2011 will be a critical year for Britain's occupation of Afghanistan.
Canada has already announced the withdrawal of its troops this year concluding that 'a decade at war is long enough. Neither the Canadian public nor the troops themselves have any appetite to stay longer'. The Canadians follow the Dutch who ended their deployment in 2010. Their military chief General Peter van Uhm expressed grave doubts about the entire military strategy handing the base in Uruzgan back to the US.
David Cameron has repeatedly stated that a phased British withdrawal begins this summer. Like Barrak Obama he has staked his political reputation on this promise. So will he keep it? The precedents are not good. Such promises have been made for the past ten years. Who can forget John Reid, Blair's Defence Secretary, in 2001 casually announcing that 'British troops will be home by Christmas without a shot being fired'? Former communist Reid today sits, ermine clad, beside his peers in the House of Lords, honoured by the Empire for services rendered whilst the carnage escalates. Obama and Cameron realise the stakes are enormous but privately are advised the prospect of meaningful withdrawal is remote. US Commander General David Petraeus has repeatedly warned them the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. Interviewed by BBC Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson recently he again conceded that a political solution had to be secured. Consequently 'back channel talks' with Taliban leaders continue. Whilst the misnamed International Security and Assistance Force [ISAF] talks up paltry military advances and promise to 'hand Afghanistan over to a 'National Army and Police Force'' they are under no illusions about either objective.
Meanwhile the Pentagon admit in their annual report that 'Efforts to reduce insurgent capacity, such as safe havens and logistics support from Pakistan and Iran, have not produced measurable results.' With characteristic understatement they add' The Taliban's strength lies in the Afghan population's perception that coalition forces will soon leave and a Taliban victory is inevitable. The Taliban is not a popular movement but it exploits a population frustrated by weak governance.' In other words Afghans have no love for the Taliban but they are even more disgusted by the catastrophic failure of Karzai's government to provide economic support or security of any kind. Unemployment stands at 70%. Patrick Cockburn reported [The Independent 13/11/10] that $52billion in economic aid pumped into Afghanistan in recent years has made no difference whatsoever to the endemic poverty there such is the rampant corruption and racketeering at all levels. Of 23million people more than 9million live in abject misery. A further 5million survive on £23 per month. Tens of thousands are dying of starvation. This shocking picture is only matched by the political poverty. Obama has witnessed a staggering loss of support. His inability to defeat the Taliban is seen as part of a wider incompetence. A large majority of Americans oppose his ongoing involvement in this conflict. The same is true in Britain.
Pro rata British military casualties in Afghanistan have been heavier than anyone. Some 350 British soldiers have been killed and countless others maimed and injured. This compares to 950 US fatalities. [Of course both figures are tiny compared to 50,000 civilian losses]. The US has more than 100,000 troops but the British with 9,000 have a casualty rate twice as high.
'Our strategy is to train up the Afghan National Army and Police Force to take over. Only then can we leave' says David Cameron echoed by the entire UK political establishment. This strategy is both dishonest and bogus. There is no such thing as the 'Afghan National Police Force or Army'. Those men in uniform masquerading as ANP/ANA officers are paid by local warlords, it is to them they pledge their loyalty and take instruction. Karzai's authority barely reaches Kabul city limits. Taken collectively the ANA/ANP are simply not fit for purpose. Drug addicted, demoralised and infiltrated by the Taliban each is utterly despised by the civilian population for its brutality and corruption. It is no match for the incorruptible, drugless, death defying, better equipped and highly motivated Taliban resistance.
Plans to install a puppet President and develop a pliant, police force and army are as old as the occupation itself. They were part of Blair and Bush's exit plan when they invaded in 2001. Cameron and Obama's political fiction is therefore nothing new.
So in 2011 the ISAF strategy amounts to a muddled mixture of ongoing military skirmishes, controlling Taliban-lite regions of the North and West, back channel talks to Taliban leaders and fitful efforts to turn a 'pigs ear' of a National Police Force/Army into a silk purse.
This muddle will undoubtedly continue through 2011 to produce further pointless carnage with numerous British and American troops and countless Afghan civilians killed. And for what?