There is nothing that better sums up the utter failure of America's longest war than getting ambushed as you are trying to get the hell out of the county. And yet the April 1 debacle in Baluchistan was in many ways a metaphor for a looming crisis that NATO and the U.S. seem totally unprepared for: with the clock ticking down on removing most combat troops by 2014, there are no official negotiations going on, nor does there seem to be any strategy for how to bring them about.
"I still cannot understand how we, the international community and the Afghan government have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 -- elections, new president, economic transition, military transition -- and negotiations for the peace process have not really started," said Bernard Bajolet, former French ambassador to Kabul and current head of France's foreign intelligence service.
When the Obama administration sent an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009 as part of the "surge," the goal was to secure the country's southern provinces, suppress opium cultivation, and force the Taliban to give up on the war. Not only did the surge fail to impress the Taliban and its allies, it never stabilized the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Both are once again under the sway of the insurgency and opium production has soared. What the surge did manage was to spread the insurgency into the formerly secure areas in the north and west.
With the exception of the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, virtually everyone has concluded that the war has been a disaster for all involved.
The Afghans have lost more than two million dead over the past 30 years, huge sections of the population have been turned into refugees, and the country is becoming what one international law enforcement official described to the New York Times as "the world's first true narco state." According to the World Bank, 36 percent of Afghans are at or below the poverty line, and 20 percent of Afghan children never reach the age of five.
The war has cost American taxpayers over $1.4 trillion, and, according to a recent study, the final butcher bill for both Iraq and Afghanistan will top $6 trillion. The decade-long conflict has put enormous strains on the NATO alliance, destabilized and alienated nuclear-armed Pakistan, and helped to spread al-Qaeda-like organizations throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Only U.S. Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Dunford, head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) thinks the war on the Taliban is being won, and that the Afghan Army is "steadily gaining in confidence, competence, and commitment." Attacks by the Taliban are up 47 percent over last year, and the casualty rate for Afghan soldiers and police has increased 40 percent. The yearly desertion rate of the Afghan Army is between 27 percent and 30 percent.
In theory, ISAF combat troops will exit Afghanistan in 2014 and turn the war over to the Afghan Army and police, organizations that have yet to show they can take on the insurgency. One of the Army's crack units was recently over-run in eastern Afghanistan. Given the fragility of the Afghan government and its army, one would think that the White House should be putting on a full court press to get talks going, but instead it is following a strategy that has demonstrably failed in the past.
The tactic of "shooting and talking" that is central to the surge has produced lots of casualties but virtually zero dialogue, hardly a surprise. That approach has never worked in Afghanistan.
Part of the problem is that the call for talks is so heavily laden with caveats and restrictions that that they derail any possibility of real negotiations. Among them are that the Taliban have to accept the 2004 constitution and renounce violence and "terrorism."
However, the Taliban argue that the 2004 constitution was imposed from the outside, and they want a role in re-writing it. As for "terrorism," the Taliban denounced international terrorism five years ago.
As Anatol Lieven, a King's College London professor, senior researcher at the New American Foundation, and probably the best informed English language writer on Afghanistan, points out, the Americans consistently paint themselves into a corner by demonizing their opponents.
That, in turn, leads to "a belief that any enemy of the United States must inevitably be evil. Not only does this tendency make pragmatic compromises with opponents much more difficult (and much more embarrassing should they eventually be reached), but, consciously or unconsciously it allows the US government and media to blind the US public, and often themselves, to the evils of America's own allies."
For instance, the Americans will not talk with the Haqqani group, a Taliban ally, even though it is the most effective military force confronting the NATO occupation. The same goes for Iran, even though Teheran played a key role in organizing the 2003 Bonn conference that led to the formation of the current Kabul government. Iran also has legitimate interests in the current war. Because opium and heroin are not a major problem in the US, Washington can afford to turn a blind eye to the Afghan government's alliance with drug dealing warlords. Heroin addiction, however, constitutes a national health crisis in Iran and Russia.
It is not exactly clear what will happen in 2014. While American combat units are supposed to be withdrawn, in accordance with a treaty between NATO and the government of President Harmid Karzai, several thousand Special Forces, trainers, CIA personal, and aircraft will remain on nine bases until 2024. That agreement was the supposed reason for the massive suicide bomb May 16 in Kabul that killed six Americans and 16 Afghans. Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group based around Kabul and the eastern part of the country, took credit for the attack.
That attack underlines how difficult it will be to forge some kind of agreement.