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AFGHANISTAN: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE


The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited. … Sun Tzu

The recent riots in Afghanistan following the disposal of Korans in a firepit by U.S. troops involved every ethnic group including those represented by the allies in the Northern Alliance.  While the U.S. moves forward with its widely telegraphed plans to leave by 2014, the targeting of senior advisors and trainers highlight the difficulties.  U.S. desperation to exit Afghanistan is transparent.  Further weakening its negotiating position is the repeated call for talks with the Taliban.  Meanwhile, all interested parties are busy positioning and realigning themselves for a post U.S. Afghanistan.  Never easy, the task of securing a suitable agreement (and one that holds post-withdrawal) has now become almost impossible.

For a start, Vietnam should have taught a simple lesson, namely, the futility of fighting a guerrilla war when the resistance has a safe haven.  The reason is not hard to fathom:  the resistance forces retreat to the safe haven when pressed, refurbish themselves and attack again at a time and place of their choosing.  Vietnam also showed that the departing power must retain some leverage for the agreement to continue to be observed.  Given the U.S. lacks sufficient leverage over the Taliban, bilateral negotiations are fraught with the possibility of a Vietnam-like end game.

In addition, cultural differences and the long term consequences of an occupying army leave a natural residue of resentment.  The U.S. is aligned with the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara but they too have been involved in the latest riots which spread from Bagram to Kabul and every major city.  Thus all theaters of operation are becoming more inhospitable.

Taliban attitudes and the recent information coming to light through an on-the-ground commander Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis belie the rosy picture of a Taliban on the run, eager to negotiate.  The Taliban seem quite willing to let the U.S. stew in its own juice, while the U.S. appears desperately wanting to get out of the pot.

An alternative to bilateral negotiations with the Taliban would be multiparty talks involving regional actors with the intent of ensuring future stability for any agreement reached.  Unfortunately, here too there are significant roadblocks because present U.S. relations with Afghanistan's adjacent and most affected powers, Pakistan and Iran, could not be worse. 

Further complicating matters, the killing of two senior U.S. advisors recently, in a supposedly secure Afghan Ministry, and the subsequent removal of all advisors can only impede the process of training the Afghan military to take over from the U.S. following withdrawal.  Moreover, the not infrequent 'green-on-blue' attacks by Afghan soldiers, who turn on their ISAF trainers, bring out into the open questions of reliability and loyalty to the Afghan government and its policies.

Put briefly then, the prospect of a properly trained and reliable Afghan force does not appear promising; the chances of a bilateral agreement with the Taliban being actually observed by them are unlikely; and the possibility of a multilateral agreement involving the regional powers is remote at present.  Afghanistan has become an impossible situation … time perhaps to declare victory and leave?  

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