The USA is stepping up its efforts to negotiate a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whether it can succeed is another matter.
Britain and the US are pressing the United Nations to drop sanctions against Taliban leaders. The US is backing diplomatic moves to get a public Taliban political office set up somewhere in the region.
The USA has already had talks with the Taliban, as has the Kabul government. It has quietly dropped its previous preconditions that the Taliban must break links with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept the Afghan constitutions.
Speaking to the BBC on 21 May, President Obama defined his aim as “a political settlement” achieved by “talking to the Taliban”.
This month NATO will formally hand over “security” in seven provinces (those least hit by the Taliban) to the Afghan army. That handover process is supposed to extend to the whole of Afghanistan by 2014. In July the USA will announce a cut in the number of soldiers it has in Afghanistan, currently 100,000.
But the cut may well be less than the increase in the US military presence in Afghanistan made by Barack Obama in 2009. Despite that increase, US military chiefs are very cautious about claiming progress. “This is going to be a very difficult fighting season”, said US military supremo Michael Mullen on 1 June.
Since the US military arrived in Afghanistan, in the wake of the Al Qaeda bombing of New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001, it has always been able to defeat the Taliban in selected areas.
The problem starts then. Direct US military rule is unviable and unpopular. But officials from Kabul whom the US might install are often also unpopular, and anyway corrupt and often ineffectual. In that respect the US is even worse off than the Russian would-be conquerors of Afghanistan in 1979-89, who at least had a corps of committed and energetic Afghan Stalinists to work with.
The Taliban can melt away into other areas, or over the border into Pakistan, and then return. In the countryside they never imposed the same harsh clerical-fascist regime which they had in Kabul in 1996-2001.
On all accounts, they are not that unpopular in many areas of rural Afghanistan, especially since a lot of the most anti-Taliban people have moved to Kabul, which since 2001 has expanded from 400,000 people to 4.5 million.
The USA’s evident desire to withdraw and negotiate simultaneously weakens their hand in negotiations. The Taliban can afford to stall negotiations and wait until the USA gives up.
The US spends over $100 billion on war in Afghanistan. It budgets to spend $13 billion in the next fiscal year in subsidising the Afghan army, which is now almost 300,000 strong (and might be able to defend Kabul and some other areas against the Taliban; but has no hope of gaining control of the whole country, especially not of the Taliban’s Pashtun heartland).
The country’s total economic output totals only $17 billion. In Kabul especially, since 2001, the Americans have created a society which lives almost entirely on the gravy and spillage from the vast US expenditure. In 2010 about $850 million disappeared from a Kabul bank, embezzled somehow.
As Jason Burke reports (Guardian, 4 June), in Kabul “there are blocks of luxury apartments, giant video hoardings, BMWs and Hummers blasting their way through the traffic... vast and garish villas... restaurants where lunch is 30 times the average daily wage”. Meanwhile rural Afghanistan is much as it has been for centuries, plus bombs and foreign troops. The Kabul government, bloated and nauseous through overfeeding with US aid, can get little grip there.
Some reporters highlight an additional problem in divisions among the anti-US forces in Afghan-
istan, including those operating under the broad umbrella of the Taliban.
It is impossible to defeat the Taliban as long as they have a safe base over the border in north-west Pakistan. Riddled, by all accounts, with Islamist sympathisers, the Pakistani armed forces are unable to gain control there. Pakistani military leaders other than Islamists also have an interest in keeping Afghanistan fragmented and at war: a strong and relatively stable Afghanistan could ally with India and be a threat to Pakistan.
Pivotal to any real way forward must be an advance by the potentially-powerful Pakistani workers’ movement, sweeping aside the Islamists and offering real progress to the rural poor. Short of that, there is impasse.
The entire grotesque story has its roots in the imperial arrogance of the US administration which, in 2001, thought it could get quick and easy “revenge” for the World Trade Centre bombing by zapping the Taliban and then quickly “cleaning up” Afghanistan. Ten years later, Afghanistan is nowhere near “cleaned up”, and the Taliban is stronger than it was in the months after the fall of its rule in Kabul.
By now, the conclusion must be that any good the US, British, and other troops do in fending off the Taliban is quickly outmatched by simultaneous or rapidly-following damage.