So far, 157 British troops have died in Afghanistan and many more have been injured. These are significant and worrying losses. How long will British public opinion accept these losses when it is not clear whether the war in Afghanistan can be won?
Britain’s armed forces have had to provide contingents for Iraq. These are now being withdrawn, but Britain’s armed services forces are overstretched. There have been many complaints about inadequate equipment and medical facilities for the wounded and about the apparent indifference of the public toward their problems.
The booing of returning soldiers by Muslim youths aroused sympathy for the soldiers, and appeals for better facilities for the wounded were met with a reasonable response. The government has been criticized for failing the armed forces, and there is only limited public understanding of the dangers facing British troops in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has put a high priority on fighting Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and is sending thousands more troops to the area. The British government shares American concerns and has agreed to send another 700 men. Other NATO countries have contributed to the allied effort, but there has been a reluctance on the part of some NATO countries to allow their contingents to be employed in areas where the fighting has been particularly fierce and the general NATO response to American requests for additional forces has been disappointing.
The Americans have recognized that the war in Afghanistan is inextricably entwined with the situation in Pakistan. The tribal areas in the North-West Frontier region have provided havens for al-Qaida while the Taliban have managed to take control of the Swat valley and have been encroaching on areas not far from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The situation in Pakistan is a serious threat to Western interests, not least because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state. Parts of the Pakistan military intelligence services have been supportive of the Taliban and have regarded India rather than the Taliban as Pakistan’s main enemy. Islamic extremists have found it relatively easy to recruit young disaffected Pakistanis as guerrilla fighters and suicide bombers. At American insistence the Pakistan Army has finally been forced to confront the extremists in the Swat valley. There has been severe fighting, compelling huge numbers of refugees to flee the tribal areas.
In Afghanistan the Americans and their allies have been trying to strengthen and train the Afghan National Army and police, but it seems clear that both forces contain sympathizers with the Taliban and corruption is a way of life in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai, who faces an election shortly, has failed to establish a strong and united government and there are doubts about his ability to lead Afghanistan in a new era. His choice of an ex-warlord as running mate in the presidential election has dismayed observers.
The Taliban are able to operate relatively unhindered in parts of the country while in other areas they maintain an undercover presence. It has plenty of weapons. Many probably date from the Soviet invasion but some come from Pakistan.
The Afghan Taliban are a mixed bunch. Some are ideologues determined to establish the most puritanical Islamic system under which women would be totally subject to their husbands and would not be allowed any freedom even the right to education. Others are motivated more by the desire to rid their country of foreign occupation. Still others probably support the Taliban because they provide protection against bandits and bring some semblance of order to lawless areas.
A complicating facto is that Afghanistan provides the bulk of the opium that is exported to Western countries and turned into heroin. The Afghan farmers, who produce opium poppies, do so because it is much more profitable than any alternative crop. The Taliban in principle frown on opium production, but they have exploited the trade to their own advantage. The allies have failed to agree on a coherent policy to deal with the problem. Spaying and killing off the poppies arouses anger especially if the generally poor farmers cannot introduce alternatives that pay as well. Buying up the crop and either destroying it or turning opium into morphine for medical purposes is expensive and might merely encourage the growing of more opium poppies.
The war in Afghanistan hinges on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The allies hope to win their support by improving the infrastructure such as by building roads, power stations, schools and hospitals, but such works cannot be carried out without first establishing security in a country whose terrain favors the guerrillas.
To destroy the guerrillas it is often essential to call in airstrikes. But even with modern weapons systems pinpoint, bombing is difficult and innocent people are frequently killed or wounded. The Taliban, who often hide among civilians, exploit such incidents for propaganda purposes.
Many Western observers have concluded that the war cannot be won by a military victory and have concluded that the best hope is to build up indigenous forces strong enough to maintain security in the most important centers and along the main roads. Many also think that it will be necessary to talk to the Taliban or at least to the least extreme sections. But can the Taliban be split in this way?
Is it possible to induce the ideologues, who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhist statues and treat women like slaves, to see reason?
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.