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Afghanistan: what are we doing there?

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The United States Administration is said to be giving close consideration to its role in Afghanistan. The US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is calling for an extra 40,000 troops, while President Obama considers his options: a process that is said will take several weeks.

There are NATO and Australian troops in Afghanistan. There has been no mention of a joint planning meeting, so presumably these allies will be informed of the eventual US decision and will be required to put up or shut up.

Presumably, if the United States decides to pull out, all the allies will pull out and if the United States decides to increase troop numbers and stay the allies will stay.


The lack of input and involvement with the weighty policy issues the US is grappling with throws into stark relief the role of the allies as the Emperor’s fig leaf.

Naturally the US military will argue for increased troop numbers in order to tame the Taliban; they are not the most imaginative think tank in the Western World. Their solution was the same in Vietnam and in any case it seems like the best face saving device around, in fact the only face saving device.

When occupying and attempting to pacify the troublesome tribes of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Russians came up with the same solution, that is, until it all became too much and they left the Afghan Army to do the job and they left Afghanistan. And that seemed like a good idea except that the Afghan Army sold itself off in bits and pieces to various war lords.

The British had a very British solution, they drew a line on a map and along that line they built forts and all those Pathans on the Afghan side were bad and those on the Indian side were unruly but damned good fighters with the right leadership and not bad at polo either.

Afghan friends say the occupying troops are increasingly being viewed in the same light as the Russians, their continued presence is counter-productive and assists recruitment for the war lords and Taliban.

The US military rigid, conventional and closed wish to see Afghanistan in isolation; crush the Taliban and Afghanistan will have a good chance to build infrastructure and democracy. If only the dynamics of Afghanistan were so simple.


The dominant Pathans live on both sides of a porous colonial border. They have no interest in having an equal relationship with the Hazara, Tadzhik and Uzbek peoples, all of whom the Pathans or Pashtuns regard as having been put in Afghanistan to work for them. Conflict will form part of the fabric of Afghanistan for as long as these racial tensions remain unresolved.

Then there is poverty, opium, religious ideology, family feuds, village feuds, tribal feuds, and neighbours interfering for strategic, economic and religious reasons.

Nothing can be resolved in Afghanistan without changing the nature and role of the Pakistan Army and the intelligence services. In other words Afghanistan extends deep inside Pakistan and the United States and its allies have, to date, demonstrated few workable strategies to deal with this.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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