan seriously and instead wage a fruitless war in Iraq. For Afghanistan the results have been too few Western troops, too little money and a lack of coherent strategy and sustained policy initiatives by Western and Afghan leaders."
For the Taliban the lacunae enabled it to regroup, rearm and resurge, whether in the southern provinces or from its Pakistan hinterland. When the "fighting season" resumed this spring, NATO commanders acknowledged they faced a guerrilla force more sophisticated, better organised and more numerous than ever before, with a new and deadly penchant for remote-controlled bombs and, unusually in Afghanistan, suicide attacks - the clearest evidence yet of collusion between the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies.
Taliban commanders now boast of a fighting force of 12,000 men and control over "20 districts" in southern Afghanistan. NATO officials say the figure is exaggerated but, with NATO's 6,000 troops over-stretched to command 23,000 square miles, they admit that the Taliban can "loosely control much of [Afghanistan's] four southern provinces much of the time".
The military flaws have been compounded by a "corrupt and inefficient Afghan administration without resources", says another Afghan analyst, Barnett Rubin. Since 2001, billions have been raised for Afghanistan, he says. However for every dollar spent on development ten have gone on security and/or purchasing fealty to the government of President Hamid Karzai. "Not a single new dam, power station or major water system has been built, and only one intercity highway has been completed," says Rashid. The result is only six per cent of Afghans have access to electricity, over half remain impoverished and 63 per cent are illiterate. This is no better than when the Taliban ruled under sanctions.
Into the economic void has risen an economy driven by opium and run by farmers, drugs barons, warlords and truculent tribesmen. In return for protecting their poppies, Taliban fighters raise taxes and levy mercenaries. Dope has become Afghanistan's most lucrative trade, worth $2.6 billion or 52 per cent of the country's GDP, says Rashid. "When we compare Afghanistan's situation today with 2001, we see the country needs to develop an entire alternative economyto replace the drug economy."
Very few believe they can do it, including, it seems, the Americans. As 6,000 British, Canadian, Dutch and Romanian head to south Afghanistan, 3,000 US troops are heading home.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he wants several thousand more to follow by the congressional elections in November. He has also recently halved Washington's development budget for Afghanistan to a mere $622m.
For Pakistan analyst, Mahir Ali, the signs are familiar, with the Americans starting to cut the same retreat from Afghanistan as the Soviets did before them. Nor, given the current rate of attrition, does he believe NATO's labours "at sustaining the Karzai regime [will] prove any more fruitful than the Red Army's efforts to prop up Babrak Karmal and Najibullah."