When historians look back on the war in Afghanistan, they may well point to last December's battle for Musa Qala, a scruffy town in the country's northern Helmand Province, as a turning point. In a war of shadows, remote ambushes, and anonymous roadside bombs, Musa Qala was an exception: a stand-up fight.
On one side was the Afghan National Army, the U.S. 82nd Airborne, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On the other side stood the Taliban. When the fight was over, the U.S.-led coalition had "won." What they had "won" was a town shattered by B-1 and B-52s bombers, A-10 attack planes, Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships, and artillery barrages.
According to NATO, "Operation Snake" killed hundreds of Taliban. According to the London Times, British mop-up forces found one dead insurgent. No one knows how many civilians died in Musa Qala. NATO claims it has no information about casualties. Locals say more than 40 died. A Taliban spokesperson, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi dismissed the significance of the battle: "Losing Musa Qala doesn't mean that we will stop fighting."
Upsurge in Violence Last year was the deadliest for Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, with more than 6,200 Afghan deaths. Suicide bombs have increased eightfold, roadside bombs are up 24%, and diplomats are warned not to dine out in the country's capital, Kabul.
"The number of districts in which the Taliban operate exploded last year," says John McCreary, former senior intelligence analyst for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is the first year they have managed to sustain over 100 attacks per month for a whole year since they started to climb back. One hundred attacks per month used to be a surge figure. Now it is the new norm."
In fact the number of attacks averages 548 a month. According to the UN, it is too risky to send aid teams into one fifth of the country. "The river now appears to be running backward," says Joanna Nathan, the Kabul-based representative of the International Crisis Group.
What happened at Musa Qala happens in virtually every province in the country: The insurgents move in, hand out money skimmed from the lucrative opium trade, and drive out or intimidate local government forces. Then, through roadside bombs, midnight mortar attacks, and ambushes, the insurgents force NATO troops to hunker down in fortified camps.
Air War When the United States or NATO finally goes on the offensive, the coalition's lack of troops means they must rely on artillery and air power, which translates into a greater number of civilian casualties. Louise Arbour, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, says that civilian casualties caused by military activity have reached "alarming levels" this past year. "These not only breach international law but are eroding support among the Afghan community for the government and the international presence, as well as public support in contributing states for continued engagement in Afghanistan."
That erosion is accelerating. Polls indicate that the British and Australian public wants their troops out, and in Canada, only the minority Conservatives support the war.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel - her eyes on polls indicating widespread antipathy for the war - recently said she has "absolutely no time" to consider redeploying Germany's troops to the war-torn south.
Only the French, the Belgians, and the United States have agreed to send more troops, the first two just a handful, and the latter 3,200. According to U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, Afghanistan would require 400,000 troops to pacify, although the country's history suggests that even that number is probably wildly optimistic. The United States and NATO currently have 43,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Wavering Allies In a blow to the current push for more troops, the Netherlands decided to withdraw all its soldiers by 2010. "The Dutch decision," says the German newspaper Der Spiegel, "may set a precedent, raising concerns among NATO military leaders over a possible domino effect. If only one major NATO country yields to domestic pressure and decides to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, it could set off an avalanche."
The possibility of an "avalanche" has so panicked the Bush administration that it sent Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Europe. "I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European Security," said Gates in arguing for more troops.
But Afghanistan was sold to the allies not as a war, but an international aid mission. "We are in the south [of Afghanistan] to help and protect the Afghan people reconstruct their own economy and democracy," former British Defense Secretary John Reid said back in 2006.
However, according to the aid organization Oxfam, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is "comparable with sub-Saharan Africa," and U.S. and NATO troops find themselves in the middle of a war with a significant section of the population. "The Taliban is growing and creating new alliances not because its sectarian religious practices have become popular, but because it is the only available umbrella for national liberation," writes Pakistani historian and political commentator Tariq Ali. "As the British and the Soviets discovered to their cost in the preceding two centuries, Afghans never like being occupied."
Certainly that is the message the Taliban is putting out. "We're fighting to free our country," says Mullah Muhammad Omar, "We are not a threat to the world."
Reaching Out to the Taliban
Some U.S. allies are also beginning to question the Bush administration's one-dimensional portrayal of the Taliban as a tightly disciplined, international terrorist organization. "There is a hard core of Islamist extremists of varied ethnic and national origin, but the great majority of the people we are engaged against are those who are fighting with the Taliban for financial, social and tribal reasons," says British army chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt. "So we must beware of tarring them all with the same brush, as I am sure that one day we will need to deal with and eventually reconcile the elected government with the majority of these people."
That approach has found little resonance within Washington policy circles, which view a "victory" in Afghanistan as central to the war on terrorism. "What is happening in Afghanistan and beyond its borders can have even greater strategic long-term consequences than the struggle in Iraq," intones the Atlantic Council of the United States.
While some NATO countries are hedging their bets in Afghanistan, the United States is already going "beyond its borders" and launching attacks into Pakistan. Unmanned Predator aircraft have killed several Taliban leaders, along with scores of civilians, and the United States is squeezing the Pakistani government to move its military into the Tribal Areas and Northwest Frontier to pacify Taliban forces.
Frederick Kagan of recently pulled together a planning group at the conservative American Enterprise Institute to urge the Bush administration to surge troops into Afghanistan and threaten Pakistan with air strikes. Rather than suppressing the Taliban, however, this stepped up militarism has unified the Pushtuns - the heart of the Taliban - on both sides of the border. Local tribes have inflicted thousands of casualties on the Pakistani Army, rocketed the provincial capital of Peshawar, and spread the insurgency into the rich Swat Valley.
"There is no way for NATO to win this war," says Tariq Ali bluntly.
That conclusion should hardly come as a surprise. As British correspondent Ronan Thomas notes, "Strategic success in Afghanistan has often been envisaged by outside powers - British, Soviet and now Coalition forces - but rarely if ever achieved." Like its predecessors, the United States is losing the "great game" in Central Asia.