by Cathy Nugent
On 10 July the government announced a further 850 troops for Afghanistan, bringing the UK total to around 4,500. UK troops have been increased gradually since the beginning of the year, as part of an plan which will see all troops, including US troops, under the control of NATO.
The US were planning to withdraw some of their troops from Afghanistan before November’s Congressional elections. A “final offensive” on Taliban-controlled areas was to take place first. Operation Mountain Thrust has gone ahead, involving US, UK, Canadian and Afghan troops in northern Helmand and western Uruzgan. The aerial raids have inevitably killed some Afghan civilians. But the US withdrawal will not now happen. The UK-US led coalition’s “mission” in Afghanistan is in deep crisis.
Roadside bombs and grenade attacks are now daily news in Kabul. These killings don’t make headlines in the media in the way that the death of UK soldiers do. The hundreds more who have been killed by Taliban and their allies this year, the 1,500 killed last year, have also made little impact. But a media debate about the UK’s role in Afghanistan is beginning to happen.
Writing in the Guardian on 5 July Simon Jenkins called for the government to be held to account. “The debacle of Britain-in-Afghanistan cannot be ignored, because British troops are at risk.” Never mind five years of struggle, continuing refugee status for millions and increasing sectarian and religious violence for ordinary Afghans. The risk to British troops is what matters. Stop the War, from a different starting point, takes much the same line.
A great deal of the misery of Afghans is the fault of the botched and barely financed “reconstruction” programme of the US-UK and its preferred politicians in Afghanistan. But there are faults elsewhere too. What has happened since the 2001 invasion and toppling of the Taliban regime?
After 2001 the Taliban was forced into hiding, for the most part in inaccessible parts of Pakistan. Since 2003, it has been regrouping, has made alliances with Pakistani jihadist groups and has become a strong power in four provines of the country — Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan — from where they have made and launched their murderous attacks: planting roadside bombs, carrying out sucide bombings, killing teachers and rivals and perceived trouble makers, harrassing women, and burning schools. They also control parts of the drug trade. Its value last year was estimated to be $2.5 billion of which only $600 million reached the farmers. The attacks have been increasing since the beginning of 2005, intensifying around the time of the election for the country’s National Assembly.
Why is the Taliban growing?
The Taliban has benefited from the weak control of the government — it is not only in the areas where the Taliban operate that neither the government nor NATO troops have control. Afghanistan has always been a network of tribal/ethnic areas and, since the fall of the Taliban, these have come even more under the control of local leaders and the warlords created by 20 plus years of civil war. Some of those men were integrated into Hamid Karzai’s government. Those that were excluded from government under pressure of either the UN or Afghan’s new Parliament have been allowed to continue to rule the roost in their own areas or given titular roles.
The number of foreign troops was insignificant relative to the size of the territory. The idea that these troops could win over the “hearts and minds” of a heavily tribal and parochial society, pulling people away from potential support for the Taliban, never had much grip. The NATO powers claimed to want to do that, while failing to commit any substantial reconstruction aid. The US of course was more interested in its Iraqi adventure.
Since 2001 western donors have provided $2.5 billion a year - a very small amount of aid that has done nothing to restructure Afghanistan’s mainly agricultural (opium growing) economy. There have been no major infrastructural projects. Only one in three Kabul residents has electrictiy.
In March this year at the London Conference a further $10 billion was promised in aid, but as Ahmed Rashid points out this was merely a restatement of promises made in 2002 and not kept. Disatisfaction over the lack of aid has grown as has disgust with those government officials mired in all kinds of corruption. In May this year there were riots in Kabul over these issues.
IS the Taliban winning people over? Local village leaders who may be reluctant to take sides between the Taliban and any troops, do so when the Taliban helps them cultivate opium. Or feel compelled to help the Taliban, with food and shelter because of tribal connections. Or from many accounts, are intimidated into complying with Taliban, fear reprisals, have no means of self-defence. But NATO troops are not going to solve the security problems of the Afghan people. Apart from anything else, they are too few and among the non-US troops there is little agreement about their role.
The Taliban were helped by the inability and unwillingness of the Pakistani government to track them down inside Pakistan. The Taliban made a base in Quetta and the Pakistani government did nothing. In north and south Waziristan, which form part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Territories, the Taliban also made their base. And in other areas which border Afghanistan, in the North West Frontier Province (where the regional government in controlled by Islamists) and Baluchistan the Taliban has also found support.
Under pressure the Pakistani military government, anxious to do enough to keep its alliance with the US intact (and benefit from loans and aid), sent troops into Waziristan after the Taliban. At first the army had the support of local tribal leaders, but this dissipated as local people got caught in the crossfire. The Pakistani state provoked a generalised revolt against itself in the area. Short of carpet bombing the area, the Pakistanis are limited as to what can they do now.
The Taliban, who share a Pashtun ethnic background with people from Waziristan, made important allies. Taliban commanders from the local area emerged. They were considered mujahedeen. And Arab and Central Asian al-Qaida-type militants have also come into the area.
The Taliban have made other allies — such as the brutal Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has been in hiding since being expelled from Iran in 2002, and the Pakistani Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
One of the pressures against the fragmentation could have been the new constitution with its elected President and National Assembly. 6.6 million, 41 percent of them women, voted in the last election but by that time already a lot of disillusionment had set in. And because the constitution left intact many of the old sharia institutions, there was an in built potential for undermining the legitimacy of the new regime.
Will any sort of democracy survive in Afghanistan? Not without a massive programme of humanitarian aid and a strengthening of the democratic and leftist forces in Afghanistan, such as the women’s activists. The left in the west needs to urgently work out ways to make solidarity.