Paul Vallely: The mess of present-day Afghanistan

20 January 2010

The history of the Iraq war can be tidied in retrospect. Not so Afghanistan, says Paul Vallely

THINGS look so much neater with hindsight. Jonathan Powell set out a succinct case for the war in Iraq when he appeared at the Chilcot Inquiry this week.

Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction and had lied about using them. He had lied about getting rid of them. He produced no evidence for his assertion that he had destroyed his chemical and biological stockpiles. He refused to co-operate properly in letting international inspectors search his country for them. It seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that he still had them, as intelligence reports suggested.

What Tony Blair’s chief of staff omitted to mention was that this was not the reason why many people opposed the war. Most of us felt that the international inspectors had not been given enough time to do the job in such a way as they could pronounce definitively one way or the other.

And most of us thought that, even if Saddam still had such weapons, the international community had not exhausted non-violent methods of dealing with him through the United Nations. Even so, there could have been nowhere near so much certainty then about the thinness of the pretexts for war as can be felt now. Mr Powell reminded us of the potency of the pressures to invade.

Events in Afghanistan in recent months have shown how difficult it is to interpret the messy present, as distinct from the nicely delineated events of the past. But the attack by the Taliban on the heart of the Kabul government territory this week was a significant moment. Suicide bombers and gunmen penetrated to the very centre of a heavily protected capital, and got to within 100 metres of the building in which the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, was swearing in his new cabinet.

The target and the timing of what was clearly a well-planned and finely co-ordinated strike shows that the Taliban is more than a bunch of hardline Islamist extremists and warlords defending their turfs. It is a body capable of strategic political thinking. Despite ever-higher numbers of foreign troops, it has steadily extended its influence to the point where huge areas of Afghanistan are vulnerable to levels of violence that the country has not seen since 2001, when the West invaded.

What has become clear is that in the Pashtun areas, which straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, we face a serious threat that creates a fragile political situation not just in Afghanistan but also in a country that possesses nuclear weapons. It creates the un­nerving possibility that these could one day fall into the hands of the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies.

President Obama concluded some time ago that the war in Iraq was wrong, and has begun the process of winding down the US military presence there. By contrast, he has judged that the war in Afghanistan is a just pursuit of US national security. That is why he has authorised a troop surge.

This may turn out to be the lesser of evils; but it must be accompanied by a greater effort at building hospitals and schools, and promoting economic and social development. Victory in Afghanistan cannot be won by military force alone, but by only by making Afghans feel better off and safer. Strengthening and training the Afghan army and police are a crucial factor in that.

Some work has been done, to the extent that Afghan security forces took the lead in countering the audacious Taliban attack. But the Taliban has proved itself to be a formidable adversary, politically as well as militarily. Continuing to support the corrupt and clannish Karzai regime, unpalatable as that might seem, may be the only realistic option open to us.

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