The love-in between George W. Bush and Gordon Brown in Downing Street yesterday could not disguise the fact that events in Afghanistan are spiralling out of control. Brown’s decision to send more British soldiers to Afghanistan (while yielding to Bush over maintaining troop levels in Iraq) is a real sign that the occupying forces are losing it.
President Hamid Karzai has threatened to take the fight against the Taliban beyond his country’s borders into Pakistan. Karzai’s sable-rattling outburst is not surprising. His always shaky control over his country has been dramatically challenged yet again. Since the weekend, Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, has been in a state of emergency following a highly successful jailbreak operation carried out by the Taliban. All 1,200 inmates were freed, including around 400 Taliban members. So powerful was the attack that nearby NATO troops took cover in their base and arrived too late to prevent any escapes.
In the last couple of days, the Taliban have taken over many villages near Kandahar. Yet only last week, the British commander of Helmand Task Force, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith announced that the Taliban insurgency had been beaten back and that its local leadership had been “decapitated”. Does he still believe that?
The truth is that neither continued reinforcements bringing NATO troop levels up to 53,000, nor shocking brutality against prisoners and fighters have advanced the fight against the Taliban and against the presumed presence of Al Qaeda fighters one iota. In fact, with 102 killed since 2001, British causalities are rising rapidly and US forces are sustaining increasingly heavy losses, with more Americans killed in Afghanistan last month than in Iraq.
Some optimists may be harbouring the illusion that with such reverses for NATO forces and with the Bush era drawing to a close, Brown and the next US president will re-think their options and withdraw from Afghanistan. But don’t hold your breath. Congress has voted $165 billion more funds for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, still believes that US forces are “on a path to victory”.
And Barack Obama’s view of the so-called war against terror differs little from that of Bush. Last August he proclaimed: “We will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared. And today, that security is most threatened by the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan … It's a tough place. But that is no excuse. There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard.”
And, don’t forget Obama’s thinly-veiled threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty: ”I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.”
The US and Britain are locked into destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have had the effect of dismembering both countries, plunging them into a worse state than before occupation. Soldiers are dying not in the cause of “freedom and democracy” or for the spurious “war on terror” but for strategic, big power political reasons. These are about access to precious resources like oil and reining in the ambitions of countries like Russia. This is the deadly course New Labour is locked into (with the support of the Tories). Ending these military adventures will require some fundamental political changes in both America and Britain.
A World to Win secretary