Sunday, August 3, 2008

AFGHANISTAN: THE MYTH OF THE GOOD WAR

Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus - A recent poll of Afghan sentiment found that, while the majority dislikes the Taliban, 74% want negotiations and 54% would support a coalition government that included the Taliban. This poll reflects a deeply divided country where most people are sitting on the fence and waiting for the final outcome of the war. Forty percent think the current government of Hamid Karzai, allied with the United States and NATO, will prevail, 19% say the Taliban, and 40% say it is 'too early to say.'

There is also strong ambivalence about the presence of foreign troops. Only 14% want them out now, but 52% want them out within three to five years. In short, the Afghans don't want a war to the finish.

They also have a far more nuanced view of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While the majority oppose both groups - 13% support the Taliban and 19% al-Qaeda - only 29% see the former organization as 'a united political force.'

But that view doesn't fit the West's story line of the enemy as a tightly disciplined band of fanatics. In fact, the Taliban appears to be evolving from a creation of the U.S., Saudi Arabian, and Pakistani intelligence agencies during Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union, to a polyglot collection of dedicated Islamists to nationalists. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar told the Agence France Presse early this year, 'We're fighting to free our country. We are not a threat to the world.'

Those are words that should give Obama, the New York Times, and NATO pause.

The initial invasion in 2001 was easy because the Taliban had alienated itself from the vast majority of Afghans. But the weight of occupation, and the rising number of civilian deaths, is shifting the resistance toward a war of national liberation. No foreign power has ever won that battle in Afghanistan.

As the United States steps up its air war, civilian casualties have climbed steadily over the past two years. Nearly 700 were killed in the first three months of 2008, a major increase over last year. In a recent incident, 47 members of a wedding party were killed in Helmand Province. In a society where clan, tribe, and blood feuds are a part of daily life, that single act sowed a generation of enmity.

Anatol Lieven, a professor of war at King's College London, says that a major impetus behind the growing resistance is anger over the death of family members and neighbors.

Lieven says it is as if Afghanistan is 'becoming a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the U.S. and NATO breed the very terrorists they then track down.'

Once a population turns against an occupation (or just decides to stay neutral), there are few places in the world where an occupier can win. Afghanistan, with its enormous size and daunting geography, is certainly not one of them.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, some voices, including those of the Karzai government and both U.S. presidential candidates, advocate expanding the war into Pakistan in a repeat of the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, when the Vietnam War began spinning out of control. Both those invasions were not only a disaster for the invaders. They also led directly to the genocide in Cambodia.

By any measure, a military 'victory' in Afghanistan is simply not possible. The only viable alternative is to begin direct negotiations with the Taliban, and to draw in regional powers with a stake in the outcome: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, and India.

But to do so will require abandoning our 'story' about the Afghan conflict as a 'good war.' In this new millennium, there are no good wars.

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