Huge efforts to isolate Taliban can be undone in an instant


THE MASS killing of Afghan civilians by a US soldier in Kandahar yesterday was a shocking reminder of an enduring truth of this decade-old conflict: the efforts of thousands of people over many years can be undone in a few seconds by the actions of a single, hate-addled individual.

It is a truth that cuts both ways. The increasingly frequent murder of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) trainers by the Afghans they are supposed to mentor has done as much to eradicate trust in the relationship between Kabul and its western backers as the sight of US marines videoed urinating on the corpses of insurgents, or the mindless decision to burn Korans at a US military base.

Six US soldiers were killed in the furious backlash to the Koran-burning, bringing the number of Nato trainers killed in the past five years to 75 at least. Two of those killed recently were high-ranking officers serving as advisers at the ministry of the interior. They were found on February 25th, shot dead in their offices at the tightly guarded ministry headquarters. All military advisers were immediately withdrawn and are unlikely to return without body armour and armed escorts.

Even such a tentative return is likely to be delayed in the face of a new wave of anger as the news spreads that nine women and three children were among the victims of yesterday’s killings.

The US embassy in Kabul speedily issued condolence statements in Pashto, Dari and English, assuring the Afghan people that “the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice”, but they are likely to do little to stop the spread of conspiracy theories implicating the Americans and their allies in a plot against the nation.

Few Afghans believe the burning of Korans in February was an anomaly. That incident felt like a calculated insult to many people, and probably did more to fuel the insurgency than 100 Taliban attacks.

Consequently, what seemed a just-about plausible strategy a few months ago now looks almost futile. The US and its allies in the International Security Assistance Force had planned to withdraw from combat duties over the next two years, to take up a “train and advise” role, alongside narrowly focused counter-terrorist operations aimed at eradicating any resurgence of al-Qaeda.

The enormous and growing deficit of trust in Afghanistan raises big questions over whether such a strategy is feasible. The lack of a strategic partnership agreement between the US and Afghanistan jeopardises any future counter-terrorism mission. A deal has been fudged by Washington and Kabul on the issue of custody of Afghan detainees, but not on the more vexed issue of US-led night raids on villages suspected of being insurgent strongholds.

As for the matter of future US bases in Afghanistan, Karzai said yesterday a decision would be put off until next year.

Such is the bleak reality facing US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron when they discuss Afghanistan tomorrow in Washington. The narrative they have presented on how the war will end has been eroded by the death toll among their soldiers and the daily headlines about the Karzai government’s venality – such as the Wall Street Journalreport over the weekend that the US-funded Afghan air force was using its aircraft to smuggle narcotics and illegal weapons around the country.

Support for the war is haemorrhaging in the US and the UK. Commentators in both countries question whether the continued presence of western troops, at great cost in lives and scarce resources, will do Afghanistan any good.

The issue now, and in the run-up to the Nato summit in Chicago in May, is how the post-surge western involvement in Afghanistan can prevent the situation from getting worse. Handing over security to Kabul without triggering an all-out civil war, with massive casualties, would count as a success right now. – ( Guardianservice)