Friday, December 4, 2009

Afghanistan: the clock is ticking for Obama as the Taliban bides its time

Now we know what the American President intends to do about Afghanistan, it is worth reflecting for a moment on what the enemy's strategy is likely to be. This is best summed up by a remark recently made by a Taliban sympathiser to a senior American official in Kabul: "You might have all the watches, but we have all the time." By this he meant that, for all the technological wonders available to Nato forces, from unmanned Predator drones to satellite imagery, the Taliban enjoys one great advantage against which the West simply cannot compete. Our leaders are subject to the fickle support of their electorate, while the Taliban are under no such constraints.

For the average tribesman on Afghanistan's wilder frontiers, waging war is the family business, and they have been profitably engaged in it for most of the past three decades. And in a region that prides itself on being the graveyard of empires, there is a widely held view that you need only fight on until your adversary realises he can never win and beats a hasty retreat.

So setting a deadline for withdrawal, as President Obama appeared to do in his speech to the US Military Academy earlier this week, is a grave mistake. I acknowledge the counter-argument made by Louis Susman, the US Ambassador to London, to this newspaper, and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to the Senate armed services committee, that such a withdrawal will only be undertaken if a review shows there has been a tangible improvement in the security situation. But the fact that the President felt it necessary to mention a deadline in the first place is indicative of the pressure he is under, particularly from his own supporters, to pay as much attention to formulating an exit strategy as to winning the war.

After eight years of non-stop military conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public has – understandably – grown war-weary and is keen to see its troops brought home. If Mr Obama can do that by the start of 2012, in time for the start of the next presidential campaign, so much the better. And so far as the Taliban are concerned, the clock is already ticking.

But before Washington can even start to give serious consideration to bringing its troops home, it must ensure that an effective security structure has been established, and that the Afghan government is actually capable of running the country. And for that to happen, there needs to be a far greater military commitment from other Nato member states. By the time the extra 30,000 troops Mr Obama has announced arrive in Afghanistan next year, the number of American troops will have risen to around 100,000. Yet the contribution from Nato's 27 other members is struggling to reach the 40,000 mark, of which 10,000 come from Britain alone.

Following Mr Obama's speech, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary-general, promised that other members would do "substantially more" to boost the Afghan force, and that European member states would provide an extra 5,000 troops. While the numbers might be small, this is – as Mrs Clinton writes in The Daily Telegraph today – a crucial test for Nato. Yet what really concerns American policymakers is not the total sent but the refusal of so many European states to commit troops that are actually willing and able to conduct combat operations, rather than just peacekeeping work.

Yesterday's boast by the Italians that they are prepared to send an extra 1,000 troops is a case in point. Italy is one of several European powers that will send men to Afghanistan only on the understanding that they are deployed to relatively safe areas, where they are unlikely to get involved in the messy business of fighting the Taliban. The Italians, who patrol the relatively peaceful western region of Afghanistan, were so ill-prepared for combat that, when two of their soldiers were kidnapped in 2007, Nato had to send British Special Forces to rescue them.

This reluctance to commit is surprising, given that the current Afghan mission originates from the alliance's decision, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, to invoke Article Five, under which any country that has been attacked is entitled to Nato's protection.

Since then the major European powers, with the exception of Britain, have been unwilling to follow through on their obligations, leaving many in Washington to question whether the alliance will actually survive the Afghan conflict. Republicans increasingly believe that, rather than relying on Nato's complex processes, it is better to assemble what Donald Rumsfeld once termed a "coalition of the willing": namely, an alliance of those countries that are actually prepared to fight. The Democrats, on the other hand, are moving more towards the concept of a European defence force, whereby European governments will be responsible for their own security, rather than relying on the Americans.

But these are arguments for another day. The immediate priority is to assemble a Nato force that has the capacity to inflict a crushing defeat on the Taliban, without which any talk of an early withdrawal of American, or any other, troops is premature. For as every Taliban commander knows, time is not on Nato's side.


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