Patrick Cockburn: Why 'victory' in first phase of war on terror unravelled

The Independent

Published: 09 September 2006

It is the war that was meant to have ended for good. Just under five years ago the Taliban fled Kabul without firing a shot. But yesterday the Islamic militants showed they were back with a vengeance when a massive suicide bomb blew up beside an American convoy in the city killing 18 Afghans and two US soldiers. Fighting between the Taliban and Nato forces is raging across the south of the country.

The victory won by President George Bush in 2001 after the 11 September al-Qa'ida attacks on America has evaporated. "The fighting is extraordinarily intense. The intensity and ferocity of the fighting is far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis," the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brig Ed Butler said this week. Taliban units have taken over swaths of country around Kandahar and are increasingly active in and around the capital.

Nato defence chiefs meeting in Poland yesterday asked for a further 2,000 to 2,500 men to supplement the 18,500 Nato troops already in Afghanistan. Nato commander James L Jones called for reinforcements saying the next few weeks could be "decisive".

The suicide bomb near the US embassy was the largest to explode in Kabul since the overthrow of the Taliban. The bomber drove a Corolla packed with explosives which he detonated beside a US Humvee, tearing the vehicle apart. A spiral of brown smoke rose high into the sky from the blazing wreckage. The explosion was powerful enough to gouge a 6ft-deep crater in the road.

US troops stood guard over the bodies of two of their soldiers, one lying slumped in the gutter and the other covered by a plastic sheet. Near by were the remains of other bodies, Muslim prayer caps, floppy khaki coloured military caps and shoes. Some of the dead were street cleaners and seven were said to be foreigners.

Among the dead was the body of an elderly woman who had been sitting with her grand-daughter outside the apartment building where they both lived.

The victory by the US and its local allies after 9/11 was deceptively easy. Pounded by US bombers flying so high they could not be seen and often heavily bribed by emissaries of the CIA the warlords fighting with the Taliban changed sides or went home.

As the Taliban broke up in December 2001 I drove from Kabul to Kandahar and was amazed by how few people had been killed. Everywhere deals were being done between the old and the new regime so the Taliban could retire gracefully to their villages or across the border into Pakistan.

It was all too easy. Many of the local warlords stayed in business. There was little change in who held power on the ground. I visited one warlord south of Kabul who was so averse to giving his allegiance to Hamid Karzai, soon to be elected President, that he only recognised the authority of the UN and raised its blue flag over his village.

President Bush believed the victory was total and the Taliban had gone forever. By the spring of 2002 his administration was already planning to invade Iraq.

The White House and Downing Street exaggerated its own achievements in Afghanistan. The US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said that what had happened in Afghanistan was "a breathtaking accomplishment", even as US forces devoted their time to a vain pursuit of al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden.

But it took some time before the fragility of the regime became apparent. The Taliban had been deeply unpopular. Many Afghans believed it had been foisted on them by Pakistani military intelligence backed by Saudi money. In a country where there were land mines everywhere but few bridges and roads there was also a desperate desire for peace and development.

But President Karzai never controlled the four fifths of the country outside Kabul. One third of the MPs in the new parliament elected last year were warlords and drug smugglers. Aid was inadequate. For farmers in the southern provinces growing opium poppies was the only cash crop that could pay off their debts. Meanwhile the Taliban were raising fresh men. From a few hundred last year they claimed to have 12,000 men under arms in the south this year.

The most striking feature of the 4,000-strong British force dispatched to southern Afghanistan is its small size. Even the armies that Britain dispatched to Afghanistan, usually with disastrous results, in the 19th century were larger in number. There are hardly enough soldiers to defend themselves, still less to start an ambitious "hearts and minds" campaign.

In July 2002, 1,000 British peacekeepers were withdrawn as Britain handed over control of the international peacekeeping force to Turkey, leaving just 300 British peacekeepers.

The same month, 1,700 soldiers from the Royal Marines 45 Commando were sent home having largely failed to find al Qa'ida leaders in joint missions with US forces. Britain ignored entreaties from President Karzai for more troops. The military build-up for the Iraq invasion was already being planned.

Four years on, Nato troops are fighting for their lives in Afghanistan in battles which left hundreds of Taliban dead this week alone. The Taliban use tactics found so effective by guerrillas in Iraq. Suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives, as happened yesterday in Kabul, are a horribly effective way of destabilising a government. It forces foreign forces to retreat into fortified bases.

The roadside bomb, which has inflicted half of American casualties in Iraq, is a simple but fierce some weapon against a vehicle-borne army.

The British Government was warned what might happen. Generals admitted privately that in Afghanistan and in Iraq British soldiers could end up penned into their encampments unable to move outside its fortifications. It is nevertheless strange that the Government, having become entangled in a messy guerrilla war in Iraq, should make exactly the same mistake in Afghanistan.