The United States' announcement that it plans to end the combat role of its troops in Afghanistan earlier than expected, and before the end of next year, is a crucial milestone in the international forces' retreat from the country. Coming after the French decision to go early, the US move looks like part of a panicky rush for the exit. More important, Afghans like to bet on winners, and the US action will convince many that these are increasingly likely to be the Taliban and Pakistan rather than the Afghan government. No wonder Nato officials looked so anxious as they pretended that the US action had not come as a nasty surprise.
The decision, revealed by the US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, with deliberate casualness to journalists on his plane, is an admission of failure. The US has an army of 90,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and is spending $100bn a year, but has still been unable to defeat 20,000-25,000 Taliban who receive no pay at all.
A little over 10 years ago, I was standing on a small hill by a ruined textile factory 40 miles north of Kabul watching the plumes of fire erupt on the skyline as US bombs and missiles exploded in the Taliban front line. In the next few weeks the Taliban government imploded and I was able to drive nervously but safely to Kabul and, soon after, to Kandahar.
It is an extraordinary turn-around that a decade later the Americans are departing and the Taliban are back in business. A leaked Nato report on interrogations of 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qa'ida, foreign fighters and civilians shows that Taliban prisoners are in a confident mood. They believe their popular support is growing, Afghan government officials secretly collaborate with them, and, once foreign troops are gone, they believe they are going to win. The authors of the Nato report say "Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over Giroa [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders." This enables the Taliban easily to recruit more fighters to replace their casualties.
As in Iraq, departing US troops will leave behind a very different political and military landscape in Afghanistan from the one they hoped to create. In the Iraqi case, power is held by Shia religious parties closely linked to Iran, which is the opposite of what the Americans wanted to see when they captured Baghdad in 2003. In the Afghan case, the government of Hamid Karzai has waning authority as the US steps back and Afghans take out insurance policies to ensure personal survival by making approaches to the Taliban. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, powerful US armies failed to impose their control or restore peace.
America's wars launched in the aftermath of 9/11 led Washington to overplay its hand disastrously. This was not so obvious at the time as it is now. At first sight, both wars looked easy because they were against feeble, isolated enemies, unpopular in their own countries. But successful invasion is very different from successful occupation. In neither Baghdad nor Kabul did the US have an adequate local partner. No neighbouring countries wanted the occupations to succeed. Above all, the US underestimated the extent to which foreign occupation generates resistance.
The Nato report, based on no fewer than 27,000 interrogations, is full of interesting facts about the Taliban prisoners' optimistic perception of where they stand today. It is not so much that Taliban are greatly liked, but that the government and its local emissaries are loathed for their corruption, incompetence and violence. This is evident even among people whom self-interest should lead to support the status quo. I was talking to an estate agent in north Kabul just over a year ago, when, after denouncing government corruption, he furiously told me that "people are so angry there will be a revolution". On an earlier occasion, I was having a rather boring interview with a mid-level official, who told me of all the good things the government was planning to do. I asked him, without expecting much of interest to emerge, if he wanted to say anything off the record. He said quietly that indeed he did and, without changing his tone of voice, went on to describe the members of the government he had just been praising as a gang of warlords and racketeers.
Such opposition to the government does not necessarily mean support for the insurgents, but it creates a political vacuum which they swiftly fill. The former Communist political and military commander for the whole of southern Afghanistan, General Nur al-Haq Ulumi, told me that the Communist Party in the 1980s had 200,000 members as core supporters. "I doubt if there are more than 40 people really loyal to Karzai," he added. "He does not even have the full support of his own cabinet."
Candid about Afghans' criticism of their government, the Nato report is diplomatically reticent about the other main reason why the Taliban has been able to survive, recover and absorb the US counter-offensive in 2010-11. The Taliban benefits from simply being Afghans who are fighting foreign occupation, and "occupation" is the word used by both Taliban and government officials. The Pashtun, the community to which the Taliban mostly belong, are notorious for their detestation of foreigners.
In one respect, Afghanistan has been militarily more difficult for the US than Iraq. In the latter country, in the aftermath of the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07, Sunni and Shia were more frightened of each other than they were of American troops. The presence of US soldiers in any Baghdad neighbourhood at this stage of the war meant less violence inflicted on ordinary people. The situation in Afghanistan is exactly the reverse of this, with the arrival of foreign forces inevitably bringing more violence as special forces carry out night raids to kill local Taliban militants.
An American success in Afghanistan was impossible once the Pakistan army had decided to give full backing to a return of the Taliban. The US faced the same strategic weakness as the Soviet army during its Afghan campaign. However many setbacks the anti-Soviet mujahideen or the anti-American Taliban suffered, they could always retreat across the 1,600 mile-long border with Pakistan to rest, re-organise and re-equip. President Barack Obama was told during his first days in office that the heart of military problems facing the US in Afghanistan lay in Pakistan, but Washington could never work out an effective way of dealing with it. The Nato report just leaked tellingly quotes a senior al-Qa'ida commander from Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan saying: "Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can't [expletive] on a tree in Kunar without them watching. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad."
The US has failed in Afghanistan and the Taliban will become stronger. But it is unlikely they can win a total victory. The non-Pashtun communities, a majority of the population, will resist them. Reconciliation will be very difficult in a country as deeply divided as Afghanistan. The war may soon be over for the Americans, but not for the Afghans.