No hope to win in Afghanistan 

The main purpose of British generals, it sometimes seems, is to say aloud the things that American generals (and British diplomats) think privately but dare not say in public. Such as: "We're not going to win this war."

That was what Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, senior British commander in Afghanistan, said last week at the end of his six-month tour. His force saw a great deal of combat and lost 32 killed, but it didn't lose any battles. Regular troops rarely lose battles against guerillas. But there were no lasting successes either also typical of wars where foreign troops fight local guerillas.

Carleton-Smith did not say foreign forces in Afghanistan will lose the war. He said they could not deliver a "decisive military victory." The best they might do, over a period of years, would be to reduce the Taliban insurgency "to a manageable level ... that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army."

This will not be news to any professional soldier who knows the conditions in Afghanistan. The question is whether it comes as a surprise to American and British politicians who still promise "victory" in the Afghan war.

"If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement," Carleton-Smith continued, "then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn't make people uncomfortable." In truth, the foreign forces are backing one side in an Afghan civil war. If it cannot end in a decisive victory for one side or the other, it must end in a negotiated peace acceptable to both sides.

The reason neither side can win is that they are too evenly balanced, and each can hold its own territory indefinitely. The United States allied itself with the main northern ethnic groups, who account for about 60 percent of the population, to drive the Taliban from power in 2001. But the Taliban still are the major political vehicle for the Pashtuns, about 40 percent of the population.

The Pashtuns were traditionally the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, but in 2001 they were effectively driven from power. That is why they are in revolt: Western troops are fighting "the Taliban" in areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan where Pashtuns are in the majority, and nowhere else. In practice, the foreigners are fighting Pashtun nationalism. That is why they cannot win.

For the same reason, the Taliban cannot win a decisive victory either. They never established control over northern Afghanistan even when they ruled in Kabul (1996-2001). Most non-Pashtuns under their rule were alienated by their intolerance and brutality, and would not welcome them back in sole power.

But a negotiated peace deal must give the Pashtuns a fair share of power, which means giving the Taliban a share of the power. This is still seen as unthinkable in most Western capitals, but it is a thoroughly traditional Afghan way of ending the periodic ethnic bust-ups that have always plagued the country, and it will happen sooner or later.

Does this mean that Afghanistan will re-emerge as a base for international terrorism? Unlikely, since it would not be to the advantage of any Afghan government, even one that included Taliban elements, to attract that kind of international opprobrium. Besides, international terrorists don't need "bases" to prepare attacks; a few rooms will do.

In a recently leaked cable, the deputy French ambassador, Franois Fitou, reported that British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles told him the strategy for Afghanistan was "doomed to failure." In Sir Sherard's view, "the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption and the Government has lost all trust." The usual denials followed, but that is what British officials there say in private.

So it would make sense to announce a deadline for pulling out foreign troops and start negotiating a final peace settlement in Afghanistan now. Waiting is unlikely to produce a better deal. Which is probably why President Hamid Karzai said last week that he had asked the king of Saudi Arabia to mediate in negotiations with the Taliban.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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