The Afghan fire looks set to spread, but there is a way out
The war in Afghanistan is running out of control. The multiple attacks mounted by Taliban guerrillas on Nato occupation troops on Monday and Tuesday - in which 10 newly arrived French soldiers were killed near Kabul and a US base hit by suicide bombers - are the most daring since the US-led invasion of 2001. More than 100 people have been killed in fighting in the past three days, as the war against foreign occupation has spread from the south to the east and the area around the capital.
The assault on the French reinforcements follows the killing of nine US soldiers in a single attack last month, and the freeing of hundreds of Taliban prisoners from Kandahar's main jail in a night-time raid in June. As Afghanistan experiences its own Iraq-style surge of US and other Nato forces, the death toll is rising inexorably. The number of occupation troops killed in Afghanistan overtook the Iraqi level in May. Attacks on US-led forces are up by 50% on last year, Nato air attacks have increased 40%, and more than 2,500 have already reportedly lost their lives in the conflict since January - getting on for half of them civilians.
In a damning indictment of the impact of Nato's occupation on Afghanistan, aid agencies reported earlier this month that insecurity was spreading to previously stable areas and the killing of civilians by all sides rising sharply. The US air force seems to have developed a particular habit of attacking wedding parties - last month 47 civilians were killed in one strike - while British troops, who lost 13 soldiers in June alone, killed a woman and two children last weekend, which the high command naturally blamed on the Taliban.
This is the conflict western politicians have convinced themselves is the "good war", in contrast to the shame of Iraq. Britain's defence secretary, Des Browne, recently declared it "the noble cause of the 21st century". Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces a similar level of domestic opposition to the Afghan imbroglio as in Britain, insists that France is fighting for "democracy and freedom". Barack Obama calls it the "central front" in the war on terror and, like Gordon Brown, is committed to transferring troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to bolster the fight.
That will certainly jack up the killing and suffering still further. As Zbigniew Brzezinski - the former US national security adviser who masterminded the early stages of the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan - argues, putting more troops in is not the solution: "We run the risk that our military presence will gradually turn the Afghan population entirely against us."
The original aims of the invasion, it will be recalled, were the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and the destruction of al-Qaida in the aftermath of 9/11. None of those aims has been achieved. Instead, the US and its friends brought back to power an alliance of brutal and corrupt warlords, gave them new identities as democrats with phoney elections, and drove the Taliban and al-Qaida leaderships over the border into Pakistan.
Far from reducing the threat of terrorism, this crucible of the war on terror has simply spread it around the region, bringing forth an increasingly potent campaign of resistance and giving a new lease of life to a revamped Taliban as a champion of Pashtun nationalism. And as mission creep has detached the Afghan war from its original declared target of al-Qaida - let alone the claims made about women's rights, which have been going into grim reverse again in much of the country under Nato tutelage - it has morphed into the kind of war of "civilisation" evoked by Sarkozy and Browne, a certain recipe for conflict without end. No wonder British politicians have talked about digging in for decades.
Meanwhile, the long-term cost of the west's shameless support for Pakistan's military dictatorship as the linchpin of its war on terror, while forever preaching democracy, became clearer this week. General Musharraf's welcome departure has left the country in political crisis and exposed the contradictions at the heart of the US relationship with the nuclear-armed state.
Even while the Pakistani military has relied on the US alliance to underpin its strategic position with India, its intelligence arm, the ISI, has maintained links with the Taliban as a long-term regional investment - at the same time as the Pakistan army has fought the local Taliban under American pressure. Now the threat of full-scale US incursions against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's border areas risks profoundly destabilising one of the most combustible states in the world.
Afghanistan was supposed to be a demonstration of Nato's expanded horizons in the post-Soviet new world order. Instead, as with Nato's disastrous engagement with Georgia, it has underscored the dangers of giving the cold war alliance a new imperial brief. The growing conflict must also be added to the litany of US foreign policy failures that have been overseen by George Bush - from Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Lebanon to Latin America and now the Caucasus - and the evident necessity of a new direction.
That is likely to be a mountain to climb, even under an Obama presidency. The Afghan war certainly cannot be won, but the bitterly unpopular 2005 agreement for indefinite bases in the country left no doubt that the US is planning to stay for the long haul. Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, made clear in a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington earlier this year that western interests in Afghanistan went well beyond good governance to the strategic interest in having a permanent military presence in a state that borders central Asia, China, Iran and Pakistan.
The only way to end the war is the withdrawal of foreign troops as part of a political settlement negotiated with all the significant players in the country, including the Taliban, and guaranteed by the regional powers and neighbouring states. A large majority of Afghans say they back negotiations with the Taliban, even in western-conducted opinion polls. The Taliban themselves insist they will only talk once foreign troops have withdrawn. If that were the only obstacle, it could surely be choreographed as a parallel process. But given the scale of commitments made by the US and Nato, the fire of the Afghan war seems bound to spread further.