Patrick Cockburn: Wasn't Bin Laden the reason we went to war?

The killing of the al-Qa'ida leader offers an opportunity to make long overdue progress on Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

Does the death of Osama bin Laden open the door for the US and UK to escape from the trap into which they have fallen in Afghanistan? At first sight, the presumed weakening of al-Qa'ida ought to strength the case for an American and British withdrawal. When President Obama ordered the dispatch of an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009, he declared that the goal was "to deny safe-haven to al-Qa'ida and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government".

This justification for stationing 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan and for Washington spending $113bn (£69bn) a year always looked thin. By the US army's own estimate there are about 100 members of al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan compared with an estimated 25,000 Taliban. Even on the Pakistan side of the border, al-Qa'ida probably only has a few hundred fighters.

A problem for the US and Britain is how to dump this convenient but highly misleading explanation as to why it was essential for the safety of their own countries to fight a war in Afghanistan. This has required pretending that al-Qa'ida was in the country in significant force and that a vast US and UK military deployment was necessary to defend the streets of London or the little house on the prairie.

The death of Bin Laden reduces this highly exaggerated perception of al-Qa'ida as a threat. People, not unreasonably, ask what we are doing in Afghanistan, and why soldiers are still being killed. One spurious argument has been to conflate al-Qa'ida and the Afghan Taliban, and say they are much the same thing. But it is difficult to think of a single Afghan involved in bomb attacks against targets in the US and Britain before and after 9/11. Al-Qa'ida's leadership was mainly Egyptian and Saudi as were all the 9/11 bombers.

The problem for Washington and London is that they have got so many people killed in Afghanistan and spent so much money that it is difficult for them to withdraw without something that can be dressed up as a victory. Could the death of Bin Laden be the sort of success that would allow Obama to claim that America's main objective has been achieved? For the moment, at least, it will be more difficult for the Republicans to claim that a disengagement is a betrayal of US national security. Could not this be the moment for the US, with Britain tagging along behind, to cut a deal and get out?

Unfortunately, it probably isn't going to happen. It will not be Obama's decision alone. In 2009, he was dubious about what a temporary surge in US troop numbers would achieve and keen not to be sucked into a quagmire in Afghanistan just as the US was getting out of one in Iraq. Endless discussions took place in the offices of the White House about whether or not to send reinforcements.

But the outcome of these repeated meetings was predictable given the balance of power between different institutions in Washington. Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA and the next US Secretary for Defence, said that the decision to send more troops should have been made in a week, because the political reality is that "no Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he has asked for it. So just do it. Do what they [the generals] said."

The US military is not going to eat its optimistic words of late last year when they were claiming that it was finally making headway against the Taliban. Insurgent mid-level commanders were being assassinated in night raids by US Special Forces, and survivors were fleeing to Pakistan. If the Taliban were increasing their strength in northern Afghanistan, they were losing their grip on their old strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar.

Such reports of progress appear to have been largely propaganda or wishful thinking. At the start of this year's fighting season the Taliban have been able to launch as many attacks as last year and replace its casualties. In Kandahar last month, they were able to free 500 prisoners from the city jail by digging a tunnel 1,000 feet long over five months without anybody finding out about it. An organisation that can do this is scarcely on its last legs. The message of the last few months is that the "surge" in Afghanistan, of which so much was expected, has not worked.

The Americans and British are meant to be training Afghan military and police units to take the place of foreign forces. It is never quite explained how Taliban fighters, without any formal military training, are able to battle the best-equipped armies in the world, while Afghan government troops require months of training before they can carry out the simplest military task.

One escaped Taliban prisoner in Kandahar has said that their plan was helped by the fact in the evening the prison guards always fell into a drug-induced stupor.

Official bromides about building up the strength of the Afghan government ignore an ominous trend: the governing class is detested by the rest of the population as a gang of thieves and racketeers. I was struck in a recent visit to Kabul by the venom with which well-educated professional people and businessmen, who are not doing badly, condemn Hamid Karzai's government. This does not mean that they support the Taliban, but it does show that Karzai's support, aside from cronies busily engaged in robbing the state, is very small.

When negotiations do start they should be between the four main players: the US, the Afghan government, the Taliban, and Pakistan. For all the rude things being said about the Pakistan military after Bin Laden was discovered so close to their main military academy in Abbottabad, nothing is going to be decided without their say-so.

Only the Pakistani army can deliver the Taliban whose great strategic advantage in the war is that under pressure they can always withdraw across the border into Pakistan. It is the highly permeable border, as long as the distance from London to Moscow, which prevented the Soviet Union from defeating Afghan rebels in the 1980s. Pakistan is not going to try to close this border and could not do so even if it wanted to.

It would not be difficult for the Taliban to renounce al-Qa'ida and other jihadi groups. The killing of Bin Laden as the icon of evil should make this easier for the US to accept.

Obviously there is going to be no military solution to the Afghan conflict, and negotiations with the Taliban will have to begin sooner or later, so why not now?