Why the Afghan surge will fail

The Taliban will bide their time and emerge undefeated.

As the "surge" begins in Afghanistan, we are told that there are early signs of success in the Nato coalition's final attempt to defeat the Taliban. But while it is true to say that in some areas -- such as the town of Marjah, in Helmand -- the Taliban appear to be giving up land without a fight, the weaknesses of the US military plan remain clear.

As the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, pointed out in leaked cables to President Obama, the sanctuaries that matter most to the Taliban are not in Afghanistan at all, but just across the border in Pakistan. So long as they can hold on to these strongholds, the Taliban will bide their time and regroup once US troops begin to withdraw in 18 months' time.

The group's oft-quoted boast that "Nato has all the watches, but we have all the time" rings truer than ever.

The Taliban have learned from experience to avoid costly hand-to-hand combat, but as the assault proceeds they are likely to return and target the new Afghan security forces with roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

The surge in Afghanistan is closely modelled on that in Iraq, but is unlikely to meet with similar success. The key factor in the success of the Iraqi surge was the US recruitment of Saddam Hussein's old Sunni militias to police some of the most violent enclaves. After several years of vicious sectarian warfare, Iraq's Sunni minority had come to fear Shia militias and Iran more than the US occupation forces, and formed the "awakening councils" in response.

Yet such conditions and incentives do not exist in Afghanistan, where the Pashtuns, who dominate the Taliban, are by far the largest ethnic group and face no major sectarian or regional threat to their interests. Any attempt to "buy off" the insurgents is likely to fail, as anti-occupation sentiment shows no sign of diminishing.

At best, the surge will provide the political cover necessary for Barack Obama to withdraw with some semblance of dignity. In the meantime, the Taliban are content to sit this battle out, aware that they can strike back at a more opportune moment.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.