The Big Question: Is the West winning in Afghanistan – and should more troops be sent?

Why are we asking this now?

There is no sign of the war ending. The Taliban is growing stronger and has a presence in more parts of the country, despite the presence of 70,000 non-Afghan troops. The government of Hamid Karzai is losing authority and credibility at home and abroad. There have been spectacular attacks on the capital, Kabul, this year – such as a devastating bomb at the Indian embassy and another at the luxury Serena Hotel. What happens in Afghanistan is also more relevant now because the US President-elect, Barack Obama, has said America will fight on, unlike in Iraq, where he is committed to withdrawing 150,000 US troops. Gordon Brown has promised to reinforce the 8,000-strong British contingent in Afghanistan. There are also menacing signs of the war spreading into Pakistan, because the US has begun to use unmanned drone aircraft to attack targets there.

How did the Taliban come back when it seemed completely defeated in 2001?

The White House believed the war to overthrow the Taliban after the 11 September attacks in 2001 had succeeded more swiftly and at less cost than anybody could have imagined. In the face of a US air campaign in support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Kabul and other cities fell without a fight. This was all a little deceptive. The Taliban did not fight to a finish – its fighters went back to their villages or its leadership fled across the border into Pakistan. The fact that the Taliban had a safe refuge there after 2001 was key to its survival. It had, after all, always relied on Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for military support and operational guidance. The Pakistani military, fearing encirclement by hostile powers, still sees the Afghan Taliban as one of its few allies. At first, the Pakistani military was cowed by the US after 2001, but when President George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, its leaders began to perceive that his "war on terror" was not entirely serious. They began to revive the Taliban as a serious force.

Why was the Afghan government unable to stabilise after the fall of the Taliban?

The central government of Hamid Karzai had little to build on in terms of trained, capable and honest personnel. The economic infrastructure was wrecked. Afghans saw little improvements in their lives. The US often looked to the warlords as local allies, though they were widely detested by ordinary Afghans. The Taliban's political appeal, aside from its religious bigotry and obscurantism, had always stemmed from its supposed opposition to warlordism. The insurgency could also be funded through the opium business. The UN now estimates that Afghanistan produces 92 per cent of the opium which is converted into heroin. The product is sold for some $4bn a year. There is also some concern that although extra foreign troops may strengthen the government in some respects, they will also reinforce the belief among Afghans that their government is a foreign puppet.

Will foreign troop reinforcements ensure military victory overthe Taliban?

This is unlikely because the war is spreading into Pakistan. This is where the Taliban is able to train, recruit and re-supply its forces. So long as the insurgents have these redoubts, they will always recuperate from any military defeat. The US has long been trying to get the Pakistani army to close the border, but this is not politically or military possible. The Afghan government itself does not recognise the present frontier arbitrarily imposed by Britain in the 19th century. The Pakistani army also views the Afghan Taliban as a long term asset, unlike al-Qa'ida and the Pakistani Taliban, whom it sees as a threat. The ease with which militants armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade-launchers have been able to come close to closing the vital Nato and US supply line through the Khyber Pass in the past few weeks shows the danger to western forces in land-locked Afghanistan. Insurgents are able to move freely, not just among the mountains of the frontier but in Peshawar, the Pakistani city at the mouth of the Khyber.

Is the West being sucked into a confrontation between India and Pakistan?

This is a significant danger. Afghanistan is fast replacing Kashmir as the place where Pakistan and India confront each other. The Pakistani elite is highly sensitive to all signs of India increasing its influence in Afghanistan and possibly seeking to destabilise Pakistan by aiding insurgents in its Baluchistan region. This confrontation has intensified since the attack on Mumbai by 10 Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters who came from Pakistan in November. The Pakistani government may suppress these jihadi movements but it will not eliminate them because, as with the Afghan Taliban, it views them as long-term assets. It is also recalls with some bitterness that when it did reduce infiltration of insurgents into Kashmir by 85 per cent after 2004, it got very little in return from the Indian side. One of the most menacing aspects of the growing crisis in southern Asia is that conflicts involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are all beginning to merge.

Could the Taliban win in Afghanistan?

This is not really possible. The Taliban is hated by the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks and other Afghan minorities to which most of the population belongs. It might be offered a share in power but, for ordinary Afghans, this may mean that they are sucked dry by the Taliban commanders as well as local government officials.

Should the Afghan government be left to sink or swim alone?

It should be supported but not turned into a colonial dependency. Reliance on a foreign power for military support and foreign aid carries with it disadvantages which Washington and London have never quite taken on board. It means there is no real incentive for citizens or officials to undertake reform because foreign powers will always bail out the government in Kabul.

Does the US intervention in Iraq have lessons for Afghanistan?

Yes, but not the lessons one might expect. The increased deployment of American troops in Iraq in 2007, and the much-publicised surge, achieved very little alone. The end of the Sunni Arab uprising against the US occupation and the Shia-Kurdish Iraqi government came because the Shia were winning on the ground. The situation in Afghanistan is very dissimilar. A more important lesson is that the violence in Iraq decreased when the neighbouring countries, notably Iran and Syria, no longer felt threatened. The same is true in Afghanistan. Above all, it needs to be recognised that Pakistan has real reasons to feel insecure and these insecurities must be addressed if the US wants to ensure there is a stable government in Kabul.

Should Nato countries be sending extra forces to fight the Taliban?


* They will prevent the Taliban from expanding its authority over more of the country.

* They will allow more aid to be used to raise living standards and increase the popularity of the government.

* More troops will create islands of peace in which the Afghan government can begin to establish itself.


* They will make the government in Kabul look like a foreign puppet.

* There are not enough troops and the Afghan government cannot fill the power vacuum left by the Taliban.

* Foreign aid cannot help because the Afghan administration is too dysfunctional and corrupt to administer the country honestly.