The Year in Review: Afghanistan

Finally, the beginning of the endgame

In Afghanistan, 2009 ended with a major military offensive against the Taliban in Helmand. As 2010 draws to a close, another massive Nato operation is under way, this time in Kandahar. For the Western forces involved, the search for an exit continues.

Although events in Afghanistan have followed a familiar pattern over the last 12 months, there have been developments that point towards an endgame. At the Nato conference in Lisbon, the Western countries declared that by 2015, lead on security would be passed to the Afghans, and a withdrawal of international forces would begin. On the ground, there are the first signs of stability, albeit slow and faltering. Parts of the south, the main battleground, from where we were reporting on ferocious battles not so long ago, have the beginnings of reconstruction, education and commerce – although the process of governance remains extremely fragile.

The past year also saw just how things have changed in terms of the geopolitics of the region – the Russians are coming. Two decades after using the Mujahedin to drive out Soviet forces, the US and its allies now crave Moscow's help. Russia has been asked to provide helicopters, train Afghan forces and allow supplies through its territories to replace the route through Pakistan which is getting regularly hit by Islamists.

The talks on Afghanistan between the former Cold War enemies were put on a formal footing at the Lisbon summit, described by secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the most important in the alliance's history.

The Russians are prepared to play along – they have already sold helicopters to the Polish army specifically for Afghan operations, and Afghan officers are attending a military academy near Moscow. Recently Russian officials took part alongside their American and Afghan counterparts in carrying out raids on heroin factories in Nangarhar province.

This will come at a price. Little is heard from the West now on the presence of Russian forces in the two breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow is also demanding that there should not be large-scale deployment of Nato forces in member states which once belonged to the Warsaw Pact, such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

And there is one problem the Russian help does not address – troops on the ground are leaving. The Canadians, whose forces based in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, have suffered high rates of casualties, and are pulling out of their combat role, as are the Dutch. The Italians, with Silvio Berlusconi keen on something which will give him some popularity amid all his extra-curricular troubles, have announced they will follow soon. But the Germans have committed to staying on for a longer period and their troops are at last beginning to take part in offensive operations. And then there is Britain's role.

A string of frontline towns in Helmand switched in the course of 2010 from UK to American control. There were never enough British boots on the ground to hold on to areas which have been wrested back from the Taliban, often at great cost. American forces in Helmand now outnumber British by two to one.

Some of the places which have passed under American command had become iconic for the British, nowhere more so than Sangin, where over 100 of the 342 fatalities of the conflict had taken place, mainly due to a relentless campaign of improvised explosive devices. Getting Sangin "off the books" for the British has lowered the tempo of the deaths and maimings, a welcome respite for the Coalition Government in London which has inherited a war it does not like.

What the military does not like is the constant clamour for a withdrawal timeline. This, say critics, encourages the Taliban and their Pakistani backers to keep the conflict going, while the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is aware that his international sponsors are seeking to bail out, and is driven into talks with some of the most reactionary sections of the insurgency.

In his first major statement on Afghanistan, Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, referred to "a broken 13th-century state" with the inference it cannot be put right in a realistic timeframe. David Cameron has said British troops will start pulling out, variously, in 2015, or next year. William Hague mentioned 2014 as a viable date, while many of the Liberal Democrats would like the pull-out to take place now. If nothing else, all this should keep the enemy confused.

Speaking to soldiers and civilians in Kandahar it was quite apparent that uncertainty is having an effect for Afghans. Many are worried about being seen to be co-operating with Nato and the Afghan government with the prospect of Taliban power growing. Whoever is in charge, the West's exit strategy is predicated on the training of Afghan forces. The police, with a history of corruption and inefficiency, are deemed to be more of a problem than the army. In November, a review of the past year by Nato found that the security forces are still crippled by corruption, poor training and a high attrition rate. A failure to deliver law, order and justice has led to the growth of Taliban jurisdiction and its brutal punishment.

Mullah Omar, former head of the Taliban regime, has exhorted jihadists from his haven in Pakistan to step up attacks on government officials and women who "stray" from the path of Islam. During last year a young couple who eloped, 20-year-old Sadiqa and Qayum, 28, were stoned to death; Bibi Sanubar, a 35-year-old pregnant widow accused of adultery, was lashed 200 times in front of a crowd and then shot in the head after being tried and convicted by an insurgent court; Bibi Aisha, 19, had her nose and ears cut off by her husband after he caught her when she fled following years of cruelty and abuse. The local Taliban chief praised him for his actions.

Attacks on foreign aid workers have also risen, the most lethal assault resulting in the deaths of 10 members of a medical aid group in Badakhshan, including the British doctor Karen Woo. Another aid worker, Linda Norgrove, was killed by accident by US forces as they tried to rescue her from an Islamist gang.

An exit strategy, however, involves bringing the insurgency to the negotiating table, and talks have been held between the Karzai government and the Islamist factions. The path has hardly been smooth. Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, the Taliban's chief negotiator, was secretly flown to Kabul on a British military flight to hold discussions with Afghan officials. But Mullah Mansour, it transpired, was nothing of the kind. He ran a grocery store.

One theory is that the fake Mullah was sent by the Pakistan intelligence service. In which case it shows how the Pakistanis, recipients of huge amounts of Western aid, are running rings around the US and its allies. But one would like to think that "Mansour" really was a shopkeeper from Quetta who saw the main chance and made cash out of the new "Great Game", making some very self-important people look very foolish. Either way, it shows us that the path ahead is far from simple.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General


£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £50k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 bus...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'