Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Americans in Afghanistan-Mission crumble

FRIEND and foe alike are turning on NATO after its latest disaster in Afghanistan. The appalling slaughter on March 11th, apparently by a single deranged American staff sergeant, of 16 Afghans, nine of them children, has prompted both the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and leaders of the Taliban insurgency to put pressure on NATO.

In a meeting in Kabul with Leon Panetta, the American secretary of defence, Mr Karzai asked the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to withdraw at once from villages and the countryside, leaving security there to Afghan forces. This strikes at the heart of the “counter-insurgency” strategy adopted by President Barack Obama and ISAF. Its premise is that the insurgency will only be defeated, in effect, one village at a time, as ISAF soldiers hunt militants and gain the trust of local people.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have said they are suspending the inchoate dialogue they had begun with America. The talks so far had covered a proposed exchange of Afghan prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay for a kidnapped American soldier, and the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. It was hoped they would lead to negotiations on a political settlement.

But, in a statement on March 15th, accusing the Americans of a “shaky, erratic and vague standpoint”, the Taliban called off the talks for now. They also repeated that they thought it pointless to talk to Mr Karzai’s administration, which they portray as an American puppet.

So both prongs of ISAF’s strategy—military pressure combined with a diplomatic push for a negotiated settlement—look in serious trouble. The Taliban will also have been cheered by the obvious impatience for an end to the war betrayed by Mr Obama and David Cameron, the British prime minister, at their talks in Washington this week.

It is important, however, not to make too much of either of the latest setbacks. Mr Karzai’s demand reflects the political pressure he faces to be seen standing up to his allies. To insist on ISAF’s withdrawal from the countryside would jeopardise its entire mission—and hence the security of the government itself.

The Taliban, for their part, could be expected to try to take advantage of the series of disasters that has befallen ISAF, from having soldiers filmed urinating on the corpses of recently killed militants, to the unintentional burning of copies of the Koran, to last weekend’s massacre. They probably see a chance to force concessions from the Americans—for example on the conditions set for beginning peace talks, such as accepting Afghanistan’s current constitution, which the Taliban may think should be the substance of negotiations.

But even if Mr Karzai and the Taliban are posturing to some extent, there is no disguising that this has been a very bad few weeks for ISAF. Its commanders like to talk about the importance of “momentum” to keeping the enemy on the back foot. For now, the momentum on a number of fronts is all in the wrong direction.The Economist

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