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Why Afghanistan fails

…and how it may be saved. Corrupt officials, careless neighbours and a wrong strategy have led to the re-emergence of the Taliban. But it is not too late to stop them.
Do not let them play with the Taliban (via vonbergen.net, Flickr)

After months merely outside western news, Afghanistan has stumbled into chaos again over the last few weeks: A jailbreak in Sarposa prison left 450 Taliban free, 41 civilians died in a bomb-blast in front of the Indian embassy in Kabul and a suicide bomber killed 24 people when blowing himself up at a market in the southern Uruzgan province. American troops reported heavy losses, too, as 40 soldiers died in combat or under attack in June – more than in Iraq that month.

Almost seven years after being ousted, the Taliban manage to stage yet another comeback: Estimates say the group has influence on half of Afghanistan’s vast territory and controls around 20 percent of the country now. U.S. and NATO troops fight the insurgents with search & destroy missions, but they are on their own: The 80,000 members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) officially fight alongside the U.S. troops, but their combat units are not ready yet to do things on their own, so western soldiers always have to accompany them. As late as March 2008, only one Afghan Army battalion was able to operate on its own.

This is the result of a misguided policy: Too late has the U.S. recognized military action alone, especially without sufficient manpower, cannot win wars. Life in many parts of the country has not improved much over the last couple of years: A lot of cities do not have sufficient electricity to lay the groundwork for a healthy business life. Workers of foreign companies and aid organisations have been kidnapped as local authorities cannot guarantee their security, often being involved in these cases. With its trust in the Karzai-government, the United States have backed building a system that is full of cronyism and corruption (just ask about the job his brother has been doing). Desperation among citizens is high, not the least because over 6,500 civilians have died in operations of Western forces in 2007 and the recklessness in dealing with a lot of these deaths has fueled anger and support for the Taliban. On a political level, the decline of Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf has led to a power vacuum that has made the border-region between the countries a retreat fort he exhausted fighters. The Bush-administration had not had a plan B for the shift in power; and even if it had – parts of Pakistan’s security forces are said to sympathize with the insurgents and the military does not want to get involved in clan-business around the border region.

The opportunities to do things right were all there when NATO forces toppled the Taliban in the end of 2001. But the Rumsfeld-policy of fewer troops and insufficient nation-building efforts proved to be a blueprint for what later became the Iraq-disaster. Still, the chances for turning the fortune of Afghanistan around are slightly better than in Mess-o-potamia: Sectarian anger is not as widespread, conflicts are mostly tribal. The horror’s of the Taliban’s reign is still remembered by a lot of people, and its comeback is mostly due to the failure of developing civil structures.

These structures are what the U.S. and other western helpers need to improve: They have to bring back on board estranged tribes as the Pashtun and restore a semi-autonomy of the tribes sooner or later. At the same time, army and police forces have to be instructed even faster so they can secure the regions the coalition troops have cleared of insurgents. More money will be needed to overcome the food and infrastructure problems, and there has to be a pressure-scenario to hold the Karzai-government accountable for results. At the same times, the devastating air-strikes have to stop, though the fight against the Taliban has to continue, probably with even more troops (though the U.S. will not manage to provide them, as their forces are by far overstretched).

A victory in this war would be nothing like the victory people are used to: It will be necessary to include a weakened Taliban-fraction in the political process to even think about handing over power. It might be necessary to have troops in the country for decades to come – if all works well, it might be U.N.-troops. But first of all, the U.S. has to understand that the “war on terror” in this huge country cannot be won by bullets alone. And secondly, Europe has to understand that they cannot leave the United States to fail in this mess; for a country located between Pakistan and Iran, failure should not be an option at all.

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