WITHDRAWING BUT NOT CAPITULATING
Ten years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the US and NATO have fallen into a hardly tenable situation because they support an illegitimate government that is discredited
By Jochen Hippler
[This article published 10/7/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.freitag.de/datenbank/freitag/2011/40/abziehen-aber-nicht-kapitulieren/print.
Jochen Hippler is a political scientist. More articles on Afghanistan can be found at www.jochenhippler.de.]
For over 30 years war has raged at Hindukusch – with the participation of the US, Germany and other NATO states in the last decade. In North America and Western Europe, there were widespread expectations that the intervention of October 2001 would lead to the overthrow of the Taliban and to stable, peaceful and democratic conditions. Measured by these expectations, NATO has lost the war. Ten years after the western entrance into war, the land at Hindukusch is neither peaceful nor stable. Claims to democracy are discretely abandoned.
Since the beginning of 2010, the US and NATO have followed a new strategy and the situation has intensified. The report of the UN Secretary General says there were 39 percent more attacks in 2011 than in 2010. There can be no talk of stabilization of the country. Quite the contrary, the rebels have recently shown they can massively attack the government and its foreign allies in the capital Kabul.
That the Hamid Karzai government aggravates the conflict and is not a bearer of hope may be even more important than the deteriorating security situation. The Karzai government is responsible for the election forgeries, torture, corruption and war criminals and warlords at important levers of power. To many Afghans today, the Taliban almost seems the lesser evil. The strategic dilemma of the NATO presence is that it depends on the support of the Afghan executive. Since the Afghan executive is hated and becomes the problem instead of the solution, the western military presence loses its political basis. In other words, NATO supports an illegitimate government and falls into a situation that is hardly stable.
The western alliance cannot defeat the rebels militarily on account of the power relations. NATO has lost the war politically since its political project is discredited. Its superior strategic strength is meaningless. The Taliban only needs to survive to be victorious militarily and to win the war. They demonstrated this ability over against the strongest military power of the world. Under these circumstances, the US and NATO understand they can no longer decide the war. However a withdrawal is not allowed since that would make the defeat obvious. From the perspective of the West, finding a way in which a retreat would not seem like admission of a debacle is vital.
Two options are in the forefront: the “reconciliation” and “reintegration” of the Taliban on one side and a negotiated solution to end the war on the other side. Both ways are hardly promising. In Afghanistan, “reconciliation and reintegration” are terms of public relations that do not mean conciliation with the rebels. With this policy, many of the rebels – particularly simple fighters and middling cadres – are dissuaded from rebellion through material incentives and other ways and won over to the side of the government. This was more a deserter- than a reconciliation program. It may be tactically useful but is not a permanent solution. Some farmers’ sons would gladly be renegade Talibs if this promised material advantages. The Taliban lay8ing down their arms could later rejoin the rebels. Material incentives only have minimal effects as long as the government is discredited and the war in the eyes of the population cannot be won.
CHRONIC LOSS OF POWER
Belated attempts to make peace through negotiations were not very promising. The Taliban and other insurgents assume they will win the war and only need patience to wait for the retreat of foreign troops. Unlike NATO, they can cope with even greater losses. Time works for them. The Taliban will certainly show readiness for dialogue regionally and nationally. But they do not believe concluding a peace treaty is one of the conditions of the government or of the foreign actors.
Conversations and negotiations could facilitate withdrawal of the foreign troops. However sharing power with Hamid Karzai seems hardly attractive to the warriors of God. This was obvious before the murder of chief negotiator and ex-president Rabbani and was clarified once and for all after the attack. The Afghan government can realize advantages through conversations – demonstrating to its population that it is an independent actor and not a marionette of the West. It could increase its possibilities in relation to the NATO countries. However from the government’s view, sharing power with the Taliban accomplished through negotiations would start the process of chronic loss of power with an uncertain outcome that hardly interests anyone.
All in all, the US and its allies have maneuvered into a cul-de-sac from which they can hardly find their way out. When those governing in Kabul were still credible in 2005 and the insurgents were weak, a negotiated solution was refused. Today the presuppositions for a military victory of NATO and for the political weakening of the Taliban do not exist. The presuppositions for a negotiated peace exist.