Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The downward spiral

Some sobering observations from a veteran reporter in the Sunday Times:

Afghanistan: A country locked in a spiral of doom

Christina Lamb has been reporting from Afghanistan for 20 years. Here she offers a chilling frontline analysis of why we cannot beat the Taliban

OCTOBER 12 - [...] Miles and miles from anywhere, we fly [over Helmand in a Chinook helicopter] low over a man with a cloth turban wrapped round his head and a small herd of ragged brown sheep. He does not even look up.

What does he think about these foreign soldiers flying back and forth, I wonder. I wonder the same as we swing round into a patch of green trees and the Helmand River, swooping low over compounds where I can see colourfully dressed women and children. We have come to help them but it looks like anger in their faces...

Two and a half years, a doubling of troops to more than 8,000, and several million bullets later, British forces may hold five small districts in Helmand but the local governor himself says the Taliban control at least half the province.

As for the rest of the country, in all but the north the picture is unrelentingly grim. An aid worker smuggled me security maps compiled by the United Nations (no longer made public because they reveal just how bad things are). These show the relentless sweep from Helmand and the south across the country of pink, which represents “uncontrolled hostile environment” – no-go areas. In 2005, when the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), which included British military personnel, was active in the country, there was not a single pink patch; today more than half the country is pink.

Violent incidents have gone up from 44 a month in 2003 to 573 this year, and more than 4,500 people have been killed this year. . .

Most alarming is the way Kabul has been encircled by the Taliban, prompting a sense of being under siege both among Afghans and foreigners, behind their concrete blocks and armed guards. Of four highways into the capital from the south, east, west and north, built with hundreds of millions of foreign aid money, only the northern route is considered safe. Even that has become prone to rocket attacks. . .

“We are spending our blood and treasure for what?” asked a senior Nato officer angrily. “For an Afghan government that is spending its time lining its pockets? It’s time to think about what we are doing and what we are really trying to achieve.”

Back in Kabul, the sensation of the Taliban approaching the gates of the city has led to a frenzied fin-de-si├Ęcle atmosphere. Among the foreigners in their ever more fortified homes, every night seems to be party night, with people drinking heavily and bemoaning the fact that their cooks are leaving because they fear they will be targeted for working for foreigners. . .

Karzai spends weeks on end cooped up inside the Arg, the presidential palace where so many of his predecessors were horribly murdered.

Two months ago he stormed out of a meeting with both the British and US ambassadors and the Nato commander over highway security when they refused to fund his idea for creating a highway police force and empowering communities along the roads.

So bad is the situation that British and American forces are indirectly funding the Taliban as they get their own fuel and water supplies through. The private contractors they use estimate that 25% of the $4,000 per truck paid for security ends up with the Taliban. . .

It is hard to find anyone in the international community with a good word to say about the man they chose to lead Afghanistan because he spoke good English and looked good. Influential Afghans echo their dismay. . .

Even Karzai’s closest friends and relatives admit that only by acting tough now to sack the worst culprits might he save himself and the country. . . (link)
It seems that perhaps President Karzai himself shared Lamb's view of Karzai's best course of action. The Afghan president recently shuffled his cabinet.

British military historian Max Hastings reflects similarly on his recent visit to Afghanistan:
The Guardian
Afghanistan's best hope is for controlled warlordism
Max Hastings

Oct 13 - [...] It is almost impossible for westerners, military and civilian alike, to engage with Afghans. Almost none speak the language. It is only possible to travel outside heavily fortified bases in helicopters or armoured vehicles. Afghan gratitude for the creation of a few schools and hospitals is outweighed by the simple fact that, in a diplomat's words: "Seven years ago most of the population felt safe. Now they don't."

He added brutally: "The British army has been irresponsible in suggesting that it could do the business in Helmand. We should never have taken it on. It's much more than we can handle." ...

The newish governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, is much more convincing. He is 52 years old and a former commissar in the Afghan army in Russian times; he was a businessman and ruler of two other provinces before he was transferred to Helmand during the summer. The British are much in love with Mangal, whom they perceive as one of the country's only honest and able officials. Their enthusiasm is dangerous, however. It feeds Karzai's morbid suspicions of him as a prospective rival...

On these pages Simon Jenkins has said from the outset that the Afghan war is unwinnable. I have always shared his dismay about western blundering. Yet it seems to me that we must keep trying, though the odds against success are greater than ever. It is futile to escalate the Nato troop commitment. The only slender chance of stabilising Afghanistan lies in sustaining military and economic aid for Afghans to help themselves.

The highest aspiration must be for controlled warlordism, not conventional democracy. A civil war may prove an essential preliminary before some crude equilibrium between factions can be achieved. If this sounds a wretched prognosis, it is hard to find informed westerners with higher expectations. (link)

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