If you go into one of the better hotels and restaurants in Kabul — particularly the ones that boast a “UN security cleared” tag — you are almost certain to come across piles of Afghan Scene, a free monthly magazine aimed at the ever-growing expatriate community. Well produced with many advertisements that tell you a lot about life in the smart Wazir Akbar Khan locality of Kabul — security agencies, a German beer garden, medical services, an advertisement for the Great Game Travel Company and an agency that has cats and dogs for adoption — the magazine touches the fringes of public life but steers clear of anything to do with either the regime of President Hamid Karzai or the parliamentary opposition.
Yet politics or counter-terrorism, if you prefer, is a permanent backdrop to everything that happens in Afghanistan. Occasionally, it intrudes into the pages of the Afghan Scene. The March 2007 issue, which I picked up in the Sufi restaurant —the only stand-alone restaurant serving Afghan cuisine that foreigners deem secure and hygienic — last week carried a letter to the editor, from one HK in Kabul, that gave the best summary of the infuriating complexities of the war on terror in Afghanistan.
“I wish to complain about the recent special edition ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) v Taliban chess set which I bought in the bazaar.
“Instead of the usual black and white pieces I have a set of black turbaned Taliban and a set of ISAF pieces that do not match in the slightest — I wonder if they are really from the same side' Several pieces, though itemised on the list of contents, are in fact missing from the ISAF set. The Taliban king is also missing...There are no Taliban knights or castles, they all seem to be bishops.”
“Once set up, the pieces that are present refuse to obey the normal rules of chess. Several of the ISAF pawns refuse to move at all from their own squares. The UK knight appears to have done a deal with some of the opposite side and, though now mobile, will not attack certain squares. The ISAF king moves around the board with great speed and unconventional gestures, which earn it frequent rebukes from the queen. The ISAF bishops must be paid regularly or else they move across to the Taliban side. The Taliban pieces are joined by men from my neighbour’s chessboard, moving to and fro at will, and when they take an ISAF piece, the black Taliban pawn turns white confusing those watching the game.”
In the citadel of the Great Game, it isn’t easy to judge who is doing what and for whom. In theory, the ISAF has nearly 41,000 troops drawn from 37 countries (26 Nato members and 11 others including Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Albania and Macedonia). In addition, there are 8,000 American troops that remain stationed in Afghanistan as part of the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom. Complementing the foreign effort are 36,000 soldiers of the Afghan National Army and around 50,000 members of the Afghan National Police and auxiliaries. These numbers don’t, of course, include the Kalashnikov-wielding private security guards employed by diplomats, non-government organizations and private businesses. Nor does it include the armed militias that continue to be maintained by the warlords who are now part of the political establishment.
Granted that the Afghan terrain is conducive to asymmetrical warfare, it is still bewildering that such a huge multinational force can be harassed into exasperation by rag-tag taliban contingents operating mainly — though not exclusively — from across the Durand Line. In early 2006, the Tony Blair government, for example, deemed that its deployment of 3,300 British soldiers in Afghanistan was sufficient for maintaining security. Last week, the House of Commons committee on defence warned the government against peremptorily reducing the existing 7,700-strong British army contingent stationed in southern Afghanistan, mainly in the Helmand province. Even non-governmental bodies such as the International Crisis Group have argued for a “more boots on the ground” approach to tackle an insurgency that is “a real and immediate challenge to state and regional stability”.
It is understandable if over-zealous Islamists view the progress of the taliban as confirmation that one motivated Afghan guerrilla is worth more than 10 dispirited Europeans. Having defeated the Soviet Union, the radical fringe of the ummah is salivating at the prospect of Mullah Omar making a triumphant re-entry into Kabul. If the thought causes shudders in the civilized world, equally frightening are the mistakes by the “international community” that have facilitated the taliban.
For a start, it is important to realize that of the 41,000 ISAF forces, only a small percentage is involved in combat and counter-insurgency. This is not because of inept deployment of the available resources but the fact that the ISAF was conceived less as a combat army and more as a Peace Corps-in-uniform. The cutting edge of the four regional commands, for example, was intended to be the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams based in the districts that would help Afghans rebuild their country. Conceived by some international bureaucrat as providing a soft entry-point for wary Europeans into Afghanistan, the PRTs became showpieces of multinational participation but not involvement. Today, most of the PRTs remain confined to their secure camps, draw generous hardship allowances and return home after a 12-month stint with either an Afghan carpet or an ISAF beer mug as memento.
In operational terms, this do-gooder tokenism has been costly. The difficult Kandahar province has, for example, been assigned to well-meaning Canadian forces, which lack both the experience and the commitment to take on the hit-and-run taliban. Some 58 Canadians have been killed in the past 18 months by taliban — an unacceptably high casualty rate for a 1,000-strong contingent. Likewise, the equally difficult Uruzgan province, adjoining Kandahar to the north, has been assigned to the Dutch. According to cynical Afghans in Kabul, the Dutch forces barely go out more than five kilometres from their garrison, a reason why the insurgents leave them well alone. If the Afghan grapevine is to be believed, the German army, which has been entrusted the relatively peaceful Kunduz province, has subcontracted the security of its own garrison to a dedicated private militia.
The fact that political compulsions and tokenism have dictated the military strategies of the ISAF is naturally galling to the American and British forces which have undertaken most of the military operations in Afghanistan. When American aircraft attacked rebel positions in Shindon in Heart province earlier this year, the Spanish and Italian forces stationed in the province accused the United States of America of mounting operations without consultation and inflicting collateral damage. The outrage appears to have been feigned. According to the diplomatic grapevine in Kabul, the “soft” Nato countries have to look at their own domestic compulsions. They cannot be seen to be undertaking any activity more stressful than being photographed with beatific Afghan children.
The way out, suggested a political adviser to the ISAF in Kabul, lies in transferring more and more responsibilities to the Afghan army and reducing the numbers of non-fighting “soldiers”. The Afghan army, from all accounts, is coming up nicely despite suffering from a shortage of competent officers. What it needs is operational responsibilities.
Unfortunately, this may not happen in a hurry. There is an autonomous economic logic to the assistance-for-Afghanistan industry that benefits the donor and not the intended recipient. Afghanistan has, unfortunately, become the new breeding centre of a new breed of international parasites who feed on the hardship of Afghanistan. The last thing they want is to be out of jobs.