Afghanistan to return to its default setting

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron rambled a bit on his visit to Afghanistan last December, but ended up sounding just as deluded as United States President George W. Bush had been when he proclaimed ''Mission accomplished'' six weeks after the invasion of Iraq.

British troops were sent to Afghanistan, Mr Cameron said, ''so it doesn't become a haven for terror. That is the mission ... and I think we will have accomplished that mission.''

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was equally upbeat when addressing Canadian troops just before they pulled out in 2011. Afghanistan no longer represents a ''geostrategic risk to the world [and] is no longer a source of global terrorism,'' he said.

Both men are technically correct, since Afghanistan never was a ''geostrategic risk to the world'' or ''a haven for terror'', but they must both know that the whole war was really a pointless waste of lives.

Obviously, neither man can afford to say that the soldiers who died in obedience of the orders of their government (448 British troops, 158 Canadians) died in vain, but Barack Obama has found a better way to address the dilemma: he just doesn't offer any assessment of the campaign's success.

Now there's another ''election'' coming up in Afghanistan (on April 5), and at least three-quarters of the remaining foreign troops (perhaps all of them) will be gone from the country by the end of this year, and the whole thing is getting ready to fall apart.

This will pose no threat to the rest of the world, but it's going to be deeply embarrassing for the Western leaders who nailed their flags to this particular mast.

The election is to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has served two full terms and cannot run again. It will be at least as crooked as the last one in 2009: 20.7 million voters' cards have already been distributed in a country where there are only 13.5 million people over the age of 18.

Mr Karzai is so confident of remaining the power behind the throne that he is building his ''retirement'' residence next to the presidential palace, but he's probably wrong.

His confidence is based on his skill as a manipulator of tribal politics. It's not that the Taliban will sweep back to power all over Afghanistan once Western troops leave.

They really only controlled the Pashtun-majority areas of the east and south and the area around the capital even when they were ''in power'' in 1996-2001, while the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the ''Northern Alliance'' ruled the rest.

That pattern is likely to reappear, with the Taliban and the northern warlords pushing politicians like Karzai aside - probably not at once, when most or all of the Western troops go home at the end of this year, but a while later, when the flow of aid (which accounts for a high percentage of Afghan government spending) finally stops.

The new part-Taliban Afghanistan that emerges will be no more a source of international terrorism than the old part-Taliban Afghanistan was.

It was Osama bin Laden and his merry men, mostly Arabs and a few Pakistanis, who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks, not the Taliban.

True, bin Laden et al were guests on Afghan soil at the time, but it is highly unlikely that they told the Taliban about the attacks in advance.

After all, they were probably going to get their hosts' country invaded by the United States, so best not to bring it up. And there have been no international terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan in the past eight years, although the Taliban already controls a fair chunk of the country.

The election will unfold as Mr Karzai wishes, and his preferred candidate (exactly who is still not clear) will probably emerge as the new president, but this truly is a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The second long foreign occupation of Afghanistan in half a century is drawing to a close and Afghanistan's own politics and history are about to resume.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent London journalist.

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