By Lee Marsden
This week has seen the removal of America's top military commander in Afghanistan General David McKiernan and his replacement by Lt General Stanley McChrystal, a veteran of Special Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Announcing the departure of General McKiernan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that "fresh eyes [were] needed" in Afghanistan. The move reflects growing disquiet about the failings of US/Coalition forces in Afghanistan that has seen a resurgence of the Taliban, a growth in the drugs trade, and growing corruption of Afghan government and officials without a corresponding development in infrastructure or security for much of the country. The corresponding Taliban resurgence in Swat province in Pakistan, fuelled by US missile attacks often resulting in civilian deaths, has turned the Afghan war strategy into an AFPAK strategy that is likely to be just as unsuccessful.
As Obama turns US attention from Iraq, which is now regarded as a success because the civilian death toll has fallen to around 300 per month, towards Afghanistan he faces the danger of repeating his predecessor's mistakes. Unlike Iraq, the Afghanistan war is legal in the sense that it was perceived as a legitimate response to an attack on a sovereign country by forces harboured by the Taliban government. NATO troops are present in the conflict at the behest of the democratically elected Afghan government to prevent its overthrow by a resurgent Taliban. Yet the war in Afghanistan, just like Iraq, is being sold to British and American publics on a false prospectus. We are told that the conflict is essential to prevent Al Qaeda launching terrorist attacks against the West, that Taliban and Al Qaeda are one-in-the-same, in short that Britain and America's national security is tied to winning the battle in Afghanistan. In support of such claims Obama intends to increase US troop levels to 60,000 and is looking to NATO countries, including Britain, to increase its deployment also.
And yet such a strategy is disingenuous, built on a myth which has the potential to become self fulfilling prophecy. The relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda is tenuous at best, a marriage of convenience in adversity as US strategy unites them as 'the other'. In reality the Taliban were reluctant hosts to al Qaeda in the 1990s, regarded the attacks on America as a betrayal of Afghan hospitality, and after 9/11 offered to hand Osama bin Laden to a Muslim country for trial, an offer rejected by the Bush administration which preferred to destroy the Taliban regime in retaliation for the New York and Washington attacks. Today, the threat posed by Al Qaeda is considerably exaggerated. The US intelligence agencies which claimed in 2002 that there were hundreds of Al Qaeda sleepers cells in the United States have failed to find any and have acknowledged that any threat is potential rather than actual. The claim that terrorist groups need a geographical training base to launch operations from, such as could be provided in Afghanistan, is fanciful, terrorist operations can and are planed from anywhere. The capability of al Qaeda and its associates is also considerably overstated, their inability to strike again at America is not due to lack of opportunity but rather capability. Al Qaeda’s attacks on fellow Muslims in Iraq has led to widespread disaffection, demonstrated by the Awakening in Iraq. And yet a few hundred terrorists continue to dominate US/UK thinking. Britain's involvement in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of almost 160 troops, is not based on national security interests but rather a desire to be seen as America's closest ally. Does anyone seriously believe that British troops would remain in Afghanistan one day after US troops withdrew? The Taliban's return is undesirable on humanitarian grounds but let's not pretend that national security depends on winning in Afghanistan.