NATO governments & allies (International Security Assistance Force), including us, are gathering momentum for a stampede to the Afghan exit, strategy or not. Or ‘faster beat in the retreat’, as the SMH put it before Xmas. The French have moved forward their departure (despite our clever Foreign Minister Rudd declaring only last week that this would not happen), following the recent killing of four of their troops by another rogue Afghan colleague and wounding 15 others. Like the French, everyone is now canvassing withdrawal by 2013, instead of 2014. By the end of this year ‘drawdown’ of foreign troops will total 40,000, including 33,000 Americans from their June total of 101,000. President Karzai wants foreign contractors, including security companies, out next month.
US Congress committee reports a total 70 allied troops killed and 110 wounded by Afghan government soldiers. Afghan civilian casualties are estimated at 10,000 in the last five years alone. US casualties total 1,800 killed and 150,000 wounded, France 82 killed, Australia 33 killed and 218 wounded.
The usual weasel words ‘going the distance’ or ‘doing the job’ or ‘completing the mission’ are no longer worth repeating. Now it’s about ‘transitioning’ or ‘handing over’ to Afghan security forces. Negotiations with the Taliban are well under way. We’re just not sure who’s negotiating. The bottom line is that we will not go the distance, or do any lasting job or complete any of those shifting mission objectives of the last ten years. Afghanistan faces an uncertain future, like Iraq, in the vacuum that we create by our presence and departure.
A reminder of US (and our) involvement in this latest foreign military adventure in Afghanistan may be helpful. Originally the Taliban were financed and supplied by the Americans to fight the Russian occupation. Following 9/11 and Taliban refusal to give up Bin Laden without some evidence, they became synonymous with Al-Qaeda and henceforth US mortal enemies too. First big mistake! Meantime the US also massively supplied Pakistan with arms and dollars, even while its notorious Inter-Services Intelligence was harbouring and abetting Taliban, and probably Al-Qaeda, safely across the border in bases in Pakistan. Go figure!
At the same time, the corrupt Karzai government and its recycled Taliban provincial governors and their cronies, were flourishing under the manna of US hand-outs and contracts, plus the thriving opium cropping and trade. Former commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, retired General Stanley McChrystal, confessed that the US held a ‘frighteningly simplistic’ view of the country and its history when it declared war on the Taliban in 2001, and that they didn’t even try to learn Afghan languages. Furthermore he said that ten years later the US lacks the know-how to bring the conflict to a satisfactory end.
Politics will determine ISAF exit strategies – first and foremost the looming US Presidential elections, where Obama needs to announce US withdrawal for 2013. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is even fudging to mid 2013. Australia will of course independently come to the same conclusion. Former US ambassador to Afghanistan retired lieutenant-general Karl Elkenberry estimated that the ‘sustainment cost’ of Afghan army and police forces will be $7 billion in 2014, three times Afghan government revenues. Somehow Elkenberry remains hopeful, and NATO is talking of ongoing support beyond 2014. Unfortunately without foreign military protection, civilian aid projects may be withdrawn too. There is no happy or snappy conclusion to this tragic saga. As the French would say, ‘quoi qu’il en soit’ (no matter what), the Taliban are well-placed.