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War in Afghanistan: Sacrifices in vain?

By Kellie Tranter - posted Monday, 6 February 2012

War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn’t any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone’s being worse off – Karl Kraus.

A NATO report made public last week suggests that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, is set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw. Although not a strategic study the report begs the question, has the sacrifice of our Australian diggers been in vain? Has our contribution to the war on terrorism as Australian taxpayers been money well spent?

Early this year Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar reportedly confirmed having opened peace talks with U.S. authorities, demanding the release of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, and the complete pullout of U.S. led forces. Of course, President Obama wants to maintain America's prestige and negotiate a withdrawal that leaves America's credibility intact. This may be fair enough, but what if the Taliban won't compromise? What leverage will the U.S. have at the negotiating table?


Peace talks require groundwork, mutually acceptable compromises about things like the location for formal negotiations (Qatar), and procedural issues like a possible ceasefire. These preliminaries help to buy time domestically for political leaders who want to be seen to be doing something but who are faced with bad choices, like the symbolic withdrawal of troops when there's been no victory or fighting a war for something less than vital interests (i.e. national security). Any peace talks doubtless will be lengthy, costly and exhausting: for what end they're being pursued remains unclear.

Peace talks with the Afghan Taliban logically are a spoke in the wheel for the recently vocal proponents of "we dare not withdraw troops from Afghanistan and let Afghan women face the prospect of the return to Taliban rule”, so it's strange that we haven't heard a word - not one word - from any Australian politician from the major political parties calling for negotiations to include Afghan women if the Taliban is to be reincorporated into the political system.

After going toe to toe about war strategies with U.S. “institutional interests” since shortly after his election, President Obama in 2009 determined and issued his “final orders” for Afghanistan (and Pakistan). December 2010 was selected as the next assessment point because it was one year after the additional 30,000 U.S. troops committed in 2009 arrived in Afghanistan, allowing enough time to assess progress and validate the operational concept.

When a leaked 2011 National Intelligence Estimate report found that Afghanistan was “mired in stalemate”, military and Pentagon officials argued that assumptions used by intelligence agencies were flawed. Virtually the same line was taken following the release of the 2010 National Intelligence Estimate report.

“Stalemate” probably means that the Taliban can continue to absorb casualties, and continue to fight at the level they have been, and seek safe haven when required, indefinitely. If so, there isn't any point where military pressure or troop escalations can achieve diplomatic or political success. Perhaps that is consistent with President Obama symbolically announcing the withdrawal of 33,000 “surge” troops by the end of this year, leaving 68,000 troops. Ignoring the rhetoric, that move appears to be a unilateral withdrawal of about a third of U.S. troops without a single concession from the Afghan Taliban.

Indicators of progress towards any solution on the ground are equally poor.As a result of killing 25 Pakistani soldiers last year, the U.S. now pays six times as much to supply its troops in Afghanistan via alternative routes after Pakistan closed the border crossings to NATO convoys. 


Earlier this year the United States Air Force released its investigation into a 2011 killing of eight American airmen and a security contractor by Afghan air force officer, Ahmed Gul. Gul had declared his desire to kill Americans, behaved erratically at work, and frequented a mosque known for its anti-American views.

Similarly, reports about the recent killing of French soldiers in Afghanistan's eastern Kapisa province suggest that the responsible Afghan soldier was prompted by the video showing U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban insurgents. France apparently is pulling out forces by the end of 2013.

A more recent classified coalition document indicates that Afghan forces have attacked American and allied service members nearly three dozen times since 2007.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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