The news from Italy Monday [September 21] was a death knell, rung from belltowers nationwide. They tolled for six Italian paratroopers, mostly young men in their twenties, victims of a suicide bomb in Kabul. Within hours of the September 17 attack, longstanding calls for Italy’s withdrawal from the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan had grown to a deafening chorus.
Italian soldiers “should be brought home by Christmas,” thundered Umberto Bossi, leader of the xenophobic Northern League and a minister in Italy’s ruling rightwing coalition.
The chorus is echoed across Europe, especially in nations that have committed heavily to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which spearheads the peacekeeping effort.
A mid-September poll by the Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera found that only one in four Italians supports intervention in Afghanistan – the same proportion registered by pollsters in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Almost 70 percent of Germans now favour immediate withdrawal. The ISAF is backed by a scant 36 percent of the French public, the Paris daily Le Figaro reported on August 18, slightly more than the 34 percent found among Canadians.
Among them, these six nations field 24,500 of the 64,500 foreign troops currently in Afghanistan, just under the 29,950 total from the United States, where support is at 39 percent overall but a meager 23 percent among Democrats.
Yet even at present troop levels, warn military leaders, the situation is in a perilous downward spiral. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (the next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of the U.S. contingent in Afghanistan, concluded in a report released Sunday [September 20].
Put bluntly, the 42-nation UN-mandated peacekeeping alliance is on the brink of crumbling, with total victory for the Taliban – a ragtag terrorist army of 10,000-15,000 men – waiting in the wings.
“The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily,” McChrystal added, “but we can defeat ourselves.”
A NEW DAWN FOR TERRORISM
“The consequences of a withdrawal would be disastrous,” agrees Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini, UN special ambassador on refugees, who recently testified on the conflict before the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “This is not a war that any of us would have chosen to fight, but it is the reality that confronts us.”
That reality encompasses many disturbing issues. Chief among them is the power of Islamic terrorism, which has been the world’s chief security concern for more than a decade.
In the past two years, there has been growing reason to hope that the threat is on the wane, chiefly because new models have emerged to inspire the Muslim young. Perhaps the most influential is the opposition movement in Iran, where fundamentalist Islam seized the world’s attention with the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 – and where it now appears to be in steep decline.
There are abundant signs that Iran’s reactionary mullahs and their political henchman, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have lost popular legitimacy in the wake of June’s fixed election. Some 70 percent of Iranians were born after 1979, and they are clearly chafing under the regime’s puritanical restrictions. A return to the moderate Islamic policies of former President Mohammad Khatami – or to full-fledged secular government in Iran – would have global implications.
Next door in Turkey, a moderate Islamic party already holds power, and is steadily pressing its case for entry into the European Union. Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister since 2003, Turkey has consistently demonstrated that economic progress, personal freedom and mainstream Islamic values are compatible.
An unambiguous Taliban victory, however, would spectacularly revitalize violent fundamentalism, giving new life to its romantic appeal and ability to recruit fighters and suicide bombers.
That development, too, would bear global implications.
“The perceived defeat of the USA and NATO, the most powerful alliance in the history of the world” would have a “hugely intoxicating impact on extremists worldwide,” predicts General David Richards, Chief of the British Army General Staff and former head of the 9,000-strong British force in Afghanistan.
“Anything might then be possible in their eyes and that’s what we should expect…”
NUCLEAR NIGHTMARE MADE REAL
Withdrawal would ratchet global security back to the late 1990s, when unimpeded terrorist indoctrination and training by Al Qaeda in Taliban-governed Afghanistan led directly to the carnage at the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. They were followed, in the next four years, by bloody assaults on urban rail systems in London and Madrid and residential and tourist complexes in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
Since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, Al Qaeda and other extremist organizations have been constantly on the run. Many of their leaders have successfully eluded capture, but their ability to strike outside of war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan has been seriously diminished. The last significant attack on Western Europe or North America was in 2005.
An abandoned Afghanistan is almost certain to re-emerge as terrorism central headquarters, an outlaw state at a strategic intersection between east and west, north and south. Its fate is the common concern of such otherwise dubious bedfellows as Russia and its former Central Asian satellites, Turkey, the United States, France, Britain, and Germany, China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
All of them have suffered attacks at the hands of militant Islamic extremists – including their own citizens – who were trained in Afghanistan.
“We don’t live in an isolated world,” says Khaled Hosseini. “An unstable Afghanistan is not only dangerous for my people, but also for the region and for the West. We had proof of that on September 11, 2001.”
Finally and most chillingly, there is Pakistan: nuclear-armed and teetering endlessly between lukewarm support for the peacekeeping effort and a clandestine role as the Taliban’s major arms supplier.
As long as the world remains focused on establishing stability in Afghanistan, providing it with serious economic and military assistance, Pakistan’s full takeover by extremists will remain unlikely.
If Afghanistan is abandoned to the Taliban by international forces, the outlook for Pakistan will immediately change – and the nightmare of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists will become altogether too real.
International commanders acknowledge that far too many mistakes have been made by their troops and by NATO air sorties, often at the cost of terrible civilian casualties. In part, this is due to the fact that ISAF is badly overstretched on the ground.
General McChrystal argues that a dramatically different approach is necessary, emphasizing much more direct attention to the security needs of Afghanistan’s people.
But it will take more troops, rather than fewer, to achieve those aims. McChrystal’s report called for more than doubling the present U.S. personnel commitment. In the present climate of public opinion, it will be hard to convince Americans that escalation is the answer – and harder yet to keep European nations from reducing their contingents significantly, or completely withdrawing them.
“Yes, there have been errors, but we must go forward,” responds Brigadier General Rosario Castellano, commander of the Italian forces in western Afghanistan. “If we don’t act to reconstruct this country, if we don’t build a bridge to the future here, who will do it?”
Frank Viviano – barganews staff reporter – World View CBS5