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AFP
August 9, 2011
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US drawdown and a hollow victory

World

AFP
August 9, 2011

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Nothing seems to be working in Afghanistan, an unfortunate but fascinating country ravaged by 33 years of conflict, military interventions by two superpowers, civil war, militancy and an unending struggle for power between armed groups backed by foreign powers.
One disaster follows another and that too at a crucial time when the security transition from the Nato to the Afghan forces has been put into practice. The rising incidents of violence have surely raised question marks over the soundness of this policy as the foreign troops prepare to begin their long journey home.
It is not that the almost 150, 000 Nato soldiers are going to leave in weeks or months. The drawdown would take three and a half years from now as the Nato mission is scheduled to end in 2014. An air of uncertainty persists regarding the post-2014 period because the US officials have been repeatedly reminding themselves and reassuring the alarmed Afghan government that America won’t abandon Afghanistan again and repeat the mistake of turning attention away from the country when the defeated Soviet Red Army pulled out in February 1989 and the subsequent Afghan mujahideen infighting paved the way for the Taliban takeover.
The worry, apparently overstated, that the Taliban could again host Al-Qaeda and other militant groups in case they return to power or control parts of Afghanistan is foremost in the minds of the Americans and their allies and is a stumbling block in trusting the militant group and entering into serious peace and power-sharing negotiations with it.
The American promise of not abandoning Afghanistan could translate into permanent US military bases in the country as part of a strategic partnership agreement that is presently being negotiated by Kabul and Washington. Permanent US military bases would mean permanent fighting in Afghanistan and instability in its neighbourhood, particularly in Pakistan.
The beginning of the transition from the Nato to the Afghan

security forces should have been a time of stability and hope as it was supposed to signal some sort of accomplishment. Instead, the occasion is stirring up uncertainty and causing fears of greater instability. The departing western forces haven’t accomplished much in terms of defeating the Taliban and the smaller groups such as the Hezb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar), training and equipping the Afghan security forces to operate independently and effectively, preparing the ground for a political settlement with the armed opposition or generally stabilising Afghanistan.
The security transition is primarily a political statement rather than a viable military option and the announcement of the phased withdrawal of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan is timed to coincide with presidential election dates in the US and largely meant to reassure a sceptical public that each and every western country is opposed to the continued deployment of their soldiers in Afghanistan. Rather reluctantly, President Barack Obama did triple the number of the US troops in Afghanistan in the hope of defeating the Taliban, but the setbacks have been so frequent that he now seems to be in a hurry to ensure a safe exit for the American soldiers, claim victory even if it is hollow and devote more time to the faltering economy while seeking re-election.
The percentage of those opposed to the Afghan war in Nato member countries would certainly rise following certain recent events. These include the increase in the number of casualties suffered by the Nato forces, the assassination of several top Afghan government functionaries and close allies of President Hamid Karzai. And the revelations regarding the corruption by the ruling elite in Afghanistan and the payments made by US and Afghan contractors to the Taliban and others to ensure safe passage for convoys carrying supplies for Nato troops.
The most demoralising incident for the Americans and their allies must be the death of 30 US soldiers, including 17 or according to some reports 22 elite Navy Seals, along with seven Afghan commandoes and a translator due to the shooting down of their Chinook helicopter by Taliban fighters in Saidabad district in the central Wardak province.
This was the deadliest incident for the American and foreign troops in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the US forces, struggling to contain the Taliban resistance and at the same time beginning the drawdown from the killing fields of Afghanistan. And it happened at a time when the US officials ranging from Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to the new CIA chief and former military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, were claiming that the Taliban momentum had been reversed due to the gains by the Nato forces in the battlefield.
Apart from the timing, the place of occurrence and the use of the Russian-made Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG-7) launcher to such deadly effect are important. The helicopter was shot down in Wardak, known as the western gateway to the Afghan capital. For the Taliban to operate so close to Kabul and stand up to the might of the Nato and Afghan forces is significant and it says something about their staying power and cannot happen without a degree of public support.
The US has helped raise village militias in Wardak to fight the Taliban and reconstruction and development projects have been initiated in the province to win hearts and minds. But it isn’t enough as reports indicate that the Taliban maintain a regular presence in Saidabad, Sheikhabad and other districts of Wardak and also use the province as staging post to infiltrate Kabul. Besides, former mujahideen leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami used to have pockets of support in the Wardak province in the past and it could still have some residual influence despite the weakening of the party due to splits in its ranks.
The use of the RPG-7, which is about the most lethal weapon that the Taliban possess apart from the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the human suicide bomber, to shoot down helicopters has been claimed and reported in the past as well. Afghan mujahideen used to make such claims and swear by its efficacy. It is an anti-tank, shoulder-launched rocket, but the mujahideen and now Taliban have used it to attack helicopters at the time of take-off and landing.
The Taliban had used the RPG-7 launcher to down another Chinook helicopter in 2005 in the eastern Kunar province killing 16 US soldiers, mostly Navy Seals who as in the recent case in Wardak province were sent on a rescue mission to save the lives of trapped troops. Guerrilla fighters like Taliban improvise and make use of weapons in unimaginable ways. There is no evidence yet that any surface-to-air missile was used to shoot down the military helicopter in Wardak on August 6. If this indeed was the case, it should be a bigger worry for Nato that the Taliban have finally gained possession of anti-aircraft missiles.
It is intriguing why so many US Special Forces, in particular the Navy Seals, were flown in one helicopter on the mission that apparently involved getting Taliban fighters gathered there. It was a night-time raid, now increasingly undertaken by the US Special Forces despite the displeasure of President Karzai and most Afghans because civilians especially women and children are invariably killed in such attacks.
The Taliban admit that eight of their fighters were also killed in this particular attack before they shot down the US helicopter. If it wasn’t a high-value Taliban target, one is surprised why so many lives of elite US soldiers were put at risk by their military commanders to take out low-ranked Taliban commanders and foot-soldiers. Most Navy Seals killed in the incident came from Team Six, which carried out the May 2 Abbottabad attack that eliminated Osama bin Laden. Though the US officials are insisting that the dead troops weren’t part of the team that killed Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and its likeminded groups would look at it in different ways and consider it revenge for the death of their leader.
More importantly, the incident could force the US government to review its Afghan war effort and lower its expectation. Making statements like staying the course in Afghanistan is politically correct, but realism demands that the focus is shifted to talking to the Taliban and finding a political solution instead of pursuing illusionary military goals.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim [email protected]

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