Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Our Failure in Afghanistan: Western Leaders Have Not Been Realistic about What "Winning" Means. on the Ground, It's Clear That Any Progress Will Be Slow and Very Fragile

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Our Failure in Afghanistan: Western Leaders Have Not Been Realistic about What "Winning" Means. on the Ground, It's Clear That Any Progress Will Be Slow and Very Fragile

Article excerpt

Ismael is drinking tea in the dusty yard of the police station in Kajaki. The job has its advantages--such as meals of bread and rice twice a day--but the pay of $60 a month barely covers the price of his cigarettes. Nor has he been home for months--though his family lives only a few miles away. Kajaki is guarded by Royal Marines, but is surrounded by insurgents. "I will be disappointed if the British are beaten and leave," he says with some understatement. "The Taliban will kill me."

Spring will be crucial for him, as it will be for Afghanistan, for the 30-odd states engaged in rebuilding the country and, of course, for the region as a whole. Last year's fierce violence gave Nato countries a very nasty shock. The next few months will show if their hastily formulated plans to make up for the ground lost since the invasion of 2001 will work--or whether the violence will continue or worsen.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Few expect the 35,000 Nato troops--newly reinforced with American and British soldiers--to be defeated in the coming months; nor is President Hamid Karzai's government likely to collapse. But the fact that the Taliban are far from beaten is widely acknowledged. The outgoing head of the Nato forces, General David Richards, says the threat from the insurgents in Afghanistan has been "contained". Like Tony Blair, he insists that the war in Afghanistan is "winnable". Is it?

First, blame where blame is due. We are fighting a war that did not need to be fought. Travelling around the south and east of Afghanistan in 2002, I found much support for the western troops who, locals believed, had come to help them. Even in late 2003, in the small village south of Kandahar, where the Taliban had been founded nine years earlier, people had yet to turn against the coalition. But the west left the south of Afghanistan to rot. In 2004, three years after being invaded by an alliance of the richest countries on earth, there were malnourished children in Kandahar hospital. Apart from being a moral disgrace, the failure to keep, not win, the famous "hearts and minds" that are now so talked about, was criminally negligent.

But, despite all the mistakes, I am still optimistic. First, much of the country away from the south remains stable, relatively secure and shows considerable evidence of, albeit patchy, economic progress. This is a testament to the resilience and initiative of the Afghans.

Second, while the constant reliance on airpower remains a major problem--partly because of civilian casualties and partly because if the insurgents get hold of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles the whole operation will fall apart--at least the nature of the enemy has finally been recognised by the British army and many of its allies. …

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