Out of Afghanistan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am

Western troops went into Afghanistan to fight terrorism. They succeeded: the country's Taleban rulers were toppled, the al-Qaeda extremists they were sheltering were killed, arrested or took flight and, just for good measure, the foundations of a new nation headed by a democratic government were laid. The Taleban is making a comeback and military leaders admit the fighting is far from over, but the original mission was long ago accomplished. Time then, for the foreign soldiers to get out and let Afghans get on with their lives.

There is nothing radical in this suggestion. It is exactly what the US and its allies have come to realise in Iraq. That war, unlike the one in Afghanistan, was unjustified. US President Barack Obama has been quick to put in place a timetable to scale back the American military presence in Iraq.

Al-Qaeda threatened global security and stability with its 9/11 attacks. Moving against its havens in Afghanistan was necessary, and dislodging the Taleban was an essential part of that process. Al-Qaeda was long ago soundly thrashed on Afghanistan's battlefields and it is now an ideology rather than a fighting force. The belief among terrorism experts that its leadership is holed up in Pakistan's neighbouring provinces has never been proved.

The Taleban's fundamentalist Islamic beliefs are at odds with western values. Its disregard for women's rights, dislike of culture and literal interpretation of Muslim scriptures are perceived as regressive and damaging. Regardless, it still has a sizeable amount of support in parts of Afghanistan. Its struggle for a return to power is now wrongly the focus of US, Nato and Australian troops' efforts.

Mr Obama was right to order a reassessment of US policy in Afghanistan. A war is no longer under way. His new focus is on a counterinsurgency, reconstruction and development. With the country sorely in need of infrastructure, health and education facilities, his help on the latter two aspects is welcome; on the first, though, he is surely misguided. To contend that a western military presence of tens of thousands is necessary could be argued in terms of preventing a return to a Taleban-sponsored al-Qaeda protectorate. A case could also be made that extremism is on the rise in Pakistan and that this could easily spill across the border. These are maybes; to subscribe to either as the basis for a foreign-policy issue involves a commitment of years, perhaps decades. But to contend that the Taleban is, in itself, a threat to the international community, as Mr Obama has indicated, is flawed.

Allowing the Taleban to return to power would clearly be a humiliation for the US and its allies. There could well be a humanitarian disaster if this were to happen. But there are countries the world over with questionable governments and people living in extreme hardship. Several have serious terrorism threats that could easily spill into the wider world - yet there is no rush to invade them, overthrow their leaders and restore order.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that foreign governments must respect his country's sovereignty. But he owes so much to the west for his circumstances that he has not pushed this vociferously. Elections are in August, though, and it is easy for opponents to say he is a US puppet. Mr Obama has led western governments in criticising his administration for being inefficient and corrupt.

Afghanistan's problems are political. Bringing the Taleban into the political process is the only way to deal with its desire to seize back the power taken away by western military force. Negotiations and elections are the way forward. There is no place for the west in this beyond being a facilitator.

Iraq taught the US and its allies a valuable lesson. It is time that knowledge was applied to Afghanistan. A timetable for troops to pull out has to be drawn up, and Mr Obama's statement that the US needs an exit strategy is a good start. There will be no humiliation in such a process - just a realisation that there are limits to nation-building.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post