von Cornelius Friesendorf
Guerillas win as long as they do not lose, and government forces lose as long as they do not win. In Afghanistan, this adage holds, once again, true. Western civilian and military leaders want us to believe that insurgents and criminals are running out of options. Indeed, after much initial stuttering, NATO has transformed into a veritable counter-insurgency machine, with the United States shouldering most of the burden. Casualties among the Taliban and other enemies of NATO are enormous. Enormous, too, is the coalition of NATO and Afghan troops, approaching half a million soldiers and militia-types.
But it is unlikely that NATO will win this war before the end of 2014, the magic date when combat is to be done by Afghans only. Two main conditions for successful counterinsurgency are missing. The first is a legitimate government – many Afghans regard the Karzai administration and the Afghan security forces as a predatory Mafia. The second condition is the absence of external interference – more fighters are coming from Pakistan than NATO can flip or kill. The possibility of a reversal to civil war or Taliban rule is real.
In Kabul, the sprawling, dusty capital in which more than five million people are somehow surviving, a feeling of doom and gloom is in the air. Suicide attackers and kidnappers may lurk behind the next corner, or in the car stuck in the same traffic jam as you. A homemade bomb may be hidden under that pile of trash over there. The Italian soldier, suspiciously eying the cars next to us, says to me: “It’s as in Baghdad: Anything can happen anywhere at any time.” The ubiquitous guns, blast walls, barbed wire, and checkpoints provide only a modicum of security.
Most Afghans do not have a choice: they have to go outside and navigate the nightmare that Kabul has become. Rich Afghans stay inside their poppy palaces purchased thanks to the thriving drug trade, or travel in convoys of several armored vehicles and pick-up trucks protected by paramilitary outfits.
Foreign diplomats, soldiers, and police officers hide inside their fortresses. Even my hardened NGO friends who used to stroll around Kabul are more cautious now. The Kabuli cafés and restaurants catering to foreigners, where Afghans are often barred from entering, are conspicuously empty.
This is what the insurgents want: to prevent the Afghan government and the internationals from practicing the counterinsurgency principle of interacting with the population. We can no longer afford the financial costs of this war, and we cannot stand the images of body bags coming back from Afghanistan. The insurgents know this. And since they are not losing, NATO is.