Afghanistan’s lost war by Brian cloughly

The publication Defence News comments expertly on military topics and recently described the performance of the US Air Force in supplying troops in Afghanistan with vital stores. It noted that last year “43 forward operating bases were supplied solely by air, with 27,000 troops receiving all of their food, water, ammunition and fuel from the sky, dropped primarily by the US Air Force..
The necessity to resupply troops by air comes from several factors, not the least of which is the skyrocketing number of roadside bombs US, Nato and Afghan troops face, making travel by road a risky bet.”

This is a factual, down to earth (literally) record of proficiency. It is admirable that the US Air Force is capable of such expertise. But it is also an admission of total strategic and tactical failure, because the very reliance on airdrop resupply shows that the vast hi-tech military machines of the west are incapable of controlling roads in a country where they have been fighting a futile war for ten wretched years, in which so many thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed or wounded.

Yet the Secretary General of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared in October that “The enemy is being pushed further back from the population.” Heaven knows what briefings he was given during his visit to Afghanistan, but for anyone to claim that “We saw Afghan security forces that are growing more capable and more confident” is misleading to the point of downright dishonesty.

And the International Force spokesperson fluttered even further into cloud cuckoo land last week when he declared that “Clearly, the security situation is improving, the number of enemy initiated attacks is decreasing and the vast majority of the Afghan population lives in areas where peace and stability has already been established.” In the week following his absurd assertion there were five Nato soldiers killed, an appalling slaughter of Afghan civilians, and a rocket attack on Kabul.

With very few exceptions, units of the Afghan army and police are a shambles. Of course there are some capable Afghans in uniform – but they are few and far between and are consistently let down by their corrupt and bungling government. Their logistic supply system is a bizarre disgrace and they rely entirely on foreign forces for air support.

President Karzai, whom some of us remember as a pleasant but inconsequential public relations man in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, has complained bitterly about Washington’s recognition of the Durand Line as the legal border between his country and Pakistan. The fact that the Line is indeed the internationally acknowledged division between the countries is considered insulting by the Afghan government. And this is where there is a major problem.

Just what is going to happen to Pakistan when (most) foreign troops quit Afghanistan, leaving the ineffective Afghan army to take on the Taliban, the well-armed criminal gangs and the private armies of the warlords? Does anyone imagine they will be able to destroy the poppy fields? (Not that the foreign forces have managed to even reduce them in a decade of occupation.) President Obama announced last week that “The war in Afghanistan is coming to a close”, and he might be correct in his statement so far as America is concerned. But this war won’t come to an end for Afghanistan itself – or for Pakistan.

The entire International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan has proved incapable of defeating a few thousand militants fighting against their presence. And there has been much international criticism of Pakistan because of militants cross the Durand Line. The fact that over 3,000 soldiers of the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps have been killed by insurgents in the frontier areas as a direct result of the west’s war in Afghanistan is disregarded. Also ignored are the facts that it takes two sides to control a border, and that tens of thousands of foreign troops and the entire Afghan army have been unable to stop such movement. The flow of drugs, weapons and militants continues.

After the withdrawal of foreign troops (although hundreds of US special forces and scores of drones and ground attack aircraft will remain, along with hundreds more troops to protect their bases), does anyone imagine that the Afghan army is going to be capable of controlling its side of the border? Will it even want to? One thing the Kabul politicians agree upon is that Afghanistan should not recognise the Durand Line. (The other matter on which they see eye to eye is that they should plunder the nation’s coffers while the going is good, which is almost the only illustration of official efficiency in the entire country.)

So Pakistan is going to be faced with a corrupt and hostile government in Kabul, which in turn will be opposed by a bunch of militia-leading warlords and a loosely structured Taliban organisation of fanatical barbarians. What an attractive prospect.

The greatest threat to the entire region is that anarchy in Afghanistan will create even more instability in Pakistan. This makes it important that western nations who have involved themselves in Afghanistan make sure the effects of quitting the place after their disastrous decade do not lead to destruction of Pakistan. They must guarantee provision of all possible support to Pakistan in its forthcoming years of trial. And one of the most important ways of doing this would be to help encourage stability in the Tribal Areas. This will take lots of money and expertise – and considerable time – but it can be done through a process of development in which the prime objective must be education.

All is not lost. But losing is getting awfully close. Over to you, western countries, because you owe Pakistan big time, for causing the chaos across its western border.

The writer is a South Asian affairs analyst.


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