Afghanistan - the unwinnable war

A British Army brigadier recently admitted what we said long ago on the pages of this website: a military victory over the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable”. Neither side is winning and this is pushing the more realistic and serious minded strategists of capital to look at other solutions, a deal of some kind. Meanwhile the ordinary people continue to suffer.

Afghanistan - an unwinnable war. Photograph by Sgt. Johnny R. Aragon.We can't defeat the Taliban, says the outgoing commander of British forces in Afghanistan. In a statement published in yesterday’s The Times (October 6, 2008), Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said that in his opinion, a military victory over the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable”. Carleton-Smith says he believes the Taliban will never be defeated.

The Brigadier speaks from experience. The 16 Air Assault Brigade, which will hand over to 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines this month, has suffered severe casualties after six months of hard fighting. Their commander has drawn the most pessimistic conclusions from his experience. He no longer talks of victory. “What we need is sufficient troops to contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected Government,” he says.

What do these words mean? They mean that after seven years of bloody fighting, the Coalition troops are further away from victory than ever, and that the puppet government of Karzai is under constant threat from the insurgency. Although the brigadier said that his troops had “taken the sting out of the Taliban” during clashes in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, this had been at a heavy cost. His brigade suffered 32 killed and 170 injured during its six-month tour of duty. The 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment alone lost 11 soldiers, most of them killed by roadside bombs or other explosive devices.

This is forcing both military commanders and politicians to revise their opinions of the situation in Afghanistan. Their conclusions completely confirm what the Marxists wrote seven years ago.

What we said

Bush with Afghan politicians 1 March 2006. Photograph by Eric Draper.When the US-led Coalition army went into Afghanistan, we predicted that their initial success would eventually turn into its opposite. We wrote at the time:

“The swiftness of the collapse of the Taliban's defence, and the ease with which the Northern Alliance entered Kabul, has led many to conclude that the war is over and that the Taliban are finished. This is a serious misreading of the situation. […]

“The main war aims of the USA have not been achieved. Bin Laden is still at liberty. The al Qaeda organization, despite the losses it has undoubtedly suffered, is still intact. Nor is the Taliban destroyed. On the contrary.

“It is true that the fall of Kabul presents the Americans potentially with a more favourable logistical context for pursuing their military operation. It has made the logistics of supplying and maintaining the military campaign far easier. However, the essential problem remains: in order to realize its objective, the US and its allies must send troops into the Pushtoon areas. This cannot be achieved painlessly. The enemy has been driven from the cities but not destroyed. The Taliban, having withdrawn from the cities, will regroup in the mountains and villages of the Pushtoon heartland.”

And we concluded:

“The Taliban have lost their grip on power, but not their potential for making war. They are very used to fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains. They did it before and can do it again. In the north, they were fighting in alien and hostile territory. But in the villages and mountains of the Pushtoon area, they are in their own homeland. The prospect opens up of a protracted guerrilla campaign which can go on for years. The first part of the allied war campaign was the easy bit. The second part will not be so easy. British and American troops will have to go into the Pushtoon areas on search and destroy missions, where they will be sitting targets for the guerrillas. Casualties will be inevitable. At a certain stage this will have an effect on public opinion in Britain and America.

“The Americans had hoped to be able to carry out a quick, surgical strike against bin Laden, relying mainly on air power. Instead, the conflict is becoming ever more complicated and difficult, and the prospect of an end is postponed almost indefinitely. They will have to keep troops stationed not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan and other countries in order to prop them up. […]

“This is a far worse and more dangerous position than the one in which the Americans found themselves on September 11. Washington will now be compelled to underwrite the bankrupt and unstable regime in Pakistan, as well as all the other "friendly" states in the region, which are being destabilized by its actions. If the aim of this exercise was to combat terrorism, they will find they have achieved the opposite. Before these events, the imperialists could afford to maintain a relatively safe distance from the convulsions and wars of this part of the world, but now they are completely entangled in it. By their actions since September 11, the USA and Britain has got themselves dragged into a quagmire, from which it will be difficult to extricate themselves.”

This was written on November 15, 2001 (Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul: Is the war over?). Seven years later there is no need to change a single word of what we wrote then.

Grim prognosis

The ablest representatives of the bourgeoisie usually come to the same conclusions as the Marxists. Seven years later the brigadier’s grim prognosis proves what we said long ago to be true. It follows a leaked cable by François Fitou, the deputy French Ambassador in Kabul, claiming that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador, had told him the strategy for Afghanistan was “doomed to failure”.

In the cable, Mr Fitou told President Sarkozy that Sir Sherard believed “the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption and the [Karzai] Government has lost all trust”. He said Sir Sherard had told him Britain had no alternative but to support the US, “but we should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one. The American strategy is doomed to fail.”

For his part, Brigadier Carleton-Smith admitted that it had been “a turbulent summer”. He claimed that the Taliban were “riven with deep fissures and fractures”, but then quickly added: “However, the Taliban, tactically, is reasonably resilient, certainly quite dangerous and seems relatively impervious to losses. Its potency is as a force for influence.” The brigadier said that in the areas where the Government had no control, the Afghan population was “vulnerable to a shifting coalition of Taliban, mad mullahs and marauding militias”. In other areas, however, progress was being made and children were going back to school. “We are trying to deliver sufficient security for a degree of normalization,” he said.

A war that cannot be won

The Economist recently wrote:

“The British army, leading the NATO effort in Helmand, has lost 115 soldiers there since 2006, compared with perhaps 5,000 dead Taliban. Yet Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a senior Taliban spokesman, is relentlessly upbeat: ‘We struggle for almighty Allah and we are sure we are winning.’ The outgoing British commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, credits the Taliban with being ‘still tactically quite resilient and certainly quite dangerous’. But he says the British are ‘minimising the objective damage’ they are able to inflict.

“Given the military stalemate, the British strategy now focuses on developing Afghan forces and government structures with a view to an eventual political solution. Brigadier Carleton-Smith estimates Britain can start withdrawing troops in three to five years. But Afghan political maturity could take ‘decades or generations’.”

Photo by openDemocracy on FlickrIn the past year the Taliban have lost territory, notably the towns of Garmser and Musa Qala, the only two places in Afghanistan where they defended fixed positions. But these victories of the Coalition forces are more apparent than real. The Taliban have merely abandoned their attempt to defend fixed positions, where they are weak, in order to step up guerrilla tactics, where they are strong.

The Taliban have plenty of arms and money, thanks to their accommodation with drug-farmers and smugglers. This autumn Taliban commanders have promised to defend the poppy fields in the previously pro-government districts of Nad Ali and Marja. The Koran’s prohibition of drug use takes second place to the need to win the hearts and minds of Afghan farmers and hard cash for guns! They indignantly deny that they receive drug money. However, the Taliban accepts zakat (alms) from the local poppy-farmers, which is much the same thing. With this money they can buy large quantities of arms and ammunition from corrupt Afghan police and soldiers, and there is a never-ending flow of volunteers from Pakistan. This means that the war can go on indefinitely. The conclusion is clear. The Coalition forces cannot win this war.

The problem of the state

Sooner or later the American and British will be compelled to leave Afghanistan, following in the ignominious footsteps of every other foreign army that tried to subdue this turbulent country, from Alexander the Great onwards. In order to do this, they will have to try to create some kind of state. And, as Engels explained long ago, the state is essentially groups of armed men.

Brigadier Carleton-Smith said that there had been a government vacuum for 30 years, and even now the central Government in Kabul did not view Helmand as a key province. He said that in some areas the Afghan people were now beginning to shift their allegiance towards traditional power structures “rather than the shadowy and illegal structures” of the Taliban and the warlords. He said that more foreign trainers were needed to help to build up the competence of the Afghan National Army. He kindly suggested that the Americans would provide them.

However, the chances of creating anything like a stable central government in Kabul are not great. The mood in Kabul has been a gloomy one of late. There is no sign that NATO forces are any closer to winning the war against the Taliban. On the other hand, there is equally little sign that the Taliban are winning the war in Helmand either. This is a strong argument in favour of reaching a deal.

The British have a long and bitter experience of wars in Afghanistan. They suffered the humiliation of seeing a British army cut to bits by Afghan tribesmen. In the end, the British Empire was compelled to pay bribes to the tribal chiefs to keep the North West Frontier quiet. Now history is repeating itself. The Brigadier indicated that the only way forward was to find a political solution that would include the Taliban. Let us recall that a few months ago two foreign diplomats (one of them was British) were expelled from Afghanistan for allegedly negotiating with the Taliban. We have no doubt whatsoever that such negotiations are secretly going on all the time.

Karzai and the commanders of the international forces in Afghanistan. Photograph by Sgt. Andrew E. Lynch.President Karzai does not like this. He sees it (quite correctly) as a threat to his position. Nevertheless, under pressure from his foreign “allies” his government has launched a “reconciliation programme”. But he has a small problem: the hard core of Taliban commanders are implacably opposed to any compromise. Efforts are therefore being focused on the so-called “tier-two” and “tier-three” Taliban, who are perceived to be less ideologically intransigent. The Coalition calculates that sufficiently large amounts of dollars will weigh more heavily with some of the chiefs than verses from the Koran.

In the end the Coalition forces will be compelled to abandon the attempt to occupy Afghanistan. They will leave behind them a trail of death and destruction and a legacy of hatred and bitterness that will last for decades. We do not know which of the rival gangs will dominate the next government in Kabul. What we do know is that, as always, the heaviest price will be paid by the ordinary people, the workers and peasants, the poor, the old, the sick, the women and children.

The terrible fate of the people of Afghanistan is yet another of the innumerable crimes of US imperialism and its allies. The infamous “war on terror”, far from achieving its objectives, has had the opposite result. By its actions the imperialists have provided a powerful impetus to terrorism. They have poured fuel on the flames of fanaticism and thus acted as the main recruiting sergeant for al Qaeda and the Taliban. They have completely wrecked Afghanistan and in the process they have destabilized Pakistan. In the immortal and often quoted words of the Roman historian Tacitus: “And when they have created a wilderness, they call it Peace.”

London, 7 October 2008 

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