Cambridge-Washington Crisis Group


Christopher Lee

10 February 2013

So the general says we’ve won the war. Has anyone told the Afghan people?

The retiring chief of US lead force in Afghanistan says America has won the war in that place. He did not exactly put it that way but that’s what he implied.

General John Allen, who got himself on the wrong end of the CIA Director David Petraeus’ adultery scandal a few months back, was giving his end of tour report when he said his troops had gone ‘a long way’ towards winning a counter-insurgency operation.

So that’s OK then. The General says Afghanistan is fixed. Certainly at this time no one denies that Afghanistan is by and large a safer place than it was before and there have been advances in the way people live and in ways for Afghans to kill not only each other but servicemen from ISAF as well.

Smart independent analysts might point out that General Allen is not talking crap. But, on the other hand, he just might be. So what is the truth then?

The answer is two-fold: firstly, there’s no evidence that when ISAF pulls out the Afghan forces will be able to stop the Taliban taking over. Secondly, whatever the general says, it is still unclear how could it have happened that after more than a decade of killing and getting killed more than 100,000 ISAF troops, with all the latest equipment, including drones, on their side failed to stop the insurgency launching attacks on any day it chose.

Moreover, Amrullah Saleh, who ran the Afghan end of anti-Taliban Intelligence operations between 2004 and 2010, has surely got it right when he says that as NATO pulls out, Taliban will change tactics and instead of waging small attacks they’ll go for spectaculars. The Taliban know that they are seen as a fighting force – mostly on a spectacular scale. The people of Afghanistan don’t need anyone to tell them that power comes out of the barrel of a gun.

So look out for bigger bangs as ISAF draw-down comes. No one will be expected to doubt the message: we the Taliban are chasing out the American and British troops. Which in truth is about right. Because ISAF isn’t pulling out because the job’s done. It’s getting out because domestic politics dictate it. And that is why domestic electorates in places like the UK and the US could not care a toss if the General Allen is speaking the truth. They just want out.

What’s more, they could not care if Afghanistan goes to hell in a hand basket inside 48 hours of US forces turning out their barrack lights. Hardly a presidential or a prime ministerial voter worries about the future of Afghanistan or its people. Afghanistan is seen as yet another military quagmire that should have been avoided.
As for Afghans, they are seen as murderous and corrupt. So why would you want to get into a war in that place and who would care about whatever gloss the general wants to put on it all?

People tell us that peace talks with Taliban are in on-off modes, which is fine. Better to be intermittent than not at all. And remember, you don’t hold peace talks with your friends – only your enemies. So that’s pretty good.

One day soon of course some Mullah Omar Taliban character will be President of Afghanistan and then the coalition electors will wonder what that was all about and why was it necessary to die for that?

One of the guys talking to the Taliban is Mohammed Stakzai. He says there is hope. Taliban ground fighters in their hundred, maybe thousands, have joined in the reconciliation process known as the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme. Great stuff but Taliban foot soldiers have always signed up to whoever has the dollars.

Another fistful comes along and they’ll sign on to that as well – which is why the Taliban does not have to scratch for recruits. Not too good a hope for Afghanistan when ISAF goes.

The only sure thing, maybe even as sure as taxes and death, is that ISAF is going and the electorates and most of the politicians who have funded the fighting of the past decade do not care about Afghanistan – its past, its present or its future. So General Jones can say what he likes. No one cares anyway.

More interestingly, his next job is SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander Europe. That’s the military wing of NATO and the Supreme Allied Power in Europe. And what’s their biggest headache? Terrorism of course.

Let’s see how long it takes General Allen to admit that terrorism can run from a backroom in a Parisian suburb or a tent in the Malian mountains. It cannot be beaten as long as someone chooses to terrorise – which is news for NATO but something the Afghans have always understood.


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