July 28, 2010

America's High Cost of Defeat

By Irfan Husain, from The Dawn:

"The vast trove of leaked intelligence reports recently posted by Wikileaks over the Internet has elicited a furious denial from the ISI about its alleged role in Afghanistan that emerges from many of the cables. Washington has similarly denounced the release of these secret documents on the irrepressible website.

For me, what was more interesting and depressing than the allegations of ISI involvement in the burgeoning Taliban insurgency is the sense of hopelessness that emerges from these reports. Time after time, American soldiers and intelligence specialists voice their frustration and anger over their failure to gain hearts and minds among local Afghans, as well as the incompetence and corruption they see among Afghan police and officials.

In short, these are not the voices of an army winning the war. Almost uniformly, they carry a sense of foreboding and of failure. Although these reports relate to the pre-surge period, they do not convey much hope. Clearly, things are not going the American-led coalition’s way. We have been seeing the steady rise in casualties among NATO forces, and nobody in a responsible position seems to hold out much hope that the situation is about to change anytime soon.

Soon after the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, an apocryphal story hinting at the nightmare to come did the rounds. At a mosque in the badlands under Taliban control, a cleric declared in his sermon following Friday prayers: 'See how mighty is Allah! Earlier, the Americans were too far away for us to kill. But now, by the grace of Allah, they have landed on our doorstep!'

It sounded slightly funny at the time, as the quick victory of the allied forces seemed to signal the end of the Taliban. It doesn’t sound so funny now.

As the somber tone at the recent conference on Afghanistan held in Kabul suggested, nobody has any high hopes of a quick battlefield victory. Equally, nobody expects any rapid transformation in the capabilities of the Afghan bureaucracy or its security forces.

Already, this is the longest war the United States has ever been engaged in. Hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lost lives later, victory is further away today than it seemed at the outset of the campaign. Indeed, the talk is not of victory any more, but of an exit strategy.

How to declare victory and leave is the question occupying the minds of generals and politicians in Washington and London.

The frail reed these policy-makers are clinging to is their desperate hope that they will be able to train Afghan soldiers and policemen to take over security duties when ISAF troops leave. This is a clear victory of hope over experience.

Time after time, Western soldiers engaged in training Afghans have complained of their lack of motivation and leadership. Absenteeism is rife, as is drug use. As many lethal incidents have shown, many Afghan soldiers and policemen are prone to defecting to the enemy after turning their weapons on their Western comrade-in-arms.

The Obama surge that committed an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was the last throw of the dice. Already, these reinforcements seem like a stream of water dribbling into a vast desert. Accompanying this sense of failure is a drumbeat of critical comment in much of the liberal Western media.

In Canada, where I am at present, and in England, friends constantly ask what their soldiers are dying for. Whatever their political affiliations, they see no point in continuing a futile war in which their national interest is not directly involved. They no longer believe politicians who declare that their troops in Afghanistan are protecting the streets of Manchester and Montreal. They point out, quite correctly, that the threat to their countries comes from home-grown young Muslim radicals rather than from the Taliban.

I reply that had I been a Canadian or a Brit, I would have also demanded a pullout of Western forces. But as a Pakistani, I hope that they’ll stay for as long as it takes to defeat the Taliban.

For me, the issue is crystal clear: as soon as the coalition forces leave, the Taliban will be back in Kabul, and the civil war will resume. Pakistan will end up supporting the Taliban again, while India and Iran back the Northern Alliance. And inevitably, the Taliban will help their jihadi brethren in Pakistan. Without the drone attacks to check them, the Pakistani militants in Waziristan and elsewhere will further tighten their grip over the tribal areas.

Above all, a Taliban victory over the United States and its allies will bring more jihadis from around the world flocking to the region. When the mujahideen forced the mighty Red Army out of Afghanistan, that victory resounded across the Islamic world. Imagine how the defeat of the remaining superpower will be perceived by the faithful.

The entire region will become a hotbed of extremist violence. The Taliban – and Al Qaeda – will have greater credibility and appeal than ever before. Girls will be sent home from their schools, and women will be relegated to the second-class status they had endured in the earlier bout of Taliban rule. And the fallout from this allied defeat will spread over Pakistan and cross the border into India, apart from enveloping the Central Asian republics.

Triumphant and energized, political Islam will be a major destabilizing force. As a Pakistani, I shudder to think of the consequences of this chain of events. Unfortunately, far too many of my countrymen, both on the left and the right, are convinced that for things to become normal, Western forces must leave Afghanistan. They are naive in thinking that the extremist genie can ever be put back in the bottle.

There has been much discussion about talking to the Taliban. The point to remember is that thus far, Mullah Omar has ignored all these feelers. He sees that public opinion in the West is now dictating a timetable for retreat. He knows that all he has to do is wait. The allies have to win outright, while the Taliban can settle for a draw and still win.

In words attributed to Mullah Omar: 'The West has the clocks, but we have the time.'"

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