Mon, Oct 10, 2011 - Page 9 News List

A decade later and time for peace is running out

The headlines of the last decade in Afghanistan have been about the bloodshed, but behind them lies a political failure at every level

By Declan Walsh  /  The Guardian, ISLAMABAD

“Attack the course,” joked the scorecard.

The joke was not seen as bad taste. The Taliban insurgency was distant, largely confined to the southern provinces, more nuisance than serious threat. A Swiss Red Cross worker had been killed in Kandahar in March 2003, but Western military officials started to speak of the Taliban as a declining force. At Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, US soldiers took pedicures and massages in a beauty parlor.

“You can’t fight if you have sore muscles,” one young officer told me.

Yet this brave democracy had perilously fragile foundations. The US invasion had toppled the Taliban but, many Afghans complained, left behind the force they hated equally: the warlords who had plundered the country for decades. Instead of being banished, many of the old faces came back. Some stood for election, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, the US-allied warlord accused of suffocating up to 2,000 Taliban fighters in shipping containers. In 2005, Karzai made him chief of staff to the military.

The president protested he had little choice but to accommodate such bullies — the US wanted nation building on the cheap. He had a point. The administration of former US president George W. Bush, preoccupied with the war in Iraq, had only 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan at the time of the 2004 election. Commanders, intelligence assets, military equipment — all were being re-routed to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban leadership were plotting a comeback. There was clearly no place in a political process — US leaders bundled them in the same basket as al-Qaeda fugitives, which was a mistake. Then, in 2005, they made a dramatic reappearance. Violent incidents soared to more than 4,000, from 1,500 the year before. Coalition deaths doubled from 60 to 131.

By 2006, the US contingent had increased to 20,000 soldiers. Pakistan denied the insurgents were using its territory, but NATO officers spoke of the “Quetta Shura” — the Taliban ruling council headquartered in western Pakistan. More worrying proof was available. In 2006, I attended a funeral north of Quetta for a fallen Taliban fighter; the homily was read by a mullah who was also the provincial minister of health.

It was a perfect storm for the British deployment to Helmand. Few took seriously the statement by the then-British defense secretary John Reid in mid-2006 that “not a single shot” might be fired. Although, British officers did promise to do things differently from the US. Criss-crossing the desert in nimble — but hugely exposed — open-top jeeps, officers said there would be no kicking down people’s doors. They talked confidently about the lessons of Northern Ireland; young soldiers strolled the bazaars, playing football with local kids.

None of that lasted long. By June, British troops had been sucked into a vicious fight in Sangin, a village deep in Helmand’s heroin country. Insurgents streamed across the desert from Pakistan; the death toll inched upward. British commanders turned to pulverizing air strikes and helicopter gunships that killed hundreds of Taliban fighters, but the more the British killed, the more fighters seemed to spring up.

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