Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is there a way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The BBC reports that the number of civilians killed in the conflict in Afghanistan rose 39% last year, with US, NATO and Afghan forces responsible for 39% of them. Polls in Afghanistan indicate that the percentage of people who approve of the US presence there has plummeted - mostly, it appears, because of the large number of civilian casualties inflicted by US airstrikes and ground forces. The Taliban control almost all of the south of Afghanistan, and are a constant threat to resupply routes from Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the government has reached a deal with the Taliban there whereby the province of Swat is to be governed in accordance with sharia. (Nota bene: Swat lies outside either the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) or Pakistan's Northwest Frontier provinces, which are already Taliban strongholds) ABC's Martha Raddatz has stated (on PBS's Charlie Rose show, last night) that there are places in Pakistan - like Peshawar - where she could have gone a year ago, but wouldn't dare go now.

In fact, last night's Charlie Rose show featured Raddatz, the NYT's Dexter Filkins, former CIA official Milt Bearden, and a young Obama adviser, all of them offering their comments about the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, from what I could make out, none of them with anything really hopeful to say. The situation there has spun completely out of control of the US, NATO, and the Pakistani and Afghan governments. The initiative right now - and the momentum - has moved to the side of the Taliban, who as much as anything are (1) a Pashtun nationalist resistance that makes a mockery of any "national border" between the two countries, combined with (2) an economic opportunity for young, undeducated, unemployed young men who are willing to pick up a gun and fight foreigners (be they US or NATO "infidels" in Afghanistan or Punjabi Pakistani-army troops fighting in "Pashtunistan"). This is not going to be a matter of inflicting a decisive military defeat on the Taliban. (Ask the former members of the Soviet army, who killed tens of thousands of mujahidin, only to be forced out of Afghanistan.) Any way forward in Afghanistan is going to require a huge application of "soft power" (economic assistance, education, and the like) combined with some kind of accommodation with the Taliban, as well as some kind of re-orientation of any US military effort away from killing civilians.

It's going to be a very long and expensive haul, with any possible happy ending way, way over the horizon . . . if not the rainbow.

Alarm over Afghan civilian deaths

The number of civilians killed in the conflict in Afghanistan rose 39% last year, the United Nations says.

Militants were to blame for 55% of the 2,118 civilian deaths, while US, Nato and Afghan forces were responsible for 39%, according to the UN report.

Civilian casualties have increased despite repeated pledges by US-led forces to reduce civilian deaths.

The data came as a US Congress-funded think tank said it was unlikely the US and Nato would defeat insurgents.

The Institute of Peace called for new forces deployed in the country to be used to train Afghan security forces.

The UN report into civilian deaths said the death toll in 2008 civilian was "the highest of any year" since the Taleban were ousted in 2001.

The majority of the victims were killed in the south of the country - where international and Afghan forces are fighting a fierce counter-insurgency campaign.

In one of the most-publicised incidents, US troops fighting off a Taleban ambush last November bombed a wedding party in the Shah Wali Kot area in southern Afghanistan, killing about 40 civilians - mainly women and children.

The issue of civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops is a hugely sensitive issue, says the BBC's Martin Patience, in Kabul, and is something that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has raised repeatedly.

Relations between Kabul and Washington appear to have soured even in the four weeks since US President Barack Obama took office, although the US envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, met Mr Karzai in Kabul over the weekend.

"Apparent Disregard"

Despite the high number of civilian casualties inflicted by international forces, more than half of the casualties recorded were inflicted by the militants fighting the foreign troops.

The UN said insurgents had inflicted the overwhelming majority of deaths in bombings, 65% more than the year before, and they were often carried out "with apparent disregard for the extensive damage they cause to civilians".

In one of the worst cases, a suicide car bomb killed 14 primary schoolchildren in Khost province at the end of December in what officials said was a failed attempt to blow up a meeting of tribal elders.

The large difference in the numbers was down to the different methodologies used to collect the data
Nato spokesman

The researchers estimate that two-thirds of the 828 Afghans killed by the pro-government forces died in air strikes targeting militants, sometimes at night.

Nato rejected the UN figures, saying its forces had caused 237 civilian deaths.

The large difference in the numbers was down to the different methodologies used to collect the data, according to Nato spokesman Major Martin O'Donnell.

Last week the Afghan leader announced that NATO-led forces had accepted new procedures proposed by his government - to try and reduce the number of civilian deaths.

The human rights team of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which collected the figures for the report, said about 130 people had died in incidents such as crossfire. It was not able to say who had killed them.


cwroe said...

Great post. I wonder if you'll write about Sufi Mohammed, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, and the Taliban in SWAT dictating the terms of a cease fire soon? In the worst case, these concessions by Asif ali Zardari to the Taliban in Malakand are tantamount to an endorsement of mass-murder. In the best case, this is a simple capitulation which allows the Taliban to operate a parallel state in NWFP...legally. Bhutto understood the destabilizing danger posed to the Federal gov't by such an action, and IMHO that is why she's dead today. That being the case, how did Zardari fall so far from the tree??? Sure, times change and politics will always be politics, but how does he hope to preserve the nation by splintering it? I know I attended public universities and work for the government and all, but this is very simple logic to me that defies explanation.

This makes my stomach turn. It undermines everything we fought for and what brave as well as innocent people died (and continue to die, as you mention in your post) for. I have a picture of my dead friend Yousef al-Miftari and I on my desk that I look at every single day. Some part of me thinks that underneath that beard lies a serious frown today. We dishonor the memory of those who went before with our collective ambivalence today. Holbrooke and Obama can get serious anytime now.

John Robertson said...

I've been wondering how all this has been going down with you, Chris. It must be very personal, and heart-rending.

I'm afraid that the US and its friends are facing a protracted expiation for past sins, despite the past hard work and good intentions of so many like yourself. I don't have much confidence in the ability of Obama, Biden, Holbrooke et al to "save" us from that, although perhaps they can reduce it some by working to convince people in the region (Taliban leaders themselves and their ilk may be a lost cause?) that there are those in the US who sincerely want to help them find toward a better life on their own terms, rather than (as under Bush and his predecessors) on terms that we set and impose.

Can that ever be possible, or am I just drinking kumbaya juice?



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