While the explosive detainee torture scandal continues to monopolize the front pages, a growing chorus of defence experts are declaring NATO's Afghanistan mission to be on the razor's edge of stinging humiliation.
Last month saw a new round of devastating critiques on the course of the war in the Pashtun south. One of them comes from U. of Victoria prof Gordon Smith, a supporter of the mission, who urges a stepped-up NATO presence along with his trenchant dis of current strategies.
In a report for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Smith doesn't mince words. While the goal of self-sustaining peace is worthy, he argues, current NATO policies are "not on course to achieve that objective, even within a period of 10 years.'
The Taliban - a "fluid coalition' not to be confused with the centrally controlled organization pre-2001 - may not be popular with many Pashtuns, he says, but they recognize it as an anti-colonial force with more loyalty to country than transient NATO.
And his punchline: failure to negotiate with this expression of Pashtun localism "will almost surely cede the field to them. We do not believe that the Taliban can be defeated or eliminated as a political entity in any meaningful time frame by Western armies using military measures.'
Says Smith, speaking to NOW, "I hear General Rick Hillier's optimism, but he is not the only general in charge of armed forces who has been optimistic. In the end, no matter how good the troops and how good the will, [victory] couldn't be pulled off.'
So, too, in March, Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces College in a submission to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, bluntly observed that the current NATO strategy is "unworkable and fatally flawed' and is "producing as many enemies as we are killing." NATO, he complains, has not even started talking or negotiating with its opponents, who, he says, "are motivated by the defence of their country, not love for the Taliban' and who "long to live and die like the heroes of their folklore.'
A generally optimistic observer, Dorn tells NOW there's every possibility that the switch from crude counter-insurgency to peace-building, witnessed recently, for instance, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under UN auspices, is still feasible in Afghanistan if realism prevails.
"We can't expect a corruption-free regime in the medium term in Afghanistan. The most we can expect is a Pakistan-type government, which has, admittedly, plenty of corruption, abuse, cronyism and Taliban sympathizers. In the long term, there is hope Afghanistan might be more like India.'
A different but equally sobering tack is taken by the March 2007 report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, tellingly called Breaking Point. Based on field work, the report paints a picture of an already struggling society in dismal decline.
The authors, Frederick Barton, co-chair of the Reconstruction and Development Group of the Princeton Project on National Security, and international security expert Karin von Hippel, argue that 2007 is the make-or-break year.
The capper to these bleak prognoses came from former U.S. National Security Council adviser Edward Luttwak just weeks before Dorn's parliamentary appearance. Writing in Harper's Magazine, the conservative senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and one-time consultant to the U.S. armed forces, offers a stunning repudiation of the Western powers' military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The title says it all: Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare As Military Malpractice.
Those fighting foreign forces, he writes, have the passive cooperation of local inhabitants, and "whether they fail to report insurgents to authorities out of sympathy for their cause or in terror of their vengeance is entirely irrelevant. In either case, the insurgents are in control of the population around them, and not the authorities.'
The ancient Romans, Luttwak tells NOW, managed with a small number of legionnaires to cruelly stamp out rebellions by destroying entire villages to set an example for the rest of the imperial subjects pondering resistance. But the Soviets did not dare cross that ethical line in Afghanistan, nor will NATO and the U.S. forces.
"In other words, every empire knows how to [do counter-insurgency]. No democracy can do it. I mean, no democracy should do it.'
Translation? The mission is doomed.