Back in April, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, dodged a bullet. A fusillade of them, actually, plus a few rocket-propelled grenades, when a ceremony he was addressing came under Taliban attack in the heart of Kabul. Nato spin-doctors immediately dismissed the incident as a case of the Taliban getting lucky. Such increased reliance on terror attacks, they insisted, were signs that the Taliban had grown desperate, having been forced onto the back foot by effective Western counterinsurgency.
Similar sentiments were expressed last week – a week in which Britain’s casualty toll for its Afghan mission passed 100 – after Taliban fighters attacked Kandahar prison and freed 400 of their comrades, and began to take control of a string of villages around the southern city that had once been their spiritual capital.
No amount of wishful thinking can hide the reality, however, that six and a half years after the US-led military intervention that scattered the Taliban, the presence of some 50,000 Nato troops has not prevented the movement from regrouping and mounting a resurgence that has sabotaged plans to rebuild the country on Western-friendly terms.
There may have been a symbolic irony in the April assassination attempt on Karzai: it occurred during a speech to celebrate the 16th anniversary of the fall of Najibullah, the leader of the last Soviet client regime in Kabul, who was butchered when the Taliban arrived.
Karzai’s situation is not unlike that of Najibullah’s; he, too, has led a supposedly modernising regime but one riddled with corruption. Like Najibullah, his authority does not extend much beyond the capital, earning him the nickname of “Mayor of Kabul”. And like Najibullah, he is dependent for survival on the presence of a large foreign army – a toxic liability in a country with a visceral resentment of foreign armies.
There are important differences between them, of course: Najibullah never won an election; Karzai may have proven himself more adept at assembling an uneasy coalition of warlords; and the Karzai government enjoys far wider domestic and international support. Still, none of those factors may be enough to ensure his regime a fate substantially different from Najibullah’s.
The Taliban, in fact, is banking on the fundamental weaknesses of the Karzai regime and the security arrangements that keep it in place. As Henry Kissinger famously noted as the Vietnam war drew to a close, “the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win”. And there’s no indication for the foreseeable future of the Taliban losing or the Nato forces winning. The Taliban needn’t try to hold territory; it simply needs to consistently demonstrate the inability of the Nato and government forces to control most of the country, always aware of the finite appetite of foreign armies for costly and futile expeditionary ventures. The Taliban knows this.
In the Western mindset, Afghanistan remains the “good war” in contrast to Iraq. Sending reinforcements to Afghanistan has become the standard gesture of consolation to Washington by US allies pulling troops out of Iraq (Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia) or those like France and Germany that refused to go at all. But the fact that two thirds of the Nato force in Afghanistan is American, and the bulk of the remainder of the responsibilities are shared by Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, testifies to the squeamishness of European polities about overseas military commitments. And the sense throughout the West that the Nato mission in Afghanistan is simply treading water in increasingly treacherous conditions won’t help muster more troops.
The conventional Western explanation for Nato’s struggles in Afghanistan are two-fold: not enough troops, and Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban. These explanations miss the long history of the Afghans confounding far more committed colonial missions – the British and the Soviets. Sure Nato has not sent enough troops, but the Soviets failed with twice as many.
Pakistan’s enduring support for the Taliban is simply part of its traditional statecraft: Islamabad views Afghanistan as an important strategic support in its confrontation with India. It is for that reason that Pakistan helped nurture the Taliban and install it in power in 1996, and the fact that Karzai came to power on the back of the Northern Alliance – allies of India, Iran and Russia – made continued Pakistani support for reinstating the Taliban almost inevitable.
Karzai is presiding over a state riddled with corruption and patronage, to the extent that Western governments question the extent of progress achieved by the more than $16 billion in aid that has flowed into the country. Opium cultivation today accounts for more than half of GDP, according to UN figures. And it is a state unable to defend itself, despite having 140,000 men under arms. The US Government Accountability Office recently concluded that only two Afghan units can really be counted as combat ready.
The Taliban swept to power in 1996 because most local warlords chose to make common cause with the movement rather than resist when it appeared to have the momentum; many of the same warlords had a similar reaction to the US-led drive to force out the Taliban. Many of those the government currently counts in its corner will make their calculations according to their perception of the prevailing winds. By that measure, the most telling sign of the times may be the revelation that Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan and a key leader of the Northern Alliance that helped bring Karzai to power, has begun holding talks with the Taliban. He’s unlikely to be the last to do so.