Losing the War in the Colony of Afghanistan

The latest news about Afghanistan varies from the profoundly dismal to the fatuously absurd.

One depressing story is the UN Office of Drugs and Crime report of November 15 that opium production for manufacture of heroin jumped to 9,000 metric tons so far in 2017, up 87 percent from 4,800 metric tons last year.  It noted that “insecurity and political instability” are key drivers of illicit poppy cultivation. In other words, the country is a lawless shambles.

But two days before this gloomy evidence of national insecurity the usual verbally-challenged US general assured us that things were looking good.  The US Defense Secretary, the widely-revered intellectual General Mattis, expressed pleasure that there is going to be an increase in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan and said that “Right now, I’d say there’s somewhere approximately two-dozen NATO allies and partner countries that are leaning towards raising the number of troops, now that’s out of 39 total countries on the battlefield, so it’s a little over two dozen.” 

How illuminating.  39 countries “on the battlefield” indeed.  That would be “somewhere approximately” rather bad news for those governments who imagine that their troops in Afghanistan as part of the “Resolute Support” mission are not on any account to be involved in combat, save in the last resort of defending themselves.  As stated by the US-NATO military alliance, “Resolute Support is a NATO-led, non-combat mission . . . to help the Afghan security forces and institutions develop the capacity to defend Afghanistan and protect its citizens in a sustainable manner.”  Nothing about battlefields, there.  But then, Mattis is understandably somewhat battlefield oriented. It was he, after all, who declared that “it’s fun to shoot some people.”

The US and NATO hierarchy keep trying to convince the world that Afghanistan is not a corruption-ridden quagmire of drug-production and savagery, and General Mattis told reporters in Kabul on September 28 that “uncertainty has been replaced by certainty” because of new US policy, and that “the sooner the Taliban recognizes they cannot win with bombs, the sooner the killing will end.”

At the Mattis press conference NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that following a Taliban attack on Kabul airport that day, which he described as “a sign of weakness, not of strength,” he “would like commend the Afghan Security Forces which are handling these kind of attacks and it is yet another example of how professional they are, how committed they are and how they are able to handle this kind of security threat.” 

From October 17 to 23 there were six major insurgent attacks which demonstrated that the militants are far from weak: 

At least 71 people were killed and hundreds wounded in suicide and gun attacks on police and soldiers in Ghazni and Paktia Provinces . . .  Some 50 soldiers were killed in a Taliban assault on a military base in Kandahar province . . .  A suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shiite mosque during evening prayers in Kabul, killing 56 people and wounding 55 others and another suicide bombing killed at least 33 people at a mosque in the central province of Ghor . . . A further suicide bomber killed 15 army officer cadets traveling in a bus in Kabul, and four policemen were killed in a Taliban attack on a security post in Ghazni province.

So the carnage continues, as do the visitors, and the New York Times reported that on October 23, the same day as the Ghazni policemen were killed, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “made a secret two-hour visit” to Afghanistan, and the Washington Post noted he “flew from Doha to Bagram [the massive US base]” while “a total news blackout was imposed until after they left the country and returned to Qatar.”

The NYT was forthright in stating how scandalous it is “that top American officials must sneak into this country after 16 years of war, thousands of lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent” and considered the furtive two-hour stopover to be “testimony to the stalemate confronting the United States because of a stubborn and effective Taliban foe that is increasingly ascendant.”  But deception capers went further than disguising the visit itself.

It was noted by the BBC that both the Afghan and US governments said the meeting between Mr. Tillerson and Afghanistan’s President Ghani took place in the country’s capital city, as tweeted by the State Department (“Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with #Afghanistan’s President @ashrafghani in Kabul”).  And this was right and proper, because visiting foreign government representatives should call on heads of state and not vice versa, and it seemed that appropriate civility had been observed.

Except that it hadn’t, because Tillerson didn’t go to the President’s office in Kabul, but spent his entire two hours at the heavily guarded US base at Bagram. 

Tillerson didn’t dare travel the 50 kilometers from Bagram to Kabul to meet President Ghani — but President Ghani had to travel to Bagram to meet with him, which tells us a great deal about how Washington regards Afghanistan and its elected president.  And then the attempt to have the world believe that the meeting took place in Kabul didn’t work out.

The deception collapsed because of a difference in a photograph of the meeting.  According to the Times, “a press release from the US embassy in Afghanistan includes a photo with the wall above the two men’s heads cropped out” by photoshopping, but another photograph showed a clock on the wall displaying international time, which indicated that the photograph was taken at the US base and not in the President’s office in Kabul. Then a helpful State Department spokesperson suggested that “the Afghan Government changed those photos probably to make it aesthetically more pleasing” which at least added a little humor to an otherwise pathetic farce.

It isn’t known what the visit was supposed to achieve, given that the Tillerson-Ghani meeting lasted less than an hour, although there was an eight-minute “media availability” at which four questions were asked by the six American journalists who were traveling with Tillerson in his aircraft.  No Afghan reporters were permitted to be present, a decision indicative of the tone and character of the visit as a whole, and it can hardly be expected that their exclusion would be regarded with approval by Afghan citizens.  The conduct of this visit gave the Taliban and all other anti-American elements in the country a boost that is unquantifiable but is bound to be substantial. 

Which takes us to another disastrous episode in US-Afghanistan relations, in May 2014, at which there were no aesthetically displeasing clocks in photographs when President Obama visited Afghanistan, because there was no meeting between him and the then Afghan Head of State, President Karzai.

Like Ghani with the Tillerson visit, Karzai had not been told in advance that Obama was coming to Afghanistan, but when eventually he was informed of his arrival he refused to travel to Bagram to call on him.  A US official said that President Karzai had been “offered a meeting with Mr. Obama during the brief visit but declined . . .  We did offer him the opportunity to come to Bagram, but we’re not surprised that it didn’t work on short notice.”

The condescending contempt of that statement and the arrogance of the US attitude did not escape the citizens of Afghanistan, and the Wall Street Journal observed that “Afghans praised President Hamid Karzai for refusing to meet with President Barack Obama during a brief visit to their country.”  But it is disgraceful that the President of the United States (and any Washington official, such as Tillerson) can visit Afghanistan without requesting the approval of its president beforehand.  Such insolent behavior wouldn’t be acceptable to the leaders of Germany or China or Burkina Faso — but it is obvious that Afghanistan isn’t important enough to matter. 

The ultimate insult of Obama’s visit was that he brought “country music star Brad Paisley with him to provide entertainment for the troops,” which may have added to the vexation of President Karzai whose office issued a statement that “The president of Afghanistan said he was ready to warmly welcome the president of the United States in accordance with Afghan traditions but had no intention of meeting him at Bagram.” 

Hamid Karzai stopped being a Washington poodle and made it clear that the president of the United States had failed to observe international custom and common courtesy and would be treated appropriately for his imperiously patronizing conduct. 

But things have changed since then, and when a US official now visits Afghanistan, and scorns custom and courtesy, the president of Afghanistan has to ignore the arrogant condescension of the colonial power and bow his knee by obeying orders to go to the visitor’s security cocoon in the Bagram base.  

It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Afghanistan that after sixteen years of US military operations and expenditure of over 800 billion dollars it is dangerous for the Secretary of State to visit the place unless his travel is kept entirely secret from the world.  But it is even more appalling that the United States treats Afghanistan like a US colony, as evidenced by the fact that the US Secretary of State can summon the Afghan president to meet him in a US military base, rather than paying him the basic respect due to heads of state.

Washington has not yet learned that winning wars and influencing people takes more than brute force and arrogance. The wonderful film series The Vietnam War, which I bought and am still watching (episodes 8 to 10 yet to be seen) is compelling evidence of that, especially to those who served there (as I did in 1970-71 in the Australian army).

Trump declared in August that “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition . . . preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.” But he’ll never do that if the United States continues to behave like a colonial master, as it did in Vietnam.  And we should bear in mind the haunting words of Trump’s Defense Secretary, General Mattis, who believes that “it’s fun to shoot some people.”

Brian Cloughley is a British and Australian armies’ veteran, former deputy head of the UN military mission in Kashmir and Australian defense attaché in Pakistan.