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No friends in Afghanistan

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By Owei Lakemfa

THE only group that seems clear about what it is doing in Afganistan today is the Taliban.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation  (NATO) waits on the United States (US) which is itself confused, while the puppet Hamid Karzai regime, caught rigging elections, faces credibility problems and a run-off on November 7, 2009.

The US has 67,000 troops in Afghanistan, Britain 9,000, the 26 other NATO members, 27,000 while the Afghan regime has 94,000 troops. This force of 197,000 troops are backed by the most sophisticated military equipment in the world; from stealth bombers and drones to cruise missiles, yet they are losing the eight-year war to the ragtag Taliban army.

New US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal has told the Barack Obama government that he needs 80,000 additional American troops to assure success or half that number  to hold grounds.

Obama in response has offered  21,000 new American troops with a promise to add 13,000, bringing the total to 34,000   additional American troops. But the intelligent Obama is not really convinced that this is the best option. He lamented: “Every time I sign an order, you know I’m answerable to the parents of those young men and women who I’m sending over there, and I want to make sure that it is for the right reason”.

However, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelorosi, a Democrat like Obama does not think “there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress”. This is not surprising as the body bags of American soldiers killed in the Afhan war is rising; it was  45 in July, only to rise to 48 in August 2009. Retired General  Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander thinks this will rise further: “When you put more troops in, you take more casualties, and when you take more American casualties, the clock ticks faster”.

A major problem the Americans have is what objectives they want to achieve in Afghanistan. Initially, it was to revenge for the horrific and inhuman 9/11 attacks by taking out Al-qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, and not to seize and occupy Afghanistan. Today, eight years later, Bin Laden and Al-qaeda are well and thriving except that they have shifted base to Pakistan. So what is the continued war in Afganistan all about?

NATO does not seem to share the American blurred objectives. Its Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmusson says its objective is not to insist on what leadership the Afghans should have but to prevent the country from turning back into an Al-qaeda training camp. Implied in this is NATO’s readiness to work with any and all groups that can ensure this, which may include the Taliban.

It is therefore not surprising that NATO members are not enthusiastic to send in more troops. Dutch Defence Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop whose country has 2,160 troops says Netherlands will not send additional troops unless Obama decides on a new strategy and the presidential run-off is fraud-free so that a legitimate government can run Afghanistan.

His Danish counterpart Soeren Gade whose country has 690 soldiers fighting the Talibans also made the same demands. But free elections may not happen; the United Nations  which is playing a key role in organising the run-off says the massive fraud that characterised the first round cannot be eliminated. Its top official in the country, Kai Eide was emphatic: “We will not be able to carry out dramatic changes”.

Britain with 9,000 troops is perhaps America’s closest ally in the war, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown is promising an increase of only 500 soldiers, and even this paltry number is tied to key conditionalities; if the troops have the necessary equipment, if other NATO countries boost their troop levels, and if more Afghan soldiers are trained to do the fighting. It is a polite British way of saying no to America. I will not be surprised if Britain actually starts withdrawing as it did in Basra, Iraq.

Canada, the US neigbour with 2,800 troops is not planning to send more troops. But when its Prime Minister, Stephen Harper visited Obama on October 14, 2009 he declared: “Canada is not leaving Afghanistan (but is) transitioning from a predominantly military mission to a mission that will be a civilian humanitarian mission after 2011”. That is a veiled notice of Canadian withdrawal.

Unfortunately, the casualties of the Afghan war are not only soldiers or Afghans;  some 100,000 lives are lost annually to Afghan opium, a trade the Talibans had almost wiped out before the American invasion. Although America has succeded in reducing Afghan opium production in the last two years, the country still accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s opium.

To add to Obama’s woes, a CNN poll on October 13, 2009 showed that 58 per cent of Americans are opposed to the Afghan war, 39 per cent are in favour and three per cent are neutral. Also, the Karzai regime is anxious to negotiate with the Talibans. The UN is backing this; its top official,  Kai Eide said: “ A peace and reconciliation process with the (insurgents) should be one of the top priorities of the new government”.

America has very few friends in Afghanistan. It cannot even rely on its puppet, the Karzai regime, and it is not on the same page with its NATO allies. In a sense, America is a lonely warrior on the Afghan battle field. So in addition to its troops upsurge, it needs an exit strategy. Otherwise, it runs the risk of repeating its experiences in Asia.

It went with its allies into Korea in 1950, fought a bloody three-year war on the side of the South against the North, only to be abandoned there by its allies. Today 56 years later, it remains alone in Korea. America’s failure to have an exit plan in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia resulted in its military defeat. So it must know when to retreat.

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