US in denial: Watershed in Afghanistan

Diplomatic statements have ignored the strategic and psychological battles won by the Taliban.

Afghan police were left to pick up the pieces after a devastating series of Taliban attacks across the country [AFP]
Afghan police were left to pick up the pieces after a devastating series of Taliban attacks across the country [AFP]

Doha, Qatar – In one of the first official US reactions to the attacks against Kabul and cities across eastern Afghanistan last weekend,  Ryan C Crocker, US ambassador to Afghanistan, said: “The Taliban are really good at issuing statements, Less good at actually fighting.”
And after accusing (or crediting) the Haqqani network based in the tribal area within the Afghan-Pakistan borders’ region, the ambassador added: “Frankly I don’t think the Taliban is good enough.” 
These declarations have come after the insurgents targeted sensitive installations in the country’s most important population centres – including at least three prominent targets in Kabul – in one of the most coordinated and pronounced assaults since the occupation began 11 years ago.
The US government has clearly chosen to shift the blame across the border to Pakistan, and to put a brave face on its  humiliation – by downplaying what the Taliban are calling the beginning of their “spring offensive”.
The US State Department called the attacks “cowardly”, and praised the “swift and effective response” of Afghan forces.
Furthermore, in the same breath, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John R Allen, praised the Afghan forces who “were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated …  and [who] largely kept the insurgents contained”. 

“Perhaps it is Washington, not the Taliban, that is pretty good at ‘issuing statements’.”

A quick survey of the Obama administration’s media strategy, and its swift and well-coordinated official declarations, shows that perhaps it is Washington, not the Taliban, that is pretty good at “issuing statements”.
Asymmetric warfare
If taken seriously, I mean not as media newspeak, Ambassador Crocker’s Clausewitzian evaluation of the Taliban and the state of play in Afghanistan belongs to the conventional wars of a past era.
However, in their unconventional war against the US-led occupation of their country, the Taliban insurgency isn’t expected either to fight face-to-face or “fairly” against the superior firepower of the United States and its allies.
To characterise the Taliban attacks as “cowardly” is frankly mind-boggling. And I am not referring merely to the fact that the insurgents knew too well that they wouldn’t come out alive from the attack, or that part of the operations involved suicide attacks on NATO facilities.

Like them or hate them, the Taliban fight against the US and Afghan forces has been effective and, yes, impressive. It will be taught in the US and other war academies for decades to come.
As Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reported from Kabul, the civilian casualties from the most recent attacks were relatively low – considering the three suicide bombings. Instead the Taliban were attempting to send a spectacular message: if they want to, they can strike fear and panic right in the heart of the capital. 
Furthermore, in asymmetrical warfare, statements can have a more powerful psychological effect than raw firepower.
The Taliban’s claim that their well-planned and sophisticated operation was only the beginning of a spring offensive has probably resulted in many soiled undergarments across the country – they have generally proven credible in their pronouncements of war, certainly more credible than the predictions of the occupying forces.

“[The Taliban] have generally proven credible in their pronouncements of war, certainly more credible than the predictions of the occupying forces.

The US-led war and occupation of Afghanistan has already gone on longer than the Vietnam War, and longer than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Washington’s war pundits assured Americans that the US occupation would be nothing like that of the Soviets, or that the British during their first, second and third Afghanistan wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. They have also proven dead wrong.
So have their assurances that this would be a cakewalk for the US “liberators”, easily fending off “the oppressive Taliban” proved to be nonsensical.
According to news reports, the number of attacks across the country has increased considerably in recent weeks, as fighters return from Pakistan.
Clearly, the recent cowardly US soldier killing spree against Afghan civilians in their homes has helped shore up support against the US occupation.
And now that the Obama administration speaks openly about withdrawing combat troops by 2014, there is little doubt that many Afghans, including more than a few in the newly trained national army, will find their place among those staying – the Taliban.
What’s their secret?
Is there something special about Afghanistan’s geography or culture that no foreign superpower has been able to win a war there or secure an occupation? Perhaps.
Is it the large support given to the Taliban from the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic segment of Afghan society? Is the failure of the corrupt Karzai government to govern – or to provide basic services to the people – to blame? Is it the high civilian casualties in the war at the hands of NATO forces? These factors most probably add to the mix.
It is nonetheless amazing how a people who have suffered so much since Afghanistan became a republic four decades ago could still go on fighting.
The 1970s featured internal strife among communists, Islamists and others, while the 1980s witnessed horrific Soviet occupation and cynical Cold War manipulations.

“The Taliban and their allies have been unrelenting in their slow and calculated resistance against the ‘foreign and Western occupiers’ who continue to visit havoc upon their homeland.

Soon the vacuum left by the Cold War in the 1990s was filled by regional powers – who helped widen and deepen the national divides. And in the past decade, Afghanistan has become the main battlefield of the US “global war on terror”.
And yet the Afghans, notably the Taliban and their allies, have been unrelenting in their slow and calculated resistance against the “foreign and Western occupiers” who continue to visit havoc upon their homeland.
The Taliban’s endurance could be also explained by any number of factors, extending from Pakistani support to religious beliefs – and permitting and/or taxing the drug trade.
Such cases of relying on regional support and unsavoury practices to sustain and subsidise resistance have been documented from Latin American to Africa and Asia.
But what is special about the Taliban is, in some ways, similar to the reasons behind Hezbollah’s success against Israel’s occupation in Lebanon.
They reject all compromises with the occupiers, and cast away their values, laws and ideas. They don’t heed pleas from Western dominated international institutions, nor fraternise with their enemies’ “peace camps”.
They believe, and are tightly united, in their cause of freedom from foreign occupation – denying NATO much actionable intelligence against the fighting group. The Taliban has also been consistently sticking to this one sacred goal, while dismissing any diplomatic formulae that are not conditional on withdrawal – first and foremost.
The Afghans obviously know by experience, wit or instinct what the encyclopaedic West continues to ignore: No foreign power, mighty as it may be, has succeeded in the past century to overcome the indigenous will of the people for freedom from foreign rule.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara

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