Overshadowed by the dramatic events in the Arab world, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be approaching a dangerous turning point. Should the United States and its NATO allies continue making war on the Taliban, or should they urgently seek a political solution?
As if still hoping for better news from the battlefield, Western leaders—President Barack Obama chief among them—seem reluctant to face up to the urgent need for a clear decision at this juncture.
Washington’s strategy has been to keep up the military pressure on the insurgents, and to attempt to disrupt and destroy its leadership by air strikes on Taliban safe havens across the border in North Waziristan, while beginning a drawdown of US troops this summer. The hope is that by 2014, the situation will be sufficiently stable for US combat troops to leave after security responsibilities have been handed over to Afghan forces.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The fact is, though, that this might not be realistic.
There are currently 143,000 NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, of whom98,000 are American. Poland is to withdraw all its 2,600 troops this year, while Germany will also start to drawn downits 4,700-strong contingent. Britain has said it will withdraw its 9,000 troops by 2015.
However, a report released last week by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee sharply criticised the British government’s handling of the war. The campaign wasn’t succeeding, the report said, and lacked a clear national security purpose. Arbitrary deadlines and further military operations were said to be setting back the prospect of a peace deal, which the report described as ‘the best remaining hope’ of achieving ‘an honourable exit from Afghanistan.’
So will this sensible report be heeded? Most independent analysts appear to agree that only a negotiated settlement can put an end to the West’s wanton waste of livesand resources. The decision now facing Western leaders is therefore whether to continue with the current strategy of military attacks and leisurely withdrawals, or instead make a strong and sustained push for negotiations with the Taliban.
In recent months, the insurgents have given ground in the face of large-scale NATO-led assaults in Helmand Province and in Kandaharand its environs. But spring is coming to the Afghan mountains—and with it the probability of an upsurge inlethal Taliban hit-and-run operations.
In the meantime, the Taliban have continued their widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IED), which have taken a significant toll on NATO troops, sharply constraining their movements. At the same time, rather than face NATO troops in battle, the insurgents have also increasingly resorted to suicide bombings and the assassination of those tribal leaders who dare consort with foreign forces.
Public opinion among the United States’ NATO allies—and indeed in the US itself—has grown impatient and despondent. Security in both Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be deteriorating. The costly 10-year war is far from won (and indeed could well be lost) despite the attempt by Gen. David Petraeus to put a brave face on what is looking an increasingly grim situation.