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No military solution

Friday 15 June 2007, by Jonathan Steele

The team that wrote President Bush’s Prague speech on democracy this week have clearly never visited Afghanistan. Otherwise they would not have had the president quoting a Soviet dissident who compared "a tyrannical state to a soldier who constantly points a gun at his enemy". The guns that most Afghans see pointed at them are held by Americans, and they are all too often fired. At least 135 unarmed civilians have been reported killed over the past two months by western troops, mainly US special forces.

The deaths by ground fire and US air strikes have become so frequent that last month the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament did something it has never done before. It called on the Nato-led forces to cease taking offensive action against the Taliban and asked the Afghan government to talk to the insurgents, provided the Taliban accept the country’s new constitution. It also asked for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. The upper house is not normally a radical body. More than half its members were appointed by Bush’s friend, President Hamid Karzai. Its speaker is a moderate former mujahideen leader who was driven from power by the Taliban a decade ago. That men with this background should now be expressing doubts over Nato’s tactics and even over its presence in Afghanistan sends a powerful signal.

Five years after western forces arrived here, the upper house’s concern reflects an impatience with them that is widespread in Kabul. Initially the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) was considered too passive. The demand was for it to deploy out of Kabul to the non-Pashtun north and west, and arrest or disarm the warlords. Although these were anti-Taliban figures, they ran their areas like fiefdoms, neglecting development and stealing revenues.

After a two-year delay Isaf did move out, and now runs so-called provincial reconstruction teams in most provinces. It still leaves the warlords alone, since confronting them is considered the Afghan government’s job. Some have been sidelined by Karzai, but given good jobs in Kabul. Others were elected to parliament, after attempts to ban militia leaders from being candidates were dropped. None has been put on trial - a cult of impunity that also benefits a new generation of corrupt officials.

In the Pashtun south, the Taliban’s homeland, the west did little. Instead of pumping in aid while the defeated Taliban were still demoralised, the Taliban were given three years to recover. Now that Isaf has finally gone into the south, the complaint is that it is too aggressive. Isaf troops demolish houses, empty out villages, displace tens of thousands of people, and use indiscriminate firepower that kills innocent civilians. Isaf’s task is complicated by the presence of over 10,000 US troops who are not under Nato command but operate in the same zones, killing more Afghans than Isaf, and giving all foreign forces a bad name since no one can understand the difference.

Making a priority of "force protection" - which means that soldiers on patrol or in convoy treat every Afghan as a potential enemy and fire on anything suspicious - has helped the Taliban to gain recruits. Before 9/11 the connection between the Taliban and al-Qaida was only at the leadership level, and tenuous at best. Now it is pervasive and at the grassroots. Young Afghans are strapping on suicide belts, a technique imported from Iraq - it was never used against the Soviet occupiers two decades ago, and shocks older Afghans as a perversion of their warrior nation’s traditions. But it helps to make Isaf and US special forces even more jittery, feeding into the instinct to over-react.

Last autumn, British commanders tried to break out of excessive reliance on military force. They made a potentially precedent-setting deal with tribal leaders in the town of Musa Qala by agreeing to withdraw provided the Taliban did not move in. The deal was sabotaged by the Americans and, as on many earlier occasions, Tony Blair failed to stand up to the White House. He let the Musa Qala experiment fizzle out.

In Kabul, some western analysts with long experience of Afghanistan are in despair. They argue that Isaf should recognise the trap it is in. Western governments and their electorates will never provide enough troops to secure the south, but the reckless use of air-power to make up for the shortage of ground troops only loses more hearts and minds. The downward spiral of anger and alienation accelerates.

The only honest solution is to accept that the south is a lost cause as far as western military action is concerned. Isaf should refocus its effort and the available foreign aid money on Kabul and the north. Turn them into an example of how development and modernisation can be done gradually and sensitively and with a real long-term commitment, rather than spending millions on advice on "good governance" from overpaid consultants on short-term contracts. There is no danger that the Pashtun-based Taliban will capture Kabul and the north again. Isaf need not announce a pullout, but it should prepare the ground by redeploying its forces to garrisons in Kandahar and the provincial capitals in the south, and quietly abandoning its isolated outposts and the futile in-and-out patrolling of the hinterland.

Some diplomats argue that, while this may be what the west eventually does, there is still time to use a mix of military attacks in a few areas combined with discreet contacts with Taliban commanders through tribal leaders. These should aim for agreement on phased withdrawals by Isaf, and promises that security will be in the hands of Afghan police chosen by local people rather than sent in from outside. The Afghan army is seen as an adjunct of the occupiers and not welcomed.

Pashtun tribal elders reject Taliban ideology, which they see as obscurantist, regressive, and hostile to development. They had six years’ experience of it after 1995, and know what it means. But the Taliban are successfully expanding their reach by exploiting national pride and hostility to foreign occupation and the corrupt practices of Kabul-appointed governors. Removing the occupation and having locally chosen police would allow the elders to reassert control.

A key precondition for a new approach in Afghanistan has to be an end to the west’s simplistic "war on terror" rhetoric and its latest incarnation, Bush’s Prague talk of "freedom versus extremism". Promising "victory" in Afghanistan only risks the perception of "defeat" when the reality eventually dawns that there is no military solution.