In every war there comes a time when victory chooses its camp. That choice may take some time before it becomes apparent to those involved, but the more perceptive recognise it as soon as it appears on the horizon.
Almost exactly six years after the start of the war that toppled the Taliban in Kabul, victory appears to be choosing the camp of the new Afghanistan symbolised by its elected president, parliament and government.
Many facts point to this shift in the fortunes of war.
* The Afghan economy is picking up, having registered double-digit growth rates for the past two years. This shows that the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies are less able to disrupt development projects and private business in all but four of the nation’s 30 provinces.
* The central government’s administrative presence has expanded rapidly, now covering some two-thirds of the territory. The Taliban’s campaign of murdering government officials has failed to stop the central government from rebuilding the civil service at all levels.
* Starting from almost zero, the country’s education and health services have been rebuilt and now cover almost half of the population. The Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies have failed to destroy public services by killing teachers, doctors and nurses.
*Afghanistan has held a number of elections to approve a new constitution and elect a parliament and president. Despite exceptional brutality, efforts by the Taliban and Al Qaeda to disrupt the process have failed. The Afghans have developed a liking for elections, a fact indicated by the steadily rising number of voters successive polls.
* The new Afghan army has been built to an unprecedented strength of 125,000 men of which at least a quarter consists of battle-hardened units. The new police force of some 30,000 is also beginning to make its presence felt, at least in some larger urban areas.
* Perhaps the most important reason for optimism is that the Taliban appear to have lost part of their constituency that consisted of the most conservative clerics, Pushtun tribal chiefs, and lumpen elements in a few cities such as Kandahar. The overwhelming majority of the traditional intellectual elites who had sided with the Taliban have broken with it and, in many cases, joined the new mainstream.
Despite all the encouraging news, it would be a mistake to assume that Afghanistan is out of the woods. Victory may have chosen its camp but, fickle as it is, it may well have a look at what it has chosen and, not liking it, change its mind again.
There is, of course, no way in which the Taliban might ride back into Kabul as victors. They have lost the support of Pakistan that initially helped them crush weaker adversaries in the mid-1990s in the context of a lopsided civil war.
It is unlikely that President Pervez Musharraf, or whoever succeeds him, would wish to revive a monster that threatens Pakistan itself.
In recent months, the Taliban have become increasingly dependent on the Islamic Republic in Tehran for both safe haven and geographical depth and material support.
Alliance with Tehran may enable the Taliban to fight a bit longer. But it will also make sure that at the crucial moment, the Iranian mullahs would be ale to pull the carpet from under the feet of their Afghan counterparts. Tehran wants the Taliban to make life difficult for President Hamed Karzai’s US-backed regime in Kabul. However, it does not want the Taliban to rule in Kabul, something that would be a strategic threat to Iran.
Although they cannot envisage victory, the Taliban could still fight for a stalemate in the hope that dramatic changes in other places, especially Pakistan, may alter the regional balance of power in their favour.
Two factors encourage Taliban that the war is not over.
The first is a sense of war fatigue manifested by almost all the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) with troops in Afghanistan. In most cases, their presence is largely symbolic with contingents that seldom number more than 1000 men. Even then, only five NATO members are engaged in any actual fighting, with others content to show the flag in so-called peacekeeping tasks. Even the French, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s much publicised pro-American sentiments, plan to downgrade their participation in the Afghan war. War weariness in the United States, Britain and Canada may well make it impossible for NATO to maintain the present troop levels within acceptable rotating schedules. A change of government in Australia could also be good news for the Taliban.
The second factor that might undermine victory from definitely choosing its camp is the confusion that marks the UN-led mission in Afghanistan.
The key condition for winning a war against insurgents is to have a unified command and control system capable of deploying resources to maximum effect where and when needed.
In Afghanistan, however, we have four separate command structures.
The first, provided by the United Nations, has not come out with anything resembling a coherent strategy. The UN appears to be looking for what the French call the beau role by engaging in humanitarian activities, leaving others to do the dirty work. Alongside, NATO has its own separate command and control system that, though nominally under the UN, seldom coordinates with it. However, even the NATO command is not unified. The US has is own separate command and is fighting a distinct war in southeastern Afghanistan. Several NATO members, notably Germany, France and Holland, refer to command structures in their own capitals rather than on the ground in Afghanistan.
To complicate matters, the European Union has also set up its distinct shop and pursues ambitions that, at times, clash with those of the US, NATO and the UN. Then there is the Afghan government itself that, anxious to assert authority, is engaged in a political war with its foreign allies.
What Afghanistan needs is a unified strategy pursued by a unified command with the participation of a coalition of the willing. Military gains must be translated into political and economic realities to consolidate the victory that has already been won. In a unified strategy, the focus would remain in destroying the Taliban and Al Qaeda rather than getting involved in tangential activities with PR appeal.
NATO would need to maintain present troop levels for at least another three years to allow the new Afghan army to test its units in seizing and holding territory.
The question is: where would those troops come from if a majority of NATO members succumb to war fatigue?
One idea is to seek help from Muslim countries that have signed accords of association and cooperation with NATO. As the only Muslim member of NATO, Turkey is already making a major contribution and might be able to encourage other Muslim nations to help. However, facing terrorism from PKK bases in Iraq, Turkey might not be inclined to help allies that refuse to help it remove that threat from its own borders.
As always in politics, everything depends on everything else!