US may come to regret its pledge to withdraw

As Barack Obama's strategy is unveiled, Patrick Cockburn assesses its chances of success in the fight against the Taliban
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Indy Politics

Q. Will the US armed forces really start to withdraw from Afghanistan in 18 months' time?

This is a modern variant of the promise made to soldiers in August 1914 that they would "be home before the leaves fall" and the White House may come to regret it. It doesn't make much sense. If a complete military US withdrawal is going to begin at that time and be completed over a short period, then the Taliban will simply wait for American soldiers to go. It is more likely that the deadline is a sop to Americans who are against escalating the war. Barack Obama is only promising that US troops will begin to come home in 18 months. This pledge could be met by pulling back a few units. On the other hand, by the middle of 2011, we will be well into the run-up to the presidential election the following year. Mr Obama has justified sending 30,000 reinforcements by saying that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is crucial to the security of the US. It is unlikely he will start start pulling them out in 18 months' time if the Taliban are still in business.

Q. What will the US do if the Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government refuses to become less crooked?

Mr Karzai has learned from his success in defying the US and its allies over the fraudulent presidential election in August that he has a strong hand. The Afghan state machine is wholly corrupt. Police chiefs on the border pay $150,000 (£90,000) for their jobs and need bribes from narcotics smugglers to pay this off and turn a profit. They are not going to going to go out of business to please Mr Obama. The US cannot get rid of Mr Karzai because it has no alternative to him. It might, as Mr Obama suggests, deal directly with Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders and try to marginalise Mr Karzai. But this would convince many Afghans that the US calls the shots and Afghanistan is under military occupation.

Q. Is the United States joining a civil war in which the Pashtun community is fighting the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks?

This is both the bad news and the good news for Mr Obama. He argues that Afghanistan is different from Vietnam in that the insurrection has no popular base. But this is not entirely true of the Pashtun community which historically provided the rulers for Afghanistan and make up 42 per cent of the country's population. The insurrection against Communist rule was primarily Pashtun and the Taliban's rise to power pre-2001 became more and more ethnically divisive with Taliban Pashtun massacring the Shia Hazara and the Uzbeks suffocating captured Taliban in containers. The good news is that the Taliban have never been likely to seize state power again. They were able to do so in the 1990s because of their backing from Pakistani military intelligence and money from Saudi Arabia. For all their fanaticism the Taliban advance was marked more by heavily bribed warlords changing sides than victories in the field. Despite these advantages they had not conquered the whole of the country in 2001 at the time of the first US intervention.

Q. How far is the US army deluding itself that it won a military victory in Iraq through "the surge" and this success can be repeated in Afghanistan?

There were two wars in Iraq from 2003. One was the Sunni Arab community, predominant under the rule of Saddam Hussein, fighting against the US occupation. This insurgency was fairly successful. The second was the Sunni Arabs (20 per cent of Iraqis) against the Shia Arabs (60 per cent of Iraqis). Here the Sunni were wholly defeated. Baghdad city is now at least four-fifths Shia. Most of the two million Iraqi refugees are probably Sunni. In defeat the Sunni moved from being the enemy to the ally of the Americans. The 28,000 extra US troops sent under President Bush's "surge" was marginal in stamping out the insurrection. The Sunni sheikhs of Anbar province turned on al-Qa'ida because they were paid to do so, feared an al-Qa'ida takeover and knew that their attacks on the Shia was counter-productive. All these factors are not going to be repeated in Afghanistan.

Q. Can reinforcements break the Taliban's momentum as Mr Obama intends?

They ought to be able to do this. Expect a hail of good news stories. Some 140,000 foreign troops and total command of the air should allow the main roads to be reopened between Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. It was amazing that the Taliban were able to close them down in the first place.

Q. How far will the Pakistan army assist the US in its offensive against the Afghan Taliban?

This is the most important question of all. The rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and its rebirth since 2006 was primarily thanks to the support of Pakistan. Mr Obama blurs the difference between the so-called Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, but it is very real. Why should the Pakistan army help destroy the latter, which it helped create and sees as an ally against the pro-Indian Karzai government? It might do so, but only under great US pressure and in return for a lot of money.

Q. How will Afghanistan react to more foreign troops?

There will be a nationalist reaction but its extent depends on what the troops do. Opinion polls show that the killing of civilians in large numbers is what turns Afghans against foreign forces and makes them support the Taliban. Afghans argue that more foreign troops means more violence and more dead Afghans. The Taliban increasingly paint themselves in nationalist colours.

Q. Will the war in Afghanistan divide Americans and the world more than Iraq or Vietnam?

This is the great risk for Mr Obama. Militarily the Taliban has always had limited capabilities. But they may calculate that they can inflict enough casualties on the US, Britain and their allies to be unsustainable given the lack of popular support for the war in these countries. The Soviet Union never lost the war militarily in Afghanistan, but finally decided that the political price for staying there was too great.

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