Amazing as it sounds, NATO, the world's most powerful military alliance, may be losing the only war the 61-year old pact ever fought. All its soldiers, heavy bombers, tanks, helicopter gunships, armies of mercenaries, and electronic gear are being beaten by a bunch of lightly-armed Afghan farmers and mountain tribesmen. This weekend in Lisbon, NATO's 28 members face deepening differences over the Afghanistan War as public opinion in the United States, Canada and Europe continue to turn against the conflict.

President Barack Obama again painfully showed he is not fully in charge of US foreign policy. His pledge to begin withdrawing some US troops from Afghanistan next July has been brazenly - even scornfully - contradicted by US generals and strongly opposed by resurgent Congressional Republicans. Hardly anyone believes the president's withdrawal date. Obama is fresh from groveling before Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He pleaded with Israel's leader to impose a short, token freeze on settlement building in exchange for a multi-billion dollar bribe from Washington of advanced US F-35 stealth warplanes, promises of UN vetoes, and raising the value of US arms stockpiled for Israel's use to $1 billion. Rarely has a US president crawled so low. Israel will likely take Obama's bribe, with more sweeteners, but not before rubbing his face in the dirt to show who really runs US Mideast policy and as a warning not to mess with Israel. The last US president to challenge Israel's colonization of the West Bank, George H. W. Bush, was ousted in 1992 after one term. Obama appears to want out of the Afghan War. His final gamble of sending 30,000 more troops into the $7.5 billion monthly war has so far failed to produce the hoped-for decisive victory. But powerful pro-war groups, including the Pentagon, the arms industry and Republicans, are thwarting the weakened Obama's attempts to wind down the war. Last year NATO member Denmark spent $415 million for its mission in Afghanistan, up from $135 million in 2007. As the nation’s total defense budget for 2009 was $3.87 billion, the Afghan war accounted for almost one-ninth of the country’s annual military spending. Denmark, which lost seven soldiers in Iraq, has already lost 31 in Afghanistan.

US, Canadian and European politicians who backed the Afghan War fear admitting the conflict was a huge waste of lives and treasure. Their political careers hang in the balance. Canada's prime minister, who is trying to assume the former role of Britain's Tony Blair as Washington's most obedient ally, just announced 900 Canadian soldiers will remain in Afghanistan after his own pullout date, ostensibly for "training." That, of course, is the new euphemism for staying on as a permanent garrison to keep the Afghan client regime in power. "Training," as with US forces in Iraq, really means the old British Raj's native troops under white officers. Canadian journalists who opposed continuation of the Afghan War, or exposed many of the lies that justify it, have been purged from their newspapers under pressure from the Harper government - which claims, ironically, to be fighting in Afghanistan for "democracy." While the US heads deeper into war and debt, its European allies are fed up with what was supposed to have been a limited "police action" to eliminate al-Qaida bases. Instead, Europe got a full-scale war against Afghanistan's Pashtun tribes raising uneasy memories of its 19th-century colonial "pacifications." France's new defense minister, Alain Juppé, openly called the Afghan conflict a "trap" for NATO and called for an exit strategy. He is quite right. By contrast, British Defense Chief Gen. Sir David Richards, warned, "NATO now needs to plan for a 30 or 40 year role." In short, permanent occupation.

That may be the bottom line, at least for the imperial camp. Central Asia's resources are the real reason. The US-installed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is demanding the US scale back military operations and night raids that inflict heavy civilian casualties. Washington counters that Karzai is mentally unstable. He is marked to be overthrown once Washington can find a suitable Pashtun replacement. America's rational for invading Afghanistan was to destroy al-Qaida. But CIA chief Leon Panetta recently admitted there were no more than 50 al-Qaida operatives left in Afghanistan. The rest - no more than few hundred - fled to Pakistan years ago. So what are 110,000 US troops and 40,000 NATO troops doing in Afghanistan? Certainly not nation-building. Most reports show Afghanistan is in worse poverty and distress than before the US invasion. While the platitudes and synthetic optimism flowed thick at Lisbon, giant US Army bulldozers, demolition teams and artillery were busy leveling wide swathes of Afghan homes around the Pashtun stronghold, Kandahar. In 2006, US Marines conducted a similar ruthless campaign to crush the rebellious Iraqi city of Falluja. The US is using the same punitive tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq as Israel employs on the occupied West Bank: targeted assassinations, death squads, demolishing buildings and whole neighborhoods to punish and open fields of fire. In fact, the US military has often been guided by Israeli advisors in such operations. Destroying large parts of Kandahar is a sign of growing US frustration and a sense the war is being lost. It certainly won't win hearts and minds of the locals, the stated goal of US proconsul Gen. David Petraeus.

Like the rest of the Pentagon, Petraeus is determined that the mighty US military must not be defeated by Afghan tribesmen. The humiliation would be intolerable. Defeat in Afghanistan would bring demands for major cuts in the bloated US military, a Leviathan that consumes 50% of world military spending. Washington's so-called national security establishment (in Britain they used to be called "imperialists") also fears failure in Afghanistan threatens to undermine the entire NATO alliance. Europe is slowly re-emerging as a world power, however fitfully and painfully. NATO has been the primary tool of US geopolitical control of Western Europe since the late 1940's. The Japan-US security pact has played the same role in north Asia.

The loss of the Afghan War by the US and its reluctant allies will call into question the reason for the alliance and likely hasten Europe building an integrated military independent of US control. America's grip on Western Europe would be ended. That is why Afghanistan so unnerves Washington's right wingers. The defeat of Soviet armies in Afghanistan in 1989 began the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Could the same fate be in store for the American Raj?

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Comment by Ari Rusila on December 2, 2010 at 11:16
COIN strategy was based on hopes that U.S. troop numbers and operations will set the Taliban on its heels and give the Afghan government and friendly regional authorities the time and space they need to hold off the Taliban on their own. Now the Taliban is on the ground leading power in most (over 30) of Afghan provinces and the Taliban insurgents are doing much more than the Afghan government to establish good governance and accountability. The Taliban aid groups also coordinate widely their activities with local population and so they can claim the credit and not the government.


If local commitment or participation to “new” COIN strategy is weak I think that it does not have any possibilities to realize. Instead of terrorists or Al Oaeda U.S. seems to fight against just ordinary citizens.

EU has outsourced its foreign policy to U.S., it is blindly following U.S. military suspicious strategies only to have good transatlantic relations and this keeps EU always as bystander in international politics. Instead EU should create alternative models from EU’s own strengths such as soft power use. Or if this is too demanding it could be wise implement EXIT strategy.

Critics of the COIN strategy claim it is a tactical gimmick that enables policy-makers to avoid thinking long and hard about what the endgame in Afghanistan will actually look like. It is not a recipe for winning the war in the long run, they say; it is only for avoiding defeat in the short run. I think today even this is questionable. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War following: “Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I agree.
(More e.g. in “Will Coin work in Afghanistan“ and “Afghanistan - to be or not“)
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