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Stalemate in Afghanistan

After eight years of war, enthusiasm for the mission, never that high to begin with, is dropping off noticeably, and there is a growing consensus among experts that there is little or no hope of permanently defeating the Taliban, writes Mark Jeffries.

“We do not want to talk to anyone - not to Karzai, nor to any foreigners - till the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan. We are certain that we are winning. Why should we talk if we have the upper hand, and the foreign troops are considering withdrawal, and there are differences in the ranks of our enemies?” - Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Afghan Taliban leadership

This statement, made in the wake of General Stanley McChrystal's resignation as head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, reflects a growing confidence on the part of the Taliban as they perceive - rightly or wrongly - disarray in their enemies' ranks.

The perception of a faltering war effort isn't confined to the Taliban; growing numbers in the West are less than confident that the Afghan war is winnable.

A USA Today/Gallup poll indicates "a majority of Americans (58%) favor President Barack Obama's timetable that calls for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011."

In Europe, a Harris Poll for the Financial Times showed majorities "in Britain, France, Italy and Germany believed their governments must not send more forces to Afghanistan if Obama asked them to do so."

In Australia, a recent poll says "61% of respondents thought Australia should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, 24% thought it should keep the same number and 7% thought it should increase numbers. Support for withdrawal of troops has increased by 11% since this question was asked in March last year."

These results aren't surprising. After eight years of war, enthusiasm for the mission, never that high to begin with, is dropping off noticeably. Even in the United States, what support remains is largely contingent on President Obama's stated plans for a drawdown of US forces beginning in the summer of 2011. 

The Afghans themselves are rarely asked what they think, but a poll taken in January 2010 reported that 70%  "felt Afghanistan was heading in the right direction – up significantly by 30% from 40% last year, and the highest figure since 2005” and that "More than two-thirds (68%) support the presence of US forces, and 62% support the presence of British and other foreign troops."

A case could be made from these numbers that the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by General McChrystal last year has shored up support in Afghanistan for the NATO/ISAF presence. 

With the new strategy's emphasis on securing the population rather than on force protection, civilian casualties since 2009 have dropped considerably. This has come at a cost, however, as casualty rates among US and allied troops have risen steadily under McChrystal's leadership, with 102 total killed in June alone.

The trade-off - a willingness to accept more casualties in pursuit of increasing  the security of and support from local populations - is one that was also apparent during General David Petraeus' surge strategy in Iraq in 2006-2007.

It is unfortunately a double-edged sword; as civilian casualties drop and conditions for Afghans improve - which is one of the essential requirements for a successful counterinsurgency campaign - that success coincides with increased dissatisfaction on the home front as more soldiers are shipped home in coffins.

There are other indications that things aren't going according to plan in Afghanistan. An offensive in Marjah, begun in February of this year, has failed to completely secure the area, and fighting there continues.

Still worse, the long-planned and much touted Kandahar offensive has been repeatedly postponed, indicating a disconnect between the confidence expressed by NATO commanders and realities on the ground.

Another issue is the arbitrary timetable for success set by Barack Obama last fall when he outlined his new Afghanistan strategy. While he and his commanders have emphasised that the July 2011 target for beginning a drawdown of US forces is conditions-based, it has given an impression to Afghans on both sides of the conflict that the United States isn't fully committed to defeating the Taliban.

All of these concerns, coupled with the sacking of General McChrystal, and with growing disaffection among Western leaders for the corrupt and incompetent government led by Hamid Karzai, lend some credence to the Taliban's claim that they're winning.

While they're incapable of any sort of decisive victory over US/NATO forces, they don't really need one. If the Taliban can convince enough people, both in Afghanistan and abroad, that victory for the United States and ISAF is impossible, they're well on the way to winning the war of perceptions.

A model for the kind of victory they may envision is the Vietnamese War. North Vietnam never won a major battle against US forces, but ultimately won the war due to a growing disenchantment with the conflict among American citizens.

Alongside these difficulties are the longstanding strategic problems facing the mission in Afghanistan.

There is a growing consensus among experts that there is little or no hope of permanently defeating the Taliban, given the existence of safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and continuing support for the insurgents from elements in the Pakistani government. 

It is also questionable that any real progress is possible as long as Afghanistan is saddled with the increasingly problematic Hamid Karzai, but there is no realistic replacement in sight, nor a means of forcing him out without discarding the supposed commitment to Afghan democracy on the part of the US and its allies.

The "mayor of Kabul", as Karzai is sometimes called, in additon to being prone to periodic rhetorical attacks on his allies in the West, has become ever more committed to a rapprochement with the Taliban as a way to end the war, but they've so far rebuffed his advances.  As Zabiullah Mujahid said, "Why should we talk if we have the upper hand?"

The coming months will be critical for the future of Afghanistan and its people. After eight years of bloodshed, neither side seems able to triumph on the battlefield, but history shows that there are other ways of winning - or losing - a war.

It seems likely that, without any real prospect of victory on the horizon, the will of the United States (and the NATO countries and allies like Australia) for further sacrifices will continue to wane, making an eventual return of the Taliban to power in Kabul seem ever more likely.

Mark Jeffries is a political analysist from Kansas City in the US with a particular interest in the issues surrounding the so-called 'War on Terror'



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