Claude Salhani MIDDLE EAST TIMES
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Pakistani troops patrol in Mingora, the main town of Pakistan troubled Swat valley, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008. Pakistani helicopter gunships involved in a bitter offensive against militants in a northwestern tribal region struck targets in a neighboring area Sunday. Associated Press.
The key to the solution of the Afghan problem lies in Pakistan; however, as long as Pakistan is dependent on the three A’s – the army, Allah and America – the conflict against the Taliban is unlikely to go away.
“Terrorism has become a lucrative industry for Pakistan,” a senior Afghan official told this reporter.
“It has been seven years since the United States launched the war in Afghanistan to hunt down the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda,” an Afghan diplomat told the Middle East Times.
Given the resources available to the United States in modern technology, firepower, manpower and financial power, greater strides should have been accomplished by now, he said. Instead, the situation is regressing, with the Taliban making major inroads and regaining influence.
How did the United States get to this point? Much as in Iraq, the initial phase of the war went smoothly. The U.S. military, with assistance from anti-Taliban Afghan forces, drove the Taliban from power and routed al Qaeda from their safe havens. But soon after, things started going wrong.
Several major mistakes were committed along the way. First, was the launch of the Iraq war, which numerous observers, military officers and officials, as well as Afghan officials, now say was an unnecessary and disastrous distraction from getting the job done in Afghanistan.
“Unfortunately, the Americans allowed themselves to be side-tracked by Iraq,” said an Afghan official.
The Taliban, recognized by only two countries in the world and which gave refuge to bin Laden and his followers, was chased out of power by U.S. forces after the horrendous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “But, regrettably, the job was not terminated,” said the diplomat.
Among the errors committed was leaving an escape route open to both the Taliban and al Qaeda to Pakistan, where many members of both organizations found refuge.
The key to solving the Afghan problem now lies beyond the borders of that war-torn country in neighboring Pakistan. Several U.S., European and Afghan experts are adamant on that point.
Francesc Vendrell, the European Union’s special representative in Afghanistan, told a conference in Geneva last month, attended by some 380 security and conflict-resolution specialists, that “the situation in Afghanistan today is getting worse than it has ever been.”
“The Taliban have been able to mount attacks,” Mr. Vendrell said, warning against any urge Western countries might have to pull their troops out. “We must definitely not think about moving out of Afghanistan. This is not the time to leave.
“We need to stay as long as the Afghan public, through their elected officials, want us to stay,” he said.
Summing up what went wrong for the coalition and warning against a premature withdrawal of coalition troops, Mr. Vendrell placed part of the blame on the coalition for trusting former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
“It was one of the coalition’s greatest errors,” Mr. Vendrell said.
Indeed, there were numerous errors.
The first great mistake was the international community’s delay in convening the Bonn conference, which grouped representatives from Afghanistan’s major tribes and factions. By the time the Bonn meeting took place, “we were faced with a fait accompli,” Mr. Vendrell said.
The second mistake was the decision by the United Nations “to go for a light footprint in Afghanistan,” he said.
The United Nations took a low profile. For example, there was no attempt to reform the police. There was no international force deployed to remove weapons, which were in abundance.
The third mistake was the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which distracted from the main objective.
The fourth mistake was to limit the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
And the fifth mistake, immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the United States failed to take advantage of the sympathy shown to the United States.
“After September 11, Canadians and Europeans were ready and willing to send forces into Afghanistan,” Mr. Vendrell said. “By the time the decision was made, it was too late.”
A Russian military officer said that until the recent war in the Caucasus, when Russian troops fought a brief though fierce war with Georgia, Moscow would have been willing to assist the United States in the war effort in Afghanistan.
“But the Americans never asked for help,” said the Russian officer. “We have gained valuable experience in fighting in Afghanistan … And now the resurgence of the Taliban poses a threat for Russia even more than for America, given our proximity.”
“We should not have taken Musharraf at his word,” Mr. Vendrell said. “The result is that we’ve just now realized that we cannot solve the Afghan problem without solving the problem in Pakistan.”
But for that to happen, there is an urgent need of a comprehensive policy for the region. “We didn’t have one then, we don’t have one now,” Mr. Vendrell said.
Indeed, one of the multitude of problems the next U.S. administration is going to inherit is what to do with Afghanistan. The United States has pumped more than $10 billion to Pakistan, much of it to combat terrorism.
But so long as the Pakistan army continues to see substantial profits to be made from American financial aid, the terrorism industry – because that is exactly what it has become – will remain impossible to eradicate.
• Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.