LONDON – The recent NATO summit in Chicago was mostly about how to get NATO troops out of Afghanistan without causing too much embarrassment to the Western governments that sent them, and a little bit about how to ensure that the Taliban don’t take over again once Western troops leave.
The timetable for NATO’s withdrawal is now graven in stone: All Western troops will be withdrawn from actual combat by the end of 2013, and they will all be out of the country by the end of 2014 (except the French, who will leave by December of this year). This timetable will be adhered to no matter how the situation on the ground develops — or more likely, degrades — in the next two years. After that, it’s entirely in the Afghans’ hands.
There was some pretty rhetoric to soften this harsh fact: “As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone,” declared U.S. President Barack Obama. But alone is exactly where they will be, although NATO is promising to send the Afghan government $4 billion a year to enable its army to stand up to the Taliban. The Western alliance has finally accepted that if the foreign troops cannot defeat the Taliban in 11 years, they are most unlikely to do so in 13 or 15 years.
The Russians could have told them that. “Our soldiers are not to blame,” General Sergei Akhromeyev told the Soviet Politburo in 1986. “They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.”
According to the Pentagon’s own numbers, each American soldier in Afghanistan costs about $1 million a year. Pashtun teenagers, eager to show their worth fighting against the foreigners, can be had for about $200 a month each — and there is an almost inexhaustible supply of young Pashtun males. The war was unwinnable from the start.
It may also have been unnecessary. If the Taliban regime in Kabul was not told beforehand about al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the United States, then Osama bin Laden betrayed his hosts. Maybe they could have been persuaded to hand him and his men over by a judicious mixture of threats and bribes. But if the war that the U.S. launched instead was really unwinnable, then the question of whether it was “necessary” or not is irrelevant.
So if NATO is now conceding that the Taliban cannot be crushed by military force, then why is it going to keep its troops in Afghanistan for another two-and-a-half years before acting on that conclusion? Some of them will die as a result of that decision, and quite a few Afghans will be killed because of it, too. Apart from temporarily saving the face of various Western governments, what purpose will their deaths serve?
NATO’s argument is that another two years will leave the Afghan Army in a better position to defend the Karzai government after Western troops leave, but there is absolutely no evidence that it is true. Indeed, of the 150-odd Western troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year, 20 were killed by the Afghan troops that NATO is supposed to be training for this role.
The Afghan Army is not fit for purpose, and the outcome after NATO troops leave will probably be the same whether they all go home this year or stay until 2014. So what is that probable outcome?
Karzai may not fall immediately: the $4 billion a year that NATO is promising to pay for the maintenance of his army will probably preserve the status quo for two or three years. But no more: it is most unlikely that the subsidy will be extended when it comes up for review in 2018.
That’s the way the Vietnam war ended. The last U.S. troops left South Vietnam in 1973, but the regime they left behind survived until Congress cut off the flow of military aid in 1975. It happened exactly the same way when the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989: The regime they had supported lasted three more years, until the flow of funds was cut off after the old Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991.
The same thing will almost certainly happen this time. Even the $4 billion that NATO is now pledging will only pay for an Afghan Army two-thirds of its planned size. When that external funding ends, the roof will probably fall in on Karzai’s regime.
The Taliban will doubtless keep control of the Pashtun-speaking provinces where they recruit most of their fighters. (For all NATO’s efforts, they never really lost it.) The Afghan Army will probably disintegrate and be replaced by the separate but allied Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek ethnic militias that held the north of the country before 9/11. They may be able to hold it again.
In other words, the likeliest outcome is a reversion to the pre-9/11 distribution of power in Afghanistan, perhaps with the Taliban in control of Kabul, perhaps not. That’s not a wonderful outcome, but it’s not such a terrible one either.
An independent journalist, Gwynne Dyer’s articles are published in 45 countries.