Handing Over Hell: Britain's Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, left, hands over command of Task Force Helmand, Afghanistan, to Brigadier Gordon Messenger, even as Carelton-Smith concedes that the fight is unwinnable. (Sgt. A.J. Moore/UK Ministry of Defense)
Britain’s Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told The Times of London that a military victory over the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable.”
“What we need is sufficient troops to contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected Government,” he said in an interview last week.
NATO commanders in Afghanistan have as much credit as George Bush does in Iraq. Which is to say: none. As the Daily Telegraph journalist Ahmed Rashid writes in Descent Into Chaos, his just-published book on the disintegration of Afghanistan and the failure of western policy in Central Asia, “NATO’s unwillingness to take casualties forced it to depend more heavily on air power than the Americans had ever done, but in doing so it lost any hope of winning over the population.”
A British officer, Capt. Leo Docherty, said the very same thing when he quit the force in 2006: “We’ve been grotesquely clumsy — we’ve said we’ll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them.”
That said, Carleton-Smith is right in so far as “we,” the West, cannot defeat the Taliban. But the Taliban is eminently beatable, because it’s reviled by Afghans, who accurately don’t consider the Taliban Afghans. The problem is that a) Afghans can’t agree on the time of day if you chained them to Big Ben, and b) with US and NATO forces mucking things up (and yes, Sarah, bombing the hell out of civilians), the Taliban have a permanent foil for their genocidal freakiness. Their success isn’t a testament to their legitimacy. These aren’t nationalists looking to restore Afghan pride. They’re death-cult-addicted ethnic cleansers. But they play up every burst of western aggression and heavy-handedness and tactical stupidity to the hilt, serving their advantage. To top it off, we have Hamid Karzai presiding over a few thousand square feet of office space in Kabul and making it seem like he’s in charge, when in reality his tenure has been Afghanistan’s version of AIG derivatives. All bets are off now, he knows it, the Americans know it, NATO knows it, and worst of all, the Taliban knows it.
Sorry about the rant, but NATO sanctimony gets under my skin almost as much as the Bush junta’s sanctimony on Iraq and Afghanistan, considering the lost opportunities and the worsening nightmares to come (if you think the financial crisis is our worst problem, you’ve all got another thing coming, I’m afraid.). We had a terrific chance to make things right in Afghanistan and we blew it.