American and British exponents of a military escalation or ‘the surge’ in Afghanistan opportunistically expound two wholly contradictory views of Taliban strength. At one moment they are a movement of immense power on the verge of seizing power in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the possibility that they might soon have control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But the next moment Mr Brown is claiming that the Taliban has almost no support among Afghans. In the US Mr Obama and Mr Gates imply that the insurgents have such shallow roots that they can be largely defeated in 18 months so US troops can start to withdraw.
All this is very reminiscent of the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when President Bush and Tony Blair proclaimed that Saddam Hussein’s WMD were a threat to the whole world, but he was simultaneously very weak and could be overthrown and his country occupied without trouble. There are real parallels between the US and British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are not the ones which the White House and Downing Street are publicizing.
In both countries foreign forces were intervening in a potential or actual ethnic and sectarian civil war. In Afghanistan this is between the Pashtun on one side and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara on the other and has been going on for 30 years. In Iraq it is between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. The Sunni were the predominant community under Saddam Hussein and were displaced by the Shia after a horrendous civil war which reached its peak in and around Baghdad in 2006-7. Sunni insurgents did surprisingly well again US troops, but lost the war against the Shia.
The guerrilla war against the US in Iraq ceased because the Sunni community was being slaughtered by Shia death squads. “Judging by the body counts at the time in the Baghdad morgues, three Sunnis died for every Shia,” Dr Michael Izady, who conducted a survey of the sectarian make-up of Baghdad for Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, is quoted as saying. “Baghdad, basically a Sunni city into the 1940s, by the end of 2008, had only a few hundred thousand Sunni residents left in a population of over five million.” Defeated in this devastating sectarian civil war, the Sunni ended their attacks on US troops and instead sought their protection. The ‘surge’ of 28,000 extra US troops who arrived in the summer of 2007 had a marginal impact on the outcome of the fighting.