The 2007 reversal

It was in 2007 that the war really took an opposite turn. In Kandahar, the Taliban were able, with complete impunity, to blow up the city’s prison walls, release three hundred Taliban and an even greater number of common criminals, and retreat in a bus, scot-free. Just a few miles away, a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team heard the explosion but did not budge. The fact was that Kandahar, despite the offensives of an administration controlled by the Karzai family, was a Taliban stronghold. None of this was reflected in the official discourse, and the foreign media themselves remained vague on the situation. Few people investigated seriously and when they did, the results of the investigation were known only to a small number of politicians, at the top, who continued to not change course.

On the field, right in the middle of the country in the province of Urōzgān, it could be noted that the Italians had paid the Taliban to avoid clashes, and that the Dutch remained strictly confined and were not holding the ground. The governor of the province spent most of the year in London and received his guests in the garden of his strongly guarded villa. In 2008, it was decided to send additional troops (perhaps ten thousand). Too little, too late. Was it possible to hold a country like Afghanistan, which had an active sanctuary at its disposal, with some seventy-five thousand men, even if there were twice that many when including the security firms (almost exclusively in cities, especially three or four cities)?

By 2007-2008, the war was lost, not at the military but at the administrative level, at least in the Pashtun area—or more than the southern half of the country. The Taliban, as noted, were present at the scale of the villages. This was obviously not newsworthy. There is nothing spectacular about groundswells affecting the social field underhandedly, especially when they occur in such a surreptitious way. The Taliban technique was classic, based on the mobilization methods that Mao Zedong, in another ideological context, had popularized in China.

The Mujahedeen I had known in 1980, especially during my second stay, longer than the first, had reacted spontaneously to the foreign (and impious) intervention, even if the local traditional authorities had set the tone. In a quarter of a century, many things had been shaken up by the war: the local leaders had made way to young commanders, and tribalism had lost ground. Undoubtedly partly thanks to their training by Pakistani intelligence services, the Taliban had adopted Leninist-Maoist-style persuasion/coercion techniques to impose themselves. They denounced the regime’s corruption, significant in the cities but in the countryside as well, and the presence of foreigners who claimed to impose rules contravening religion. They established their first contacts in mosques and followed them up with shows of force. And once their presence was established, they stood in for the state, which was absent and corrupt anyway, and rendered non-negotiable justice according to rules familiar to the populations.

Facing them was an Afghan army with many weaknesses: insufficient troops (fifty-eight thousand men in 2008); too many non-Pashtuns in its ranks, an obvious disadvantage in the Pashtun region; defective logistics, which made it dependent on the coalition troops; and finally, chronically, numerous deserters, even if there are no reliable statistics.

The Taliban, for their part, had serious advantages, in particular thanks to Pakistan, which, in addition to logistics and sanctuary, offered them an inexhaustible reserve of volunteers (with a population of at least fifteen million Pashtuns, if not more). In addition, the Taliban exercised administrative control over the population in the south and, gradually, the north of the country. Moreover, they had understood that the center of gravity of the conflict resided in Western public opinion, which had become unable to bear military losses. Thus, in 2009 in Uzbin, not far from Kabul, the French forces lost ten men in an ambush. The French president of the republic went there to pay them homage. The French media—and part of public opinion—adopted a victim’s interpretation of the ambush, stating, overall, that the soldiers had not fallen in the line of duty, or even of their commitment, but because of an unfortunate accident, which should have been avoided.

There were other advantages offsetting the relative military weakness of the Taliban: the Taliban opposed the presence of foreign troops while combating a manifestly corrupt regime, which, in ten years, had done nothing for the rural areas, or so little; the values preached by the Taliban were more familiar in rural areas than for instance “democracy” or the role of women; and finally, their ideological motivation (whatever the judgement on its nature) was infinitely higher than that of their adversaries, whether Western or Afghan.

False hopes had been built up since 2007 on the possibility of rallying certain Taliban. This turned out to be a delusion. In this type of civil war, the aim was not nothing less than to destroy the adversary as soon as the foreign troops evacuated the country. In fact, the Taliban’s main condition for any negotiations was the departure of all foreign troops.
The situation in the country in 2007 (six years after the beginning of the presence of the coalition gathered around the United States) was one of dismaying mediocrity: very few combatants on the Western side; and a badly armed, unmotivated Afghan army (often joined just to have regular wages).

In spite of appearances, Hamid Karzai was essentially the master only of Kabul. A few provincial capitals were under control, but with the passing of time they mostly depended on the local governor’s capacity to manage an increasingly restricted domain.

On the whole, never were counterinsurgency and reconstruction of the nation (a pretty much impossible task for foreigners) anything other than slogans. It is difficult to see, in fact, how such ambitious tasks could have even been considered with no knowledge of the local culture or language. Once again, the contrast with the colonial period is striking. The worst was not having the slightest information on local culture, customs, and behavior. Failure was contained in the project itself.

Apart from tiny inflation, all the indicators were negative: three-quarters of the population were suffering from malnutrition; just as many had no access to drinking water; infant mortality affected twenty percent of children under five; sixty percent of Afghans had no access to health care; and finally, three-quarters of adults (and ninety-two percent of women) were illiterate, with primary school being attended by sixty percent of the boys and thirty percent of the girls.

Under these conditions it is easy to understand why the slogan “Nation building” was Utopian. Seven years after the intervention, the balance was pathetic. Globally, Afghanistan was ranked 176th out of 178 countries for corruption. And according to the World Bank, it was one of the five poorest countries of the world.