NATO countries are poised to add 7,000 soldiers to the 30,000-troop US escalation in Afghanistan, providing a cover of multilateralism for the Obama administration and the NATO commander, US General Stanley McChrystal. The NATO decision is expected to be ratified January 28 at a conference called by the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Karzai administration and the United Nations Afghan Mission (UNAM).
To assuage European public hesitation, McChrystal is describing the troop surge for the first time as a step towards negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban. The London paper points out that "the prospect that an eight-year war could end with some Taliban leaders in power represents a remarkable turnaround" in US and NATO policy.
While NATO escalates its troop commitment, the London conference is billed as a display of "soft power" that will stabilize Afghanistan. One of the conference sponsors, the discredited Afghan president Hamid Karzai, will ask the conference for a $1 billion commitment to lure Taliban fighters onto the Kabul regime's payroll, a replica of the payments to 99,000 Sunni insurgents during the Iraq surge of 2007-8.
Afghanistan and Iraq are not identical conflicts, however. Iraq's Sunnis were a 20 percent minority fighting a majority Shi'a government and army, which the United States installed in power. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are powerful among the 45 percent Pashtun population, and cannot be defeated by Karzai's dysfunctional government or the northern Hazara, Tajik or Uzbek minorities. The situation resembles an ethnic-based stalemate, which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged this week , in saying the Taliban are woven into the "political fabric" of Afghanistan.
One reason for the dovish hints is that European and Canadian public opinion strongly oppose the escalation. In Germany 71 percent are opposed, and in the UK 56 percent . In France, 82 percent are against increased troop commitments. Canada is committed to withdrawing troops in 2011, and pressure is building for other NATO nations to follow.
Obama's escalation is causing increased US and NATO casualties, a toll that is sure to increase rapidly as more troops arrive. In January, twenty-five Americans and twelve Europeans and Canadians have died, compared to twenty-four Americans and nine Europeans and Canadians during the same month last year. The 57 percent spike shows that the Afghan "fighting season" is becoming year-around rather than concentrated in the summer months.
Twenty-five deaths may seem a small number in the so-called war on terror, but the toll accumulates. The American dead in the war so far number 972, and will pass the 1,000 mark in the coming weeks. At that rate, an additional 1,000 Americans will die before the Obama administration's planned date for beginning withdrawals, in summer 2011. The numbers of American wounded leaped to 350 per month last summer. The cumulative European and Canadian death number is 617, doubling in a single year.
The cost of the eight-year war so far is $250 billion, and roughly $1 million per US soldier. It will become another trillion-dollar war by the end of Obama's second term. Along the way, the budget costs are likely to capsize Obama's domestic agenda and intensify inflationary pressures.
In keeping with the new tone of the escalation, the UK's Gordon Brown describes the London plan as "fully aligning military and civilian resources behind an Afghan-led political strategy," an echo of McChrystal's recent strategic plan. Brown promises that Afghan troops will begin replacing NATO units as early as this year. But beneath the rhetoric, Brown is pledging 500 additional British troops, bringing the number up to 9,500.
The London-based Stop the War Coalition is calling for mass protests in London this week, at both the conference and Friday's so-called Chilcott inquiry, an official investigation of the deceptions British and American officials employed in launching the Iraq War. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to testify Friday. Protests in several other European capitals are being organized as well.
Germany is particularly conflicted because both constitution and custom forbid the deployment of troops in war zones for aggressive purposes. Yet a German commander ordered the September 4, 2009, airstrike that killed some 142 Afghan civilians. The civilian deaths were denied at first, then acknowledged, then defended, resulting in the German official's resignation and widespread German debate. This week the Angela Merkel government is expected to send 500 more German troops, raising the total to 5,000. And Germany will train another 30,000 Afghan police and soldiers, doubling its current commitment.
The Karzai government recently raised alarms by predicting that NATO will remain in Afghanistan until 2024, to train and protect the still-weak Afghan security forces.
The current "talk about talks" runs counter to the neoconservative espousal of the "long war" doctrine, but there is no reason to believe that peace is at hand. Instead, the Obama/Pentagon plan is for brutal combat, including an emphasis on drones and special operations, for eighteen to twenty-four months, in the belief that the Taliban can be pounded into accepting an American-imposed peace settlement, and to permit Karzai's Afghan army time to grow into an effective force.
The sides are far apart. The Taliban, the Karzai government, some Europeans and the peace movement all agree that the United States and NATO must set a deadline for ultimate withdrawal of its forces, to be replaced by nonaligned peacekeeping troops. Further, negotiations must include the Taliban leadership, particularly Mullah Omar, who currently are headquartered in the Pakistan state of Baluchistan, over the Afghan border. They demand a lifting of the UN's so-called blacklist, which classifies 144 Taliban leaders as criminals and bars them from travel. Until the blacklist is suspended, no direct talks will be possible. Peace advocates also demand that 750 detainees be granted due process to avoid another Guantánamo. As an incentive towards peace, the Taliban have implied in recent statements that they may separate themselves from any Al Qaeda agenda in exchange for a power-sharing role in the future Afghanistan.
The United States and many in NATO, on the other hand, refuse so far to set a deadline for withdrawal, although Obama has announced a timeline to begin withdrawing. Nor will they negotiate with the Taliban leadership, viewing Omar as an ally of Al Qaeda. The United States has demanded that Pakistan "eliminate" Omar and the Taliban leadership in Baluchistan, or permit it to launch a military assault there. Recent statements by Gates and other US officials insist that the Taliban is linked irrevocably to Al Qaeda. Any US offer to negotiate at present is aimed at lower-echelon Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's villages. Although the United States has promised to identify the 750 detainees, any semblance of the rule of law is at best a work in progress in occupied Afghanistan.
The present quagmire is likely to result in bloodshed through 2011, reaching a crisis point when Obama is scheduled to begin the withdrawal of US troops. The Europeans and Canadians will be packed and ready to go by that point, and likely will linger no later. But the Pentagon, and the domestic hawks, could be predicting catastrophe if the United States departs, leaving Obama and the Democrats to choose between a deeper stalemate and the politics of strategic disengagement as the 2012 elections approach.
Research for this article was contributed by Emily Walker, of the Peace and Justice Resource Center.