RSS
Briefing: America’s other war
A tenuous peace may be taking hold in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban is undermining the Afghan government and is challenging the U.S. coalition for control of the country. What went wrong?
W

ho’s winning in Afghanistan?
It’s no longer possible to say. Nearly seven years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the brutal Taliban regime, insurgent attacks are at an all-time high. President Hamid Karzai’s U.S.-backed government controls just 30 percent of the country. The rest is controlled either by the Taliban or by various tribal leaders and warlords, some with ties to the Taliban. Outside the few urban areas, murder and kidnapping are rampant; even the capital city of Kabul is a maze of blast walls, sandbags, and concertina wire. The drug trade, which was greatly curtailed under the Taliban, now accounts for half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. “Two years ago we had hope,” said 21-year-old Samir Hashimi, who recently shut down his used-car dealership in Kabul and plans to leave the country. “Now we are losing it.”

How strong is the insurgency?
It’s deadlier than ever: Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan soared 500 percent between 2005 and 2007. This past June alone, 46 coalition soldiers died, making it the deadliest month for the U.S. and its allies. The attacks, some by Taliban forces and some by al Qaida and other jihadists, are also getting more daring, as the ragtag rebels evolve into a disciplined and canny fighting force. In April, a sniper opened fire on a military parade, killing a member of parliament and sending Karzai himself scrambling for cover. The Indian Embassy in Kabul was bombed in July, leaving 60 dead. Just last week, the Taliban mounted its most audacious attack to date: A coordinated assault by at least 10 suicide bombers against a U.S. base wounded nine soldiers, while a separate ambush by dozens of insurgents left 10 French paratroopers dead. The number of U.S. dead since the invasion recently passed the 500 mark.

Why is the violence rising?
One reason is that there simply are not enough soldiers to maintain control of a rugged and forbidding land about the size of Texas. Some 60,000 coalition troops are on the ground—32,000 of them American—compared with 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Gen. Dan McNeill, recently wrapping up his tour as senior commander for Afghanistan, starkly declared that Afghanistan was an “under-resourced war.” At the same time, the Karzai government is widely viewed as inept and corrupt, lacking the resources and political acumen to bring order to the historically dysfunctional country. Then there is the murky role played by Pakistan, which shares a 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.

What is Pakistan doing?
The problem is what Pakistan is not doing. President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned under pressure last week, ostensibly supported the U.S. war effort, but also feared a backlash in his Islamic nation. So when insurgents would hit targets in Afghanistan and scurry across the border to Pakistan’s mountainous badlands, Musharraf refused to allow U.S. forces to pursue them. With Pakistan’s political situation now in flux, U.S. officials are even less certain they can rely on Islamabad. Those doubts burst into public view in dramatic fashion last month when the U.S. said it had evidence that elements of Pakistan’s spy agency were in cahoots with the Taliban and even helped plan the deadly Indian Embassy bombing. 

How do the Afghan people feel about the war?
In the battle for “hearts and minds,” the insurgents are gaining. A key factor has been civilian casualties. In striking at insurgents, coalition forces have accidentally killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Last week, a U.S.-led bombing raid reportedly killed 19 women and 60 children. Using crude but effective propaganda, the insurgents have seized on such tragedies to turn the largely illiterate population against the West. A recent ABC/BBC survey found that only 42 percent of Afghans rate U.S. efforts positively, compared with 57 percent a year ago. Even some of Afghanistan’s educated elite, said Kabul-based human-rights activist Rory Stewart, “have told me that the U.S.’s main objective was to steal Afghanistan’s emeralds, antiquities, and uranium.”

Can the West turn the tide? 
Western governments have begun to recognize the depths of the crisis. In June, they agreed to commit another $20 billion in aid for counterinsurgency efforts and nation building over the next five years, on top of the $15 billion they have already poured in. Plans also call for doubling the size of the still-ragged Afghan army to 120,000. In the near term, the Pentagon hopes to deploy another three brigades, a total of 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers. But with the bulk of U.S. forces tied down in Iraq, significant troop reinforcements simply aren’t available, while support in Europe for the war effort is waning.

So what’s next for Afghanistan?
The U.S. is determined that Afghanistan will never again become an outlaw nation from which terrorists could launch another 9/11-type attack. But it will take enormous resources and commitment to prevent Afghanistan from degenerating into a failed state. Afghanistan has long been known as “the place where empires go to die,” as a humbled Soviet Union discovered in 1989, when it retreated from its ruinous, decade-long occupation. Experts on Afghan history warn that the insurgents are following an age-old strategy. They believe that as casualties mount, “the international community is going to tire of this and back off,” said Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute. “They don’t expect to take over the country in the short term. They’re playing for the long term.”

Deadly lessons from Iraq
Until 2006, the Taliban and its cohorts tended to attack allied outposts and installations head-on. The resulting pitched battles yielded an average of 15 dead insurgents for every coalition soldier killed. Faced with such staggering losses, the insurgents began imitating their counterparts in Iraq; they now rely primarily on suicide bombers, roadside bombs, and improvised explosive devices. The results have been devastating. Last year at this time, such unconventional assaults inflicted 44 percent of coalition casualties; now that figure is nearly 80 percent. Recently, Afghan rebels have increasingly targeted the capital city of Kabul—just as the Iraqi insurgency targeted Baghdad. The insurgency is less concerned with actually seizing control of the capital than with instilling a climate of fear. After all, if the government and its allies can’t keep Kabul safe, then how much control do they really have? “We can create panic,” one Taliban leader recently told Newsweek, “and undermine the last vestiges of support for the regime.”

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week