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Assassination & Insurgency at the Frontline Club

On Wednesday 11 June 2008 the Frontline Club in London hosted a discussion evening, Media Talk: Assassination and Insurgency - Are the Taliban Winning? Moderated by Nazanine Moshiri of Al Jazeera, the panel brought together Alastair Leithead (BBC), James Fergusson (journalist and author), James Appathurai (NATO spokesman), John D. McHugh (photojournalist) and, via Skype from Kandahar, Mawlavi Abdulsalam Zaeef (ex-Taliban ambassador to Pakistan). As with all the recent Frontline events I've attended, proceeds went to the Frontline Fixer's Fund, appropriate given the recent murders of BBC journalists Abdul Samad Rohani in Afghanistan and Nasteh Dahir Farah in Somalia.

All but the most optimistic would agree: things aren't going according to plan in the 'graveyard of empires' that is Afghanistan. Billions continue to be poured into both the military and the humanitarian 'reconstruction' efforts. Success - measures for which are both elusive and politicized - seems to be, as Leithead put it, about describing an 'ink spot' pattern across the country: a rebuilt school here, a Musa Qala there. Perhaps this is the quintessential counterinsurgency approach, exploiting granularity to gradually separate the insurgency from the people, but just as the school is rebuilt, so it is bombed again by the Taliban.

Despite the evolving adoption of more sophisticated COIN techniques, it remains the case that military options are undermanned. Former Commander ISAF, General Dan 'Bomber' McNeill, has suggested that 400,000 troops were the minimum required to quell the insurgency, but most commentators agree that increased manpower isn't the only thing that's needed. Attention is quickly shifting to Pakistan's role in the conflict. It has faced criticism for essentially ceding sanctuary to core Al Qaeda in the FATA and to Taliban elements, for sponsoring various other armed groups, for facilitating the transit of foreign fighters to the region. In short, for allowing itself to become a generally destabilising influence across the region. The Afghan government is weak and corrupt, the Afghan National Army is beset by organisational, training and resource problems and unfit to take over military operations. Meanwhile, the Taliban and criminal agents exploit gaps in governance, pushing back against ISAF's attempts to secure the tribal areas.

Leithead claims that popular support for both the Taliban and ISAF is waning, a position perhaps supported by certain members of the Frontline crowd's ability to jeer both James Appathurai and Mawlavi Abdulsalam Zaeef. It's worth remembering that the US imprisoned Zaeef in Guantanamo for four years, during which time he was allegedly tortured. He has since returned home and now lives under near house arrest, guarded by Northern Alliance soldiers. His lot has not been a happy one. James Fergusson suggested that the US blew its chance with Zaeef, who could have been a very able and personable interlocutor in the dispute, by incarcerating him for four years instead of engaging with him. Now, the previously moderate Zaeef is more bellicose than he was even a year ago, for Fergusson a worrying sign that the Taliban are becoming more emboldened as ISAF becomes more embroiled.

As analogies go, 'ink spot' is as good as any. Appathurai admits that as far as success is concerned, the picture is 'mixed'. He rejects claims of comprehensive organisational dysfunction in Western forces, and asserts that 'tension over solidarity' is generally 'optical' rather than 'real'. This doesn't mesh with what I've heard from commanders returning from Afghanistan. The lack of a coherent, overarching strategy that addresses both military and political operations is resulting in a patchy string of 'microvictories', in Fergusson's phrase, the significance of which are overstated. As previously noted, areas that fall between the cracks in ISAF operations are becoming ungovernable by anyone but the Taliban and the tribes. In the British example, press attention is so subject to 'Helmand-centricity' that the situation in areas like Chaki Wardak is overlooked: there, whole valleys are no-go areas for Western troops, such is the hold the Taliban have over them.

All panelists agreed that security is the foundation of 'success' in Afghanistan, whether or not that equates to 'victory'. Without security, reconstruction and capacity building will be impossible. Governance and security are of utmost importance to both Afghans and the West, but capable and credible Afghan governance strikes me at present as being almost non-existent. All the panelists agreed that even if security is restored to Afghanistan, there's no guarantee that either the Taliban or al Qaeda won't return once Western troops leave. This is worrisome. It's partly the nature of Afghanistan, if I can put it so crudely, and partly the fault of Pakistan, which is increasing the possiblities for extremist cross-border infiltration courtesy of deals over Waziristan.

Are the Taliban winning? Not necessarily. Is the West winning? Not really. Will the stalemate last? That's the real question at stake here. With Pakistan's increasing involvement and cross-border clashes with U.S. troops, increased IED and suicide bombings straight from the al-Qaeda training manual, and the always imminent potential for drawdown of Coalition troops, the balance of military and political power may change in the very near future. Where this leaves Afghanistan is uncertain, but in a worst case scenario it is very unlikely that 'victory' will be more than a dying whisper on the lips of the West.

Update: The Guardian is running a series of James D. McHugh's multimedia reports from Afghanistan here. John will be at the Frontline Club on Friday to collect the Frontline Club Award for his work in Afghanistan in 2007, during which he was shot and seriously wounded.

Update:  the video from the evening can now be viewed here.

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