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.

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