Friday, 17 October 2008

17 October 2008

I don’t know about you, but now that it seems global capitalism isn’t about to come crashing down around our ears after all, I reckon it might be time to try to catch up with what else is happening out there in the big wide world, beyond the hysteria of the money markets. (I‘m not suggesting the financial stuff doesn’t matter, simply that perhaps other things matter too.)

Afghanistan, for example. There’s a war going on in Afghanistan, as you may remember. A coalition of NATO-led troops are trying to “defeat the Taliban” (we’ll come back to that in a moment): many lives are being lost, both civilian and military. There are now more US and UK lives being lost in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

So maybe it’s time to take a long hard look at what’s going on. And that’s just what we’re going to do in tonight’s (Friday’s) programme. (If you’ve missed it by the time you read this, it’s available for the next seven days via Listen Again on the website.) It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, what the US administration is now doing, to try to redefine strategy for the coming months.

According to a report last week in the New York Times, US intelligence officials are warning of a rapidly worsening situation in Afghanistan, where they say reconstituted elements of al-Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban are now collaborating with an expanding network of militant groups.

What’s more, according to reports in the French press, a leaked cable from a senior French diplomat in London quotes the British ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, as saying that the international military presence there “is part of the problem, not the solution.”

And the outgoing British military commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told The Times 10 days ago that a military victory against the Taliban is “neither feasible nor supportable”.

So what it all adds up is that the entire NATO-led operation in Afghanistan is in big trouble. It began as a way of defeating the people held responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, and at first it did what it was meant to do: overthrew the Taliban, forced al-Qaeda into hiding, and installed a pro-Western government in Kabul.

But is all that now at risk of being reversed? If the Taliban are getting stronger again, might it be an idea to try to engage with at least some of them to see if there’s a way of encouraging them into a political, rather than a military, process?

And don’t forget, just across the border in Pakistan, there’s another war going on, as the Pakistani army tries to establish control in areas which have traditionally been left to local tribal leaders to look after. Trouble is, some of those leaders are sympathetic to, and offer hospitality to, Pakistani Taliban fighters who are both a threat to the government in Islamabad and only too happy to make common cause with their fellow Taliban in Afghanistan. (There are now more Pakistani troops fighting in the region bordering Afghanistan than there are US troops in Iraq.)

Complicated? You bet. But as the British discovered in Afghanistan in the 19th century, and as the Soviet army discovered in the 1980s, foreign armies tend not to win wars there. That’s why the fundamental policy review now under way in Washington is so important – and why I hope you’ll be able to listen to tonight’s programme and let us have your comments.

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