Afghanistan fears

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The war in Afghanistan is in crisis - the US postponed the summer offensive and the split between Hamid Karzai and the occupation forces worsens.

Afghanistan is changing fast. In the south and east the Taliban resistance controls most of the villages. In the west and north the government has begun to lose control. Crucially, the sort of divide and rule policy the US used in Iraq is not working here. The non-Pushtun militias won't fight the Taliban, and there are no ethnic riots or pogroms.

Moreover, American public opinion now opposes the war. Facing re-election, Obama has pledged to start reducing troops by the summer of 2011.

In this situation, Hamid Karzai has split from the US. It started in July 2008, when US bombers killed 80, mostly women and children, in Shin Dand near Herat. Karzai went there and sat on the floor with the village elders and grieving families. He told the press that Nato forces must never be allowed to bomb again without clearing targets with his government.

It is extraordinary that Karzai could do that. It is not possible to imagine any president of Iraq or Pakistan sitting safely with grieving families. But Karzai is not a puppet; he has a real base and he won a fair election in 2005. To hold that base, he had to condemn US bombings.

Now each significant massacre of civilians is decried by a government minister on television. The Americans have to account for every Afghan driver or passenger shot at a checkpoint. The Nato forces have not allowed Afghan control over targets, but there has been a fall in civilian deaths. This is enraging, and paralysing, for the US generals. Without aerial revenge bombing they face an unsustainable fight on the ground. British troops from the 3rd Battalion The Rifles recently returned from Sangin, in Helmand. In six months they had 130 killed or wounded out of 600 men.

For two years Washington have been trying to get rid of Karzai. Last year they tried to stop the elections, afraid he would win. Then Washington backed Ashraf Ghani, who got 2 percent of the vote. Karzai won. Then they briefed the press that the election was stolen, that Karzai was unreliable, weak, a drug user, and drugged, and his brother was a drug lord.

Much of this is true, and all of it is beside the point. The US turned on Karzai because he was preventing bombing. And now he is negotiating with the Taliban for peace. The Taliban have only one condition - for all foreign troops to leave.

This June Karzai called a jirga, a big national meeting to discuss peace. Some key players stayed away, and the Taliban formally dismissed it. But the US generals panicked. They insisted that Burhanuddin Rabbani, an utterly discredited figure, be imposed as the chair without a vote. Otherwise, they believed, the jirga would have voted for a unilateral ceasefire.

The jirga began with a gunfight in the street outside between "Taliban" and security forces. Karzai sacked his interior minister and his intelligence chief for collaborating with the US to stage the attack. Both ministers deny that. US officials now say the sackings have removed the last two senior Afghans still "trusted by the international community".

All this is made urgent by the US attack on Kandahar planned for this summer. The city of Kandahar is the main base for both Karzai and the Taliban. As many as 800,000 people live there. House to house fighting would be catastrophic for them and for the invading soldiers. Mass bombing from the air would destroy Karzai's power, enrage world opinion, and cause riots across Afghanistan and uprisings in parts of Pakistan. This is what Karzai fears.

He is not alone. British Foreign Office officials recently met secretly with leaders of the new coalition to discuss Afghanistan. The mandarins, for some time now strongly in favour of British withdrawal, found David Cameron and William Hague much more open to their arguments than Labour. In early June US defence secretary Robert Gates begged Liam Fox, the new British defence secretary, to send British troops to Kandahar. Fox refused, in public.

Pakistani generals and government officials are also increasing support for the Afghan Taliban. They are torn, however, because of the working class and poor peasant base of the Taliban inside Pakistan. Where the Taliban have gained power in the border areas of Pakistan, even briefly, they have immediately driven out all the big landlords. The Pakistani officers are petrified that this could spread to Punjab.

On 15 June General McChrystal announced that the attack on Kandahar had been postponed to September. It may not go ahead at all. That would be seen by every Afghan as a major defeat for the US.

General Petraeus is trying to prevent Obama bringing the troops home next year, but he is losing the argument. If they do leave, there may be ugly fighting between the various Afghan factions. The governments of Pakistan, India, Iran, Uzbekistan and Russia will continue to fund and arm their local allies. But Afghans are deeply tired of war, and better than most at forgiving and making peace.

The likely outcome is a brutal right wing coalition government that will include the Taliban and the main political bosses of the north and west. This is not a prospect to be welcomed. But a large majority of Afghans now prefer it to a continued occupation. In Britain and the US, too, majorities now want our sons and daughters brought home, not butchered in a holding operation.