A World to Win News Service.
The debate over the need for a new strategy in Afghanistan has reached a fever pitch among imperialist circles. There is rarely a news item about that country that does not at least state the need for a new approach. The occupiers’ think tanks and Afghanistan experts are busy discussing and debating the necessary elements. Barack Obama’s inauguration as U.S. president may provide the occasion for the rollout of a new plan, or at least steps touted as such.
It is now very widely recognized that the approach the U.S. has been using so far has failed. While the U.S., which is leading the imperialists occupying Afghanistan, finds it difficult to openly admit this failure, that judgement is implicit in American officials’ demands that other Nato countries match the U.S. in greatly increasing the number of foreign troops. (See AWTWNS, 2 November 2008)
The U.S., Canada, the British and other imperialists fighting in the war zones tried hard for a long time to pressure other Nato countries to fight alongside them. There has been an alarmist tone to reports from imperialist circles, including military and parliamentary spokespeople and certain humanitarian agencies, highlighting the deteriorating situation, the resurgence of the Taleban and the real possibility that, as they like to put it, "Afghanistan could become a failed state." Most of their reports recommend that other Nato countries take part in the fighting and that they all send more troops, warning that otherwise the result could be complete failure.
This issue was the main theme at the April Nato leadership conference in Bucharest, which resulted in significant increases in combat troops. However later it became clear that the need for a change in approach was at least as important. Although not publicized at the time, it seems that the Bucharest conference also focused on the "lack of strategic coherence" and of a unified command and coordination between the occupation powers. "Today the lack of strategic coherence within the international community effort is reflected in separate civilian special representatives of the United Nations, of the European Union and of Nato, with no clear authority one over the other; and in a reluctance on the part of the United States and other major country contributors to be coordinated by any one of them," as an International Crisis Group leader told the U.S. Congress on the eve of the conference (Mark L. Schneider, ICG.org, 2 April 2008)
While the U.S. did achieve some of its aims at Bucharest, getting pledges for more "boots on the ground", this and another major subsequent meeting in Paris failed to settle the larger qualitative strategic differences, and therefore not even the quantitative dispute about the combat troops. As recent as 1 October, Lieutenant General David McKiernan, American commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, once again complained that "restrictions on the combat roles of some international forces degrade the coalition’s efforts. ‘Some come to conduct war; some come to summer camp, quite frankly.’" (Washington Post, 2 October 2008). This reluctance on the part of European powers is a sign of something deeper – it is an expression of doubt about the current strategy.
Lieutenant General Sir Peter Wall, responsible for overseeing British military operations, said, "the notion that to ‘flood’ Afghanistan with a ‘whole load’ more troops was the solution was misleading." He argued for a different policy: "The Afghans had to deliver better governance and build up their own armed forces, he said. There was no point in investing more money and men in the country unless security and economic and social projects were seen to be ‘inspired by the Afghans themselves’, he added." (Guardian, 29 October 2008)
Most strikingly, a senior British commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told the London Times that "he believes the Taleban will never be defeated. A military victory over the Taleban was ‘neither feasible nor supportable…. What we need is sufficient troops to contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected government.’" (6 October 2008) That newspaper added that Carleton-Smith "indicated that the only way forward was to find a political solution that would include the Taleban."
The British brigadier’s comment came after the leak of a coded French diplomatic cable. According to the French weekly Le Canard Enchainé, the deputy French ambassador in Kabul reported that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador, had told him the strategy for Afghanistan was "doomed to failure". The French diplomat wrote that Sir Sherard complained that Britain had no alternative but to support the US, "but we should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one. The American strategy is doomed to fail." The leaking of this cable seems to indicate that the French government is in general agreement with the British on this.
In fact these differences have been in the background for a long time, and are now being intensified by the deteriorating situation for the occupation.
As this news service pointed out earlier, "British military commanders have accused the U.S. of ‘heavy-handed tactics’, including excessive aerial bombing – which regularly leads to civilian casualties. When the British suggested a plan to support local militia and civil defence forces in the south, American military commanders rejected it. U.S. general Dan McNeill, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said that the plan could fuel the insurgency. These differences seem to run deep and to be related to even more basic issues, although they are still somewhat obscure. " (AWTWNS, 21 April 2008)
This criticism is not limited to the British. As the other powers see the situation go from bad to worse, and as the U.S. presses them to send more combat troops into the breach, they, too, seem to be finding the courage to raise their voices against the strategy imposed by the U.S.
On leaving office, the EU special envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell told BBC TV’s HARDtalk programme, "The West has no coherent strategy for victory in Afghanistan." Arguing that while many people in Afghanistan had once considered the occupation "a necessary evil", even this kind of support has been lost. "I leave with a sense of regret that we have made so many mistakes, " he said, but immediately made clear that this was the polite use of "we", since he really meant that the U.S. was responsible. The "U.S. continues to make fundamental mistakes [by] sending more troops, killing civilians…"
Although German politicians have carefully avoided public discussion of this issue, the country’s daily papers, especially at the time the Bundestag (parliament) was debating an increase in German forces in Afghanistan, repeatedly questioned the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan. For example the Frankfurter Rundschau wrote: "If the international community, and the U.S. in particular, do not change their Afghanistan strategy, the chaos there will be deepened." The Seuddeutsche Zeiteung said, "The security situation is becoming more disastrous, non-military aid for reconstruction is not working, and as a result morale in general is deteriorating. The question is: what is the solution? No one wants to hear about Nato’s defeat, because that means a declaration of defeat by the most powerful countries in the world."
The U.S., for its part, seem to be insisting on its strategy of increasing forces and will send 8,000 more troops in early 2009. These troops are to help protect Kabul, not to conduct an offensive. General McKiernan has demanded another three battalions, about 15-20,000 more troops, and in late December U.S. armed forces chief of staff Mike Mullen indicated the total number of new forces could reach 30,000. President-elect Barack Obbama has declared that he will redouble Washington’s efforts to win the war in Afghanistan. (International Herald Tribune, 24 December)
The U.S. is also continuing to press its allies to send more forces to Afghanistan and especially the war zones. General David Patraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, famous for his "surge" strategy there, has now been put in charge of the whole region. He is expected to pay close attention to strategic issues in Afghanistan. His appointment has raised even more suspicion that Afghanistan, too, may soon see a "surge" in occupation forces. Incoming U.S. president Barack Obama has long argued that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is the strategic centre of U.S. interests in the region and should get some of the troops now fighting in Iraq. As said earlier, the European powers blame the U.S. for most of what’s gone wrong for the occupation. They would have a hard time going along with a quantitative increase and want to see the U.S. accept a strategic shift.
In short, the U.S. is under pressure from its allies and even to some extent from its own political experts and generals to face up to reality. There are signs that the U.S. ruling circles might yield to a new strategy that would at least claim to be different than their unsuccessful efforts so far. Imperialist academics, military planners (including a large staff working under Patraeus) and others are reportedly working night and day to have a plan ready by the time the new president is inaugurated on 20 January. That strategy – some of whose elements are already visible – and how it might work out will be the subject of a future article.