How the West made a hash of the Afghan war: Brian Stewart

With Canada (gone), NATO (packing up) and maybe even the U.S. pulling out almost entirely later this year, Afghanistan's future looks pretty bleak. But then so was the last almost 13 years, Brian Stewart writes.

With Canada, NATO and maybe even the U.S. pulling out, what next for Afghanistan?

A woman begs for change on Kabul's Yakpesagi (One Penny) Bridge on Monday, March 10, 2014. The accelerating withdrawal of NATO and Canadian military forces has led to business uncertainty and fears of a post-war economic collapse. (Murray Brewster / Canadian Press)

The almost 13-year war in Afghanistan was always full of contradictions and heartbreak, so the quickening withdrawal of Western troops will inevitably only add to the pile.

How to square NATO's "mission accomplished" views of this conflict, as expressed by some leaders, with Afghan ones?

One clue: sales of anxiety and depression pills have soared dramatically in many parts of Afghanistan, according to the Kabul-based International Crisis Group, as people there fear a Taliban surge now that countries like Canada (gone), Britain (packing up) and possibly even the U.S. will have moved out by the end of the year, with only a relatively small number of trainers left behind.

"Worries about the year ahead are kind of pathological here" writes Graeme Smith of the ICG. The highly regarded former Globe and Mail correspondent has spent years travelling the country and says that in the seven provinces he visited over the past year he "saw no signs of the war cooling down."

Just two months ago, a report compiled by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies predicted the gains made by the U.S. and NATO allies will likely be eroded over the next three years as insurgents and warlords seize large areas of the country from an increasingly "irrelevant" central government in Kabul.

Military commanders immediately dismissed the conclusions as too bleak, but their relentless over-optimism in the past damages their credibility.

Add in that battered Afghanistan is now heading into months of a likely tortuous national election, while its often volatile president, Hamid Karzai, though not running again, has been unable to reach agreements with either enemies or allies.

Cpl. Harry Smiley (L) and Cpl . Gavin Early take down the Canadian flag for the last time in Afghanistan on Wednesday March 12, 2014, bringing an end to 12 years of military involvement that cost the lives of 158 soldiers. (Murray Brewster / Canadian Press)

Secret peace talks with the Taliban insurgents look to have stalled, so have talks with the U.S. over a future American training and security role after the end of this year.

At this point, Karzai sounds like he sees the whole war as a vast mistake.

"The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure," he said late last year.

He has since referred to the Taliban as "brothers" and the U.S. as "rivals."

Too many different plans

No wonder so many Afghans are reaching for the anxiety pills.

So might be some of its neighbours — especially Pakistan and India, and certainly Iran — who question whether an Afghanistan on its own, without Western military help, will be an even more dangerous source of regional instability.

For NATO, the war has proved massively costly by any count — somewhere over $900 billion US, with over 3,300 coalition troops (mostly American) killed.

What's more, its credibility, not to say harmony, was badly shaken by disagreements over the war's direction.

The original aim to crush al-Qaeda there and drive out its Taliban host government was quickly achieved.

But al-Qaeda has since metastasized into Mali, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, while the exiled Taliban forged tough guerrilla forces that now threaten both the Afghanistan and Pakistan regimes.

From beginning to end the NATO-led international force struggled with its own internal contradictions.

"The Europeans were focused on reconstruction. The Americans had focused on getting people out of power," says Kamel Alam, of the London-based Institute for Statecraft, and former adviser to the British military.

During most the years under George W. Bush, the U.S. had little faith that Afghanistan reconstruction could work without peace, and only reluctantly joined the effort to appease its European partners.

Once involved, the Americans, like others, ran totally separate operations, creating small pockets of uplift amid a landscape of crushing need.

No one was blameless. The very lack of direction and control over $40 billion in aid money helped fuel the massive corruption, involving friends of the Karzai regime and some questionable private contractors, that just led to future problems.

A tough road ahead

The real concern, of course, is what happens now.

On the civil front, NATO backed some famous successes. An infant democracy was established; women, in many cities, were liberated from Taliban tyranny and gained important footholds in education, politics, and government (a district of Kabul now has a woman police chief, a first in the country).

Also, six million children are being educated, almost half of them girls; and a free media flourishes.

But given all the effort, Afghanistan is still a cause for alarm, something aid groups have been saying for years.

A third of the population is still illiterate, and most children are yet unschooled. An estimated 42 per cent of Afghans live in abject poverty on less than $1 a day while aid agencies report nearly 60 per cent are chronically malnourished.

In much of the countryside, women are still oppressed with human rights observers saying that forced marriages and domestic violence remains rampant.

Power broker? Qayyum Karzai, the elder brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, was running to replace his brother, but unexpectedly withdrew from the April vote last week to back the country's former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul. (Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press)

As for governance, Afghanistan is still commonly listed as one of the three most corrupt countries in the world, alongside Somalia and North Korea. It still exports three-quarters of the world's opium.

An absolutely critical test now is whether the NATO-trained Afghan National Army of roughly 200,000, backed by 160,000 police, can stand on its own in the future, without even U.S. air support.

For months now, its army has led all operations, and many units reportedly fought bravely and well.

But the battles ahead may well become increasingly desperate, and the army's desertion and casualty rates remain appallingly high.

The army's immediate task will be to defend the April elections and the months of runoffs and coalition building that will follow, a process the Taliban has vowed to sabotage.

The widespread hope is that a credible new authority in Kabul will be able to reach an agreement with Pakistan to deal jointly the Taliban in ways that will eventually persuade them to make peace. That's been the obvious solution for years.

Facing down the Taliban, however, as NATO learned to its cost and heartbreak, always proves more difficult than it first appears.

About the Author

Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

One of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents, Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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