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Downhill in Afghanistan



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 19, 2008

LONDON - How far is downhill? Well, that's like asking how long is a piece of string. But whatever the answer, the American/NATO military effort in Afghanistan, triggered by 9/11, seems to have all the marks of a quick descent.

In Barack Obama's phrase, American public opinion doesn't get it. How could they when Obama himself, supposedly a fresh eye on the international scene, bangs the drum for more troops and yet more force?

Does European and Canadian opinion get it? Apart from the Canadians, who have had the good sense and the foresight to give a date for the withdrawal of their troops, public opinion appears to be asleep at the switch. Their young men are dying for a method of attack that the older men have devised without ever being challenge d to think it through.

The policy, made within hours of the atrocity of 9/11, seemed to be to try to bomb the country to cinders, irrespective of the number of civilian casualties, not learning the lesson of Dresden, that wild bombing rather than leading to capitulation merely reinforces local opinion against the aggressor. Later, troops on the ground have continued to alienate local opinion with their seeming inability to differentiate between fighters and civilians.

The war is being lost as the Taliban, defending Al Qaeda or just fighting for their own piece of earth, gain the upper hand, improving their strength and their military skills by the month. The popper growers watch their profits soar, with plenty of the profits going into Taliban coffers, because the West is unable to face honestly the one policy that might work- legalization of the drug trade, as the former minister of finance of Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, suggested in Prospect magazine. (He argued for a controlled experiment in one province.)

Bush, the American military and now Obama seem to think the only way out is to take their failed tactics into Pakistan, despite the opposition of the Pakistani government and its powerful military chiefs. (So much for territorial integrity, the war cry of NATO for Georgia.)

Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress, that he wanted Òa new, more comprehensive military strategy that covers both sides of that border.Ó Al Qaeda bases inside Pakistan will be hit hard and the West wonders anxiously why public opinion within Pakistan is becoming dangerously anti-American and why, after many quiescent years, the anti-Indian mujadeen have retooled for new attacks on the Indian presence in Kashmir and even the Indian embassy in Kabul, and done so with the clandestine support of Pakistan's secret service. India is increasingly seen as an ally of America which, although exaggerated, highlights India missing the opportunity offered by ex President Pervez Musharraf, with his generous compromises, to end the Kashmir conflict once and for all. In the eyes of Pakistan and many outsiders America should have pressed India to agree.

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The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is 1,640 miles long, much of it virtually inaccessible remote and mountainous, with only the locals able to move freely on goat and foot paths. This is the distance between New York and New Mexico. It contains the warlike Pashtuns who provide nearly all the Taliban insurgents. The 25 million Pashtuns are one of the largest tribal groups in the world. In fact they are the largest ethnic group wi thout a state of their own. Pakistani and Afghan government institutions have never been able to gain a foothold in these areas. Taxes are not paid and outsiders repulsed. This goes back to the time of Macedonian would-be conquerer Alexander. The British likewise were defeated. So were the Afghans and the Soviets. The latter killed more than a million Pashtuns and drove three million into exile in Pakistan and Iran and still they were compelled to retreat. As for post-independence Pakistan it has never controlled more than 100 meters to the left and right of the few paved roads.

The most remote place on earth has now become the most dangerous. But both history and present day activity suggest it can never be subdued by outside powers. At best, over generations, it can be quietly subverted. The Pashtuns want schools- at least for males- health services and agricultural development. (Twenty years ago I was the host of the Pashtuns as I studied the work of the successful Pakistani NGO, 'The Motorbike Bank', that offered credit and farming advice from a travelling motorcyclist, trained as an agronomist.)

Osama bin Laden is their guest and in the Pashtun tribal code a guest must be looked after and given protection. Bin Laden will have to be found by careful police work, as Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal, was run to earth by the Israelis.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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