Friday, 29 July 2011

29 July 2011

I probably don’t need to remind you that it’ll soon be 10 years since foreign forces invaded Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It’s also now more than four months since foreign forces started taking military action in Libya, ostensibly “to protect civilians” as authorised by UN security council resolution 1973.

Why do I link Afghanistan and Libya? Because, simply put, both campaigns are going badly. Some analysts would put it even more starkly: both campaigns are failing.

Afghanistan first. After nearly 10 years, what has been achieved? Well, within weeks of the US-led invasion in late 2001, the Taliban had been overthrown and al Qaeda had been denied its Afghan sanctuary. That was the easy bit.

Scroll forward a decade, and what do we have? Taliban and allied insurgents apparently gaining in strength and bravado in many parts of the country; President Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, looking ever more precarious in Kabul and facing the prospect of an imminent thinning out of the foreign troops on whose security presence he depends.

Just over the past few months, in the key southern city of Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, four major figures have been assassinated. In April, the police chief. Then, two weeks ago, President Karzai’s powerful half brother. At his funeral, a suicide bomber killed the city’s top religious leader. And last Tuesday, the mayor was similarly killed by a suicide bomber who had hidden explosives inside his turban.

What they all had in common was that they were regarded as close to the president, and were backed by the foreign coalition. Whoever was responsible for their deaths (the Taliban label can disguise a wide variety of ethnic, clan or tribal groups), the message to the Afghan people was clear enough: “The foreigners can’t even protect their own people, nor can the president. There will be no peace until our demands are met.”

And the message for the rest of us? “We know you’re preparing to leave; and we know you no longer have the heart for this war. All we have to do is wait until you’ve gone.”

As for Libya, well, four months is a lot shorter than 10 years. And of course, unlike in Afghanistan, there are no foreign troops on the ground. (In fact, that’s probably not precisely true, unless we turn a blind eye to the advisers, spies and target-spotters who everyone believes are there, but who are careful to remain well out of sight.)

It was, to say the least, unfortunate timing that just a day after the British government announced that it was recognising the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council in Benghazi as the country’s “sole governing authority”, the rebels’ military commander was shot dead in the most obscure of circumstances.

On the battlefield, it is clear that neither side is capable of landing a knock-out blow. However many targets the NATO warplanes find to bomb, they have not destroyed Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, nor have they blitzed the way for a rebel victory.

No wonder there is frustration in foreign capitals, and growing signs of splits within the anti-Gaddafi camp.

The commander who was shot dead yesterday, General Abdel Fattah Younes, was a deeply controversial figure. He was a former interior minister, and until the start of the uprising in February, he was seen as one of Colonel Gaddafi’s most influential friends and allies. Even after he defected to the rebel cause, there were doubts about where his true loyalties lay.

Throughout yesterday, the city of Benghazi, the rebels’ headquarters, was swirling with rumours about his whereabouts. Some reports suggested he had been arrested by his own side to be questioned about alleged unauthorised contacts with Gaddafi forces. Officially, he was being brought to Benghazi to discuss the progress of the rebel campaign.

Then, reports began to circulate that he had been shot dead. Late last night, the reports were confirmed – the official story was that he had been ambushed and killed by pro-Gaddafi loyalists on the road to Benghazi.

Perhaps he was. Or perhaps he was killed by his own side. Perhaps by the time you read this, the picture will be clearer. But whoever killed him, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his death significantly strengthens the pro-Gaddafi cause and weakens the rebels.

That’s not the message they wanted to hear in London or in Paris.

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