"Victory in Afghanistan Is Impossible"

Monday 21 July 2008

by: Christophe Châtelot and Patrice Claude Interview Gèrard Chaliand, Le Monde

Geo-strategist Gèrard Chaliand believes that NATO's failures to reconstruct the Afghan countryside and deal with endemic corruption as well as increases in "collateral damage" have made military victory in Afghanistan impossible.

Writer, geo-strategist and "asymmetric war" specialist Gèrard Chaliand spends several months a year in Afghanistan, notably for the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS), a research center he helped to establish in Kabul along with Afghan researchers.

Le Monde: Given the setbacks experienced in Afghanistan, the two White House candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, are in agreement to make this country the center of the "war against terrorism" and to send reinforcements there in 2009. Having just returned from Kandahar, do you think that eight or nine thousand more soldiers will change the situation?

Gèrard Chaliand: No. Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. With the heralded reinforcements, there will be about 80,000 NATO soldiers on the ground. That is insufficient to control the terrain. We're in a military impasse. In this country, one and a quarter times the size of France with an incomparably more difficult topography, we would have had to send more men and above all to have actively contributed to ameliorating economic conditions in the countryside. Today, we must also try to negotiate. There's no other way out. The Taliban cannot win the war against NATO, which is just as incapable of eradicating the Taliban.

Outside of Kabul and several big cities, it's the Taliban who control the local governments, and not foreign soldiers, most usually barricaded inside their little forts. In the south and east of the country, the Taliban - with the support of a large part of the local population - have succeeded in establishing a political infrastructure, parallel hierarchies that are the real power. Now experience shows that when it's the opponent who exercises that power, the war is lost.

How did we get to that point?

The Taliban filled the vacuum left between 2002 and 2004, when the 15,000 GIs who were there were mainly busy with tracking bin Laden, when the other international forces remained concentrated in Kabul and nothing was done for the peasant populations, especially in the south and east (the Pashtun regions) even though those regions are the keys to the country.

International development aid, directed for the most part towards Kabul, represents less than 10 percent of the donations paid out. The reconstruction teams in the provinces represent fewer than 10,000 men for a population of 20 million rural residents!

Contrary to preconceptions, the Taliban have a better understanding of what is strategically important. They have understood that the conflict's center of gravity is the sensitivity of Western public opinion - which they must impress by killing NATO - preferably American - soldiers. Our refusal to incur losses is notorious.

But doesn't NATO also train an Afghan police and army?

The army comprises barely 58,000 still-poorly-equipped men. In total, it's planned to train 80,000 of them. They need double that. As for the police, like the rest of the administration, it's corrupt. How could it not be? They're paid $75 a month, when twice that much is needed to feed the average family. So they fleece the population.

We'd need to begin by punishing corruption at the highest level. Well, that doesn't happen. Sheltered by the government, some are enriching themselves significantly. All that plays into the hands of the Taliban. Their nationalist, anti-occupation, anti-corruption discourse wins them adherents.

If you add to that the multiplication of military blunders that kill lots of civilians because, in the absence of sufficient troops and out of the understandable concern to be careful of their men, the Americans prefer bombing, even if it means causing collateral damage ...

The Pentagon reports that the number of foreign jihadists reinforcing al-Qaeda constitutes a growing problem.

Neither al-Qaeda nor foreign fighters are conducting the insurrection. It's a Pashtun affair [the majority in Afghanistan, the tribe also numbers over 15 million members in Pakistan]. Even though they undoubtedly receive Pakistani logistical help because it's in Pakistan's interest to see that the country doesn't fall under India's influence, the Pashtuns fight for themselves first of all.

But if everything is lost, why does NATO remain engaged in Afghanistan?

All is not lost, because the Taliban cannot win militarily. But everything remains to be done from a political, administrative and economic point of view. At the outset, it was necessary to "clean out" the al-Qaeda sanctuary, which is now extremely weakened and exists above all in the form of an instrument of propaganda. At this moment, we stay there because we are there ...

There are also strategic reasons. Neighboring Pakistan, with 150 million inhabitants and the nuclear weapon - even if the latter is and will be ever more securitized - is the epicenter of the crisis. NATO is in Afghanistan because that allows it to be present to the east and west of Iran and at the gates of central Asia. What is probable is that three or four years from now, the next president of the United States will get tired of a conflict that makes no headway.