The US scarcely knew what a complex disaster it was confronting when it went to war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. It will eventually – perhaps years from now – suffer the same fate as Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviet Union: defeat.
What is called "Afghanistan" is really a collection of tribes and ethnic groups – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and more. There are seven major ethnic groups, each with its own language. There are 30 minor languages. Pashtuns are 42 per cent of the population and the Taliban come from them. Its borders are contested and highly porous, and al-Qaeda is most powerful in the Pashtun regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"The fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably tied," president George Bush declared in December 2007. This fact makes the war far more complicated, not the least because enormous quantities of military aid sent to Pakistan is mostly wasted.
Worse yet, Pakistan possesses about 70 to 90 nuclear weapons and the US fears some may fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. At least three-quarters of the supplies essential for America’s and its allies’ war effort flow through Pakistan, and they are often assaulted. Moreover, a large and growing majority of Pakistanis distrust US motives. America’s tilt to Delhi after 2007, which greatly augmented Indian nuclear power, made Pakistan far more reluctant to do Washington’s bidding.
Afghanistan’s principal problems are political, social and cultural – in large part because Britain concocted it arbitrarily. There is no durable military solution to its many problems. As in Vietnam, the US will win battles, but it has no strategy for winning this war.
Above all, the regional geo-political context is decisive, involving India-Pakistan relations – a factor that will prevail whatever the US and its allies do. Pakistan’s most vital interest is seeing a friendly government rule Afghanistan – no matter who it is. They will not waver on this principle. The Pakistani military is adamant about making India its key focus, and while it is opposed to al-Qaeda, it maintains good relations with the anti-Karzai Taliban – with whom it worked when it fought the Soviets.
The power of Afghanistan’s nominal president, Hamid Karzai, barely extends beyond Kabul, and his inefficiency and corruption shocks many US leaders, most of whom, as was the case in South Vietnam, are ultimately prepared to tolerate it. The Pakistanis regard Karzai as an Indian puppet, and however much many of its leaders dislike Pashtun separatism or the Taliban, they fear India far more. Their military is structured to fight India, not a counterinsurgency against the Taliban who operate within its borders.
Karzai, a Pashtun who nonetheless is far closer to Tajiks and Uzbeks, is very cordial to India. Indian foreign aid to his Government has exceeded $1 billion dollars. His ”re-election” last month has been attacked as based on fraud.
This is only part of the context in which the US has been mired for eight years, and US President Barack Obama’s strategy of escalation will confront growing resistance both in Afghanistan and among the US Congress and public. There are now more than 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, mainly American, and more will not change the situation. Fifty-eight per cent of Americans were against the Afghan war in September this year, and in some NATO nations – particularly Germany, Britain and Italy – opposition is increasing. These countries will not send significantly more troops to fight there.
Obama’s approach to winning the war is far too convoluted to succeed and it is dependent on factors over which he has scant control – not the least being the advice of one of his key advisers, Bruce Riedel, that "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central all-consuming issue for al-Qaeda". This issue must finally be settled: the chances of that happening are close to non-existent. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the author of Moscow’s Afghan Trap who was president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, has warned Obama on several occasions that "we are running the risk of replicating the fate of the Soviets".
Still, Obama is likely to escalate. Apart from the "credibility" of American power being involved, most key American officers think, to quote chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, that "the main effort in our strategic focus from a military perspective must now shift to Afghanistan". A few officers, mostly lacking influence, believe it will lead to disaster, and the American military commander in Afghanistan has warned that unless there is a rapid escalation of troops within a year the war "will likely result in failure".
Meanwhile, Obama thinks he will win the war by escalation – an illusion that also marked the futile war in Vietnam. He also believes he can "Afghanisise" the war – as Nixon thought he could "Vietnamise" that conflict – even though recruits for Karzai’s army have little motivation apart from collecting their salary, and are scarcely a match for the Taliban.
A growing majority of the Afghan population now oppose the US effort because it has led to frightful civilian casualties without attaining decisive military successes. "The mission is on the verge of failing," a writer in the US Army’s quarterly, Parameters, concluded last (US) spring. That, indeed, may be an understatement.
Gabriel Kolko is emeritus professor of history at York University in Toronto, war historian and author of 14 books.
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD and THE AGE (AUSTRALIA), SEPT 23, 2009