Biting the hand that has sustained you for a decade is never a smart idea. So Afghan President Hamid Karzai could hardly be surprised at the criticism leveled against him after he said that NATO’s 12-year operation in Afghanistan had brought death and misery, but very little security.
In an interview with BBC Television Karzai said: “The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure.” He also accused NATO of ignoring Taliban and Al-Qaeda “sanctuaries and training grounds” in Pakistan in preference for airstrikes on Afghan villages, which he called a “violation” of sovereignty. Karzai even suggested that NATO was colluding with the Taliban to justify a continued Western military presence in the country.
Gen. Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, insisted the mission had not been a failure and accused Karzai of being “extraordinarily insensitive” to British soldiers, and of causing “distress” to the families of dead servicemen. The former NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, echoed Dannatt’s comments, and accused Karzai of being “unfair” to the soldiers who had died while protecting his country.
Faked emotional sincerity, traditionally the preserve of actors, now also appears to be the default position for the likes of Dannatt and de Hoop Scheffer. That’s because Karzai is right. He’s taken a cheap shot of course, and his comments are also connected to still-not-entirely-resolved negotiations over the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement, which will set the terms for American forces remaining in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
But the bottom line is Afghanistan is neither safe nor stable. Criticizing someone for stating the glaringly obvious hardly seems fair. Indeed the real shock is that despite all the evidence, Dannatt and de Hoop Scheffer really believe the mission has been a success.
Civilian deaths from the ongoing violence increased almost 25 percent in the first half of this year, according to a United Nations report, while deaths and injuries to women and children jumped 38 percent.
NATO has failed to defeat the Taliban and failed to provide good governance to Afghanistan. Indeed, after next year’s elections and troop withdrawal, it looks increasingly unlikely that much of the centralized political framework established since the invasion will survive.
Dannatt and others can whinge all they want, but Karzai did not criticize the dead; indeed he spoke of the cost to the West in “blood and treasure” in a conflict that has claimed the lives of 444 British servicemen and women and has cost the Treasury, according to the former British government adviser on Afghanistan Frank Ledwidge, more than $59 billion.
Dannatt, who was approached for this article but was unavailable, was the head of the British armed forces for a large part of the war, and before that was responsible for troop deployments to Afghanistan as head of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. De Hoop Scheffer was head of NATO until 2009. Rather than take the moral low ground by complaining about a lack of respect for dead soldiers and their families, it might help if they opened their eyes and explained why Afghanistan today is still closer to chaos than stability.
In his book, “Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure In Iraq And Afghanistan,” Ledwidge forensically examines the army’s tactical and operational failures, exposing a raft of poor decisions by senior personnel that cost the lives of Afghans and soldiers but added nothing to defeating the enemy.
Of course, the Taliban are responsible for many more Afghan civilian deaths than NATO, and military failings are not the only reason for the West’s failure in Afghanistan, nor perhaps even the salient one. But they are a part of it, and it would have better served all those who have been killed in this conflict if Dannatt and de Hoop Scheffer had addressed Karzai’s criticism, which they avoided doing.
Indeed, Karzai has been a disaster. Putting him in charge of a country that benefited from massive Western aid was thoroughly irresponsible. But if the West thinks Karzai’s bad, who or what replaces him after next April’s presidential elections could be even worse. Along with a couple of regional warlords, the candidates include Abdul-Rasul Sayyaf, the man who invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996 and whom the U.S. 9/11 Commission Report described as a mentor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is also understood that some of those convicted for the 2002 Bali bombing, in which 202 people were killed, trained at camps that Sayyaf ran in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Karzai, who appears to have suddenly discovered that previous leaders of his country have suffered for selling out to foreign interests, is belatedly engaged in talks with some Taliban leaders. He has said that he’s open to a power-sharing arrangement with them and it seems clear that the Taliban will enjoy undisturbed control of large parts of the south and east of Afghanistan.
Increasingly, the new Afghanistan that the West set out to build is starting to look worryingly like the old one. If Dannatt and others consider this to be a successful outcome to 12 years of bloodshed and the trillions of dollars spent on Operation Enduring Freedom, then the lunatics really have taken over the asylum.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.