The hard road out for Nato

‘A defeatist position [in Afghanistan] is not possible for us. We cannot leave in our underpants . . . or without any."

That was Mikhail Gorbachev addressing senior Soviet officers in 1987, two years before the Soviets pulled out.

Two years before Nato pulls out, the same frantic search is under way for something that could be called a victory, or at least "peace with honour". Meanwhile, Nato soldiers die, together with many more Afghans.

Most Nato countries dumbly soldier on towards the scheduled departure date of 2014, even though the situation is clearly spinning out of control: a quarter of the 48 Western troops killed in Afghanistan this August were murdered by Afghan government soldiers.

The most striking thing about these so-called "green-on-blue" killings, according to a 2011 Pentagon analysis reported by Bloomberg, is that only 11 per cent of them are the result of infiltration by the Taleban.

Most of them are due to grudges or disputes between coalition and Afghan army troops, which suggests that Nato's current focus on training Afghan forces to "stand up" on their own is just as futile as all its previous strategies.

Last year, a team of United States Army psychologists investigated the nature of these grudges and quarrels, conducting interviews with dozens of American and Afghan focus groups.

Their report, "A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility", concluded that the Afghan troops see the American soldiers as "a bunch of violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane infidel bullies hiding behind high technology".

The US troops, in return, generally view their Afghan allies as "a bunch of cowardly, incompetent, obtuse, thieving, complacent, lazy, pot-smoking, treacherous and murderous radicals."

This does not constitute the foundation for a successful collaboration.

The view of the Afghan soldiers is more positive, despite all that, than the civilian population's attitude towards the foreign forces.

A poll conducted in late 2010 by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic Research reported that nearly 60 per cent of civilians wanted all the foreign soldiers gone within a year.

Forty per cent would still want the foreigners out even if their departure meant that the violence got worse.

In the main conflict areas, 40 per cent of the population believed that roadside bombings and other attacks aimed at killing US and other foreign forces were justified.

Yet less than 10 per cent of Afghans, according to the same poll, actually want to see the Taleban back in power. They are not being inconsistent. They just don't buy the standard Western line that only the foreign occupation has kept the Taleban and their alleged al-Qaeda allies from returning to power.

There is some evidence that the Taleban themselves don't really believe that either. They remember that even when a Taleban government ruled in Kabul from 1996 to 2001, they never succeeded in extending their authority to the northern parts of the country where the non-Pashtun minorities live - and taken together, those minorities account for 60 per cent of the population.

In an interview published in the New Statesman last month, a senior Taleban commander known as "Mawlvi" told Michael Semple, a former United Nations envoy to Kabul during the period of Taleban rule, that "the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious".

"It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taleban to win this war.”

The foreigners have lost their war, but the Taleban, still overwhelmingly Pashtun, will not be able to defeat all the other ethnic groups in the civil war that follows Nato's departure.

In fact, they won't even do as well as they did in the similar civil war after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989: "The Taleban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect," Mawlvi said.

He may be wrong about that. His assumption is that after the foreigners leave the Afghan army, which is overwhelmingly recruited from the non-Pashtun groups, will break apart into the same Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias that thwarted the Taleban's drive to control all of Afghanistan after the Soviets left.

But those ethnic militias no longer exist, and their former commanders have grown fat and corrupt in the service of the foreigners.

The Taleban have won their war against the foreign occupiers, but they probably won't win a decisive victory in the civil war that follows. And the only remaining way that the foreigners could still influence the outcome would be to dump their puppet president, Hamid Karzai, and start rebuilding the ethnic militias now.

They won't do that, so their continued military presence over the next two years is irrelevant to the ultimate outcome. And public opinion in Afghanistan is turning against them so fast that they might still end up leaving without their underpants.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Manawatu Standard