The request by the United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, for an additional 40,000 troops sharply highlights NATO’s rapidly worsening problems. If President Barack Obama concedes Gen. McChrystal’s demand, the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan will rise to 140,000, including 110,000 Americans. There is, however, a void at the centre of NATO policy on Afghanistan. The original plans were to find Osama bin Laden, destroy Al Qaeda, and overthrow the Taliban regime, which harboured bin Laden. All those plans have failed disastrously, recoiling on the occupation forces. The Taliban were driven out of Kabul in five weeks. But they have never relinquished Helmand province in the southwest, and are now resurgent in the north and east. They control Kunduz and have just taken Nuristan, inflicting serious casualties on U.S. forces. Politically, NATO has had to collaborate with non-Taliban warlords, whose attitudes and ways are often not very different from those of the Taliban. In addition, the civilian government of Hamid Karzai is corrupt, bereft of legitimacy, and in any case barely exists outside Kabul. Independent observers regard at least a third of the votes for him in the yet-to-be-settled presidential election as fraudulent. Meanwhile, more than 31,000 Afghan civilians have died as a result of the NATO invasion, which occurred in October 2001. If the very recent suicide bombing near the Indian Embassy in Kabul is a guide, the Taliban may be re-establishing a presence in the capital. As to Osama bin Laden, he has never been found.
The issue of Afghanistan is now causing serious problems in several NATO countries, particularly the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Germany. The Obama administration has reproved Gen. McChrystal for making public his troop request. But it is not long since Mr. Obama himself castigated his predecessor George W. Bush for not listening to the military over Afghanistan and Iraq. Public support for the war is falling, and requests for substantial increases in troops and matriel are being likened to the huge and ineffectual U.S. troop increases in Vietnam in the 1960s. Al Qaeda continues to be a global threat but the Taliban are clearly not. At most they are a regional threat and it is surely significant that it is Pakistan’s armed forces that have dealt most effectively with that country’s Taliban elements when they have been set that task. NATO, confused about what this global war on terror is all about, cannot solve anything in Afghanistan. It is time for the world to move towards an enforceable U.N. agreement that ends the U.S.-led occupation and restores Afghanistan’s tradition of strict neutrality, so that the region can find some semblance of stability and peace.