Review of the Year 2009: Afghanistan

Battle-weary, but digging in for a long haul
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The Independent Online

In 2009 we saw the legacy of the broken promises the West made when the Taliban fell eight years ago. At the time Tony Blair declared "this time we will not walk away" as had happened when the Afghans were used and then abandoned in the war against the Russians. But that is precisely what happened, with the US and Britain moving on to the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan became the forgotten war.

That, of course, is not the case now. As the passions raised by the Iraq invasion, the bitterness and recriminations, fade away it is Afghanistan which is the focal point of international attention with the West struggling to cope with a rejuvenated and Islamist insurgency. More British troops have already died in this conflict than in the entire Iraq campaign and that grim benchmark is likely to be passed by the Americans as well. And the losses go wider than that; there are many more nations fighting in the western coalition in this conflict than in Iraq – the Canadians, the Danes, the French and the Germans. They, too, are having their forces killed and maimed, bringing the effect of the lethal violence home to a wider cross-section of the western public.

The security vacuum created when the "war on terror" moved on to Iraq allowed the Taliban to return; the warlords to keep their private armies and, with some of the most experienced of US and British special forces hunting Osama bin Laden and his cohorts moved to Baghdad, al-Qa'ida to rejuvenate itself in its safe havens across the Pakistani border.

The violence unfolded against a backdrop of large swathes of the population living in poverty; woefully slow development; endemic corruption and female rights, so painfully won, being clawed back. The only truly successful commercial activity remains opium production, with Afghanistan providing 92 per cent of the world's supply.

By the start of the year there was widespread recognition that the western strategy in place was proving seriously inadequate to deal with the unfolding crisis. There was, one repeatedly heard, a lack of "joined-up thinking"; the civil and military efforts were not being coordinated; the international mission, with 42 countries involved, was just too big to be a cogent force; no one was tackling the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, about the blatant graft involving members of his government or the fact that one of his brothers had been openly accused being one of the biggest drug barons in southern Afghanistan.

The election of Barack Obama was heralded as the harbinger of new energy and direction on Afghan policy. One of the first signs of this was the replacement of General David McKiernan, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, with General Stanley McChrystal, one of the key players in the "surge" strategy credited with reducing the ferocious violence in Iraq. The General produced a damning report about the conduct of the war so far and warned that it might be lost within a year unless drastic changes were carried out. A new blueprint for the war was produced, with a request for around 40,000 extra troops to implement it.

Another set of elections, in Afghanistan, were also to have a profound effect. Hamid Karzai was returned to power mired in accusations of ballot- rigging which illustrated the fractured state of governance eight years after the fall of the Taliban. The western powers and the United Nations forced Mr Karzai to accept a second-round run-off against his main opponent, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and then had to furiously backtrack when it became apparent just how costly it would be in terms of resources and lives. Attempts were made by western diplomats to cobble together a deal between Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah. That failed, but Dr Abdullah decided to withdraw from the run-off because, he said, his conditions for electoral reforms had not been met.

The McChrystal Report and the long, lingering controversy over the Afghan elections revealed glaring splits within the Obama administration over Afghanistan. In Washington, a powerful faction led by the Vice President, Joe Biden, argued against sending any more troops, while from Kabul the American ambassador Karl Eikenberry also urged President Obama not to go ahead with the reinforcements until President Karzai took credible steps to show that he was serious about tackling corruption. The head of the US's civil mission in the country was effectively attempting to scupper the wishes of his military counterpart.

The split was not just among the Americans. British commanders, led by General Sir David Richards, the newly appointed head of the Army, had long advocated sending reinforcements, maintaining, like their American counterparts, that it was essential to have extra troops to secure and hold areas for reconstruction and development to take place. Diplomats, however, had deep reservations that it would be counter- productive in the current circumstances. Gordon Brown, who had at first refused to send any reinforcements, eventually agreed to send 500 more to join a temporary deployment of 700 which became permanent.

After months of deliberation, President Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 extra troops. He also demanded that other Nato countries send 10,000 more, a commitment their governments would have a hard job getting the public to accept.

A variety of western leaders, led by President Obama, warned Mr Karzai that the dispatch of extra troops and millions of dollars in aid was not a blank cheque and widespread malpractice must be stamped out. The Afghan leader assured him this would be done. At his inauguration speech, however, he was flanked by his two vice-presidents, Marshal Muhammed Fahim, accused of drug trafficking by American officials, and Karim Khalili, who was alleged, in a human-rights report, to have committed war crimes.

It is highly unlikely that either will lose his place in the cabinet. Marshal Fahim helped Mr Karzai get the Tajik and Mr Khalili the Hazara bloc votes in the election, ensuring his victory over Dr Abdullah. Similarly, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who President Obama has declared should be investigated over the killings of thousands of prisoners, is unlikely to face any charges as he delivered a large portion of the Uzbek vote to the Afghan leader. In western Europe, the US and Canada, the Afghan election fuelled the opposition to the war, with questions being raised about why their soldiers should be fighting and dying for a regime internationally condemned as corrupt. Opinion polls show that in the UK and, to a lesser extent in the US, the majority wanted troops to be pulled out. There has not, however, been one single protest march yet in the West in anything like the scale sparked by the Iraq war.

In Afghanistan, British military commanders warned that rising defeatism at home was undermining the morale of troops on the frontline, they said the forces, who were were doing a dangerous job under extremely difficult circumstances, were surprised and disappointed by some of the criticism in the UK.

Nato's exit strategy is predicated on training up Afghan security forces to eventually take over the defence of their country, with various dates given for departure. However, the danger of training up people without adequate background checks was shown by the killings of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman at the town of Nad-e-Ali, the latest in a series of attacks on western troops by their purported allies.

Renewed efforts are also being made to bring over Taliban fighters who want to lay down their arms. But talks brokered by the Saudi royal family in Mecca between the Taliban leadership and the Afghan leadership appear to have run out of steam.

Meanwhile, the violence continues. The United Nations pulled most of its foreign staff out of Afghanistan after an attack on a guesthouse in Kabul killed 11 people, including five UN staff members. There is also significant increase in insurgent infiltration in the hitherto safe north of the country where German forces of Nato have been accused of not being aggressive enough. However, it was they who were responsible for calling down air strikes on oil tankers hijacked by the Taliban in which 100 people were killed. The head of the German armed forces was forced to resign for allegedly suppressing photographs showing many of the fatalities were civilian.

Women in public life continued to be targeted by the Islamists. Malalai Kakar, a police commander in Kandahar who specialized in rescuing abused women, became the fourth of five women I had interviewed in 2005 as representing a brave new emancipated Afghanistan to be murdered.

The Americanisation of what is now very much Barack Obama's war continues apace. Last January I accompanied British troops in Operation Cobra Salute beyond Garmsir in southern Helmand. I am writing this now, in December, during Operation Cobra's Rage, at Nawzad, in northern Helmand undertaken by US Marines with a force four times the size.

A few hours ago, at the village of Changowlak, a farmer, Ahmed Jan, told the American troops how glad he was they were there to protect him and his community from the Taliban. He later said to me – non-white, non-soldier – that the insurgents were not far away, the police were corrupt, and he remained unsure about the future. He had stayed on during Taliban times and no doubt said the appropriate things to them at the time to ensure his survival. There was an urgency in his voice "We are tired of all this fighting, there has been too much killing. We are no different from anyone else, we just want to live and look after our families. I look at these foreigners and think: 'You say fine things, but will you stay to see we get the new clinic and more things for the school? Will you stay here to protect us when the Taliban come? And then, when the war is over, will you leave?'"