Features | Security | Central Asia

General Petraeus’s October Surprise

The timing of Gen. Petraeus’s good news on Afghanistan is strangely convenient for Washington—and glosses over the reality of a likely civil war.

General Petraeus’s October Surprise
Credit: US Army

Last month saw a surprising flood of good tidings from Afghanistan. We learned that the US-NATO offensive in Kandahar is succeeding; that drone strikes are breaking al-Qaeda’s back; that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are at daggers drawn; and that the Taliban is ready to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Afghan war.

What a change since September, when the outlook was so gloomy! So what prompted these changes? Good policy? Military heroism? The Taliban realizing that it was beaten? Or was it something to do with tomorrow’s US mid-term congressional election?

My guess is that last one. After all, if you recall, the same Gen. David Petraeus who now commands in Afghanistan also delivered a similar package of remarkable and unexpected good news about Iraq when he was in charge there—just before the 2008 US presidential election. The ‘surge’ and the ‘Sunni Awakening’ had ‘succeeded,’ claims that were enough to broadly keep the Iraq war off the political agenda during the late stages of the campaign (much to the relief of both Barack Obama and John McCain). Today, it’s clear that much of the so-called success in Iraq is unravelling, with al-Qaeda returning to Baghdad and Anbar Province, and Iraqi society headed toward sectarian civil war.

This time around, Petraeus’s batch of happy news comes at a time when neither party wants to talk about how far the Afghan war is off the tracks. And, looking at the US media, the ploy has worked again.

The first three items of Petraeus’s supposed good-tidings package can be dealt with quickly. The Kandahar offensive is progressing because Petraeus and his predecessor gave the Taliban and other mujahedin eight months advance warning. As a result, insurgent leaders—never eager to stand and fight conventional forces—long ago moved most of their men and materiel to safer venues. Essentially the US-NATO campaign is succeeding because there’s so little opposition, save for the IEDs, mines and booby-traps with which the Taliban has laced the region.

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Next, while drone strikes hurt al-Qaeda (no group welcomes casualties) they have no strategic impact on Osama bin Laden or his organization. Leaders are replaced and fighting goes on not only in South Asia, but also in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and North and West Africa, in each of which al-Qaeda is far more potent than it was on 9/11.

Meanwhile, the day after bin Laden threatened France via audiotape, the French defence minister announced that Paris might well begin to withdraw its Afghan force in 2011. Such an appeasing response hardly suggests a broken-backed al-Qaeda. And as for the existence of a debilitating al-Qaeda-Taliban contretemps, there are many claims about this, but no openly available and credible data.

But the most important—and problematic—of Petraeus’s so-called good-news items is the claim that the United States, NATO and Hamid Karzai’s regime have started peace negotiations with the Taliban. If such talks are occurring, they would have been initiated by a US-NATO coalition that knows the war is lost and which is looking for a way out of Afghanistan that will entail the least number of casualties and humiliation. Taliban leaders, on the other hand, would know that if they are talking to NATO, they are doing so because victory is nearing and that the very occurrence of the talks will tear apart relations between the US-led coalition and its only Afghan ally, the remnant of the late-Ahmad Shah Massoud’s alliance of northern Afghanistan’s minority groups.

For Afghanistan’s Tajik, Shia, Uzbek and Turkmen minorities, the arrival of US-led forces in Afghanistan in October 2001 provided not only an opportunity to break the mainly Pashtun-dominated Taliban’s hold on power, but also to build a new Afghan society to replace the one that had kept the non-Pashtun minorities at the bottom of the pecking order for more than 300 years. On entering Kabul on the back of US and NATO military vehicles in late-2001, the minorities controlled the city, northern Afghanistan, and the new Afghan regime, even though Pashtun Karzai was at its head.

Since then, though, the road has been largely downhill for the leaders of the northern minorities. Their US and NATO military allies prematurely declared the war over after the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces withdrew to Pakistan, and they watched Karzai surround himself with Pashtun cronies while his brother and other family members established a power base in Kandahar Province rumoured to be based on diverted foreign aid and the heroin trade.

In addition, much of the Western and Indian financial aid that was funnelled into the country (and which was not immediately stolen) was used to build infrastructure projects—power plants, roads, irrigation systems, dams—in the country’s Pashtun regions in the southern, eastern and western provinces. Most dire for the northerners, who had helped infidels destroy the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, the US-NATO coalition’s near military inertness for the five years after Kabul’s capture allowed time for the re-emergence of a better trained, armed, led and hungry-for-revenge Taliban funded by heroin profits and contributions from the donors in Arab Peninsula. Even as Gen. Petraeus delivered October’s good news, then, the Afghan minorities were watching the gradual return of the Taliban-driven nightmare they lived through from 1994 to 2001.

All this means that US-NATO-Karzai negotiations with the Taliban will be interpreted by the northern minorities as their erstwhile allies throwing in the towel and admitting defeat. Faced with this reality, the northerners will have to prepare for a renewed civil war against the Taliban after US-NATO forces are gone. And in this effort they’ll have no shortage of foreign help. Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, remain eager—as they were before 9/11—to use northern Afghanistan as a buffer zone between themselves and the Pakistan- and Arab-supported Islamist Taliban. Each country will be more than willing to fund, arm and train a re-formed northern military force. India and Iran also will help—the former to protect whatever it can of the large monetary and political investment it has made in Afghanistan since 9/11, and the latter in an effort to shield its Shia brethren from renewed persecution and murder at the Taliban’s hands.

Talking to the Taliban is also likely to earn US and NATO forces some pain inflicted by their former northern allies before withdrawal is complete. Revenge is a sentiment always bubbling away under the surface in Afghanistan, and the northern mujahedin will want to ensure that the US-led coalition pays a price for abandoning them. Indeed, the coalition may already be starting to incur that cost. Throughout 2010, for example, the pace of insurgent attacks on the Karzai regime and coalition targets in northern Afghanistan has steadily increased. While there are pockets of Pashtun populations in the northern provinces, they are neither numerous enough nor geographically dispersed enough to be responsible for all the attacks that have and are occurring. In the months ahead, there are certain to be escalating attacks on US-NATO supply routes into Afghanistan from Central Asia—the US-led coalition’s weakest link in the north—and it won’t always be clear if the attackers are Taliban Pashtuns or America’s jilted northern allies.

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Petraeus’s October surprise may well have gotten Democratic and Republican candidates through tomorrow’s mid-term elections without a debate on the Afghan war; this is apparently now an ongoing (if demeaning) job for four-star US generals. But by late spring next year, the odds are that Petraeus, Obama and the US Congress will no longer be able to hide the disastrous demise of the almost decade-long campaign in Afghanistan.