Madness in Afghanistan
Sean Murphy's photographs are the perfect illustration of a bleak situation. But what's the west's next move in Afghanistan?
Simon Tisdall guardian.co.uk, Tuesday July 1, 2008
The body of the executed Talib fighter lies sprawled across a dirt road. Behind him a barren mountain landscape stretches into infinite darkness. In the foreground, the man's life-blood runs out of him in a meandering silver river, to be swallowed by the parched earth.
The setting is Afghanistan's Shamali plain in November, 2001. The context is the carnage accompanying the US-led rout of the Taliban after 9/11. And the black and white image, captured by photographer Seamus Murphy, speaks eloquently of the apparently endless violence, suffering and incomprehension, bordering on insanity, which continue to beset war-ravaged Afghanistan.
An exhibition of Murphy's work from 1994 to the present, which opened at the Asia House gallery in London today, is a reminder that whenever things look like getting better in Afghanistan, they suddenly get worse.
That was the case after Soviet forces were expelled in 1989, when the country quickly plunged headlong into civil war. It was the case again after the much-hyped "victory in Kabul", when it became clear that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida's leadership had mostly escaped their American pursuers at Tora Bora.
It is happening again now, according to new Pentagon reports, various independent analyses, and a depressing drumbeat of statistics. Vanished is the optimism expressed by British and other Nato forces a year ago, when the Taliban seemed to be beatable and on the run.
Now the talk is of a "resilient insurgency" responsible for a 40% increase in attacks so far this year, of an ongoing conflict with no end in sight, and of western Pakistan and parts of central Asia being sucked into a widening maelstrom.
Civilian casualties are roughly 50% up on last year. June was the deadliest month for foreign troops since 2001. More US soldiers are now dying monthly in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Bickering between fighting and non-fighting Nato allies is meanwhile growing ugly.
The Pentagon's latest progress report to Congress does not disguise the difficulties: "The Taliban will challenge the control of the Afghan government in rural areas, especially in the south and east ... [they] will also probably attempt to increase its presence in the west and north." That means just about everywhere.
Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies about his new book on the west's war on Islamist extremism, Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid said the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas was deteriorating faster than even pessimists had predicted.
"We are in the midst of a major new Taliban offensive. There is an undoubted intensification of the al-Qaida and Taliban campaign. They see a lame-duck president in Washington, they see a policy hiatus until well after the presidential election. So they have set out to rattle the US."
Weakness at the top in Pakistan, whose new government was at odds with its military leaders (and the US) over how to deal with Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries inside Pakistan's borders, was also being exploited by the insurgents, Rashid said. Much of the increased violence in Afghanistan is attributed to "foreign" fighters from Kashmir, Chechnya, central Asia, and Iraq infiltrating via these strongholds. These problems are being compounded by the increasing unpopularity of Hamid Karzai's hapless government in Kabul.
It seems a key American decision, that may determine whether Nato succeeds or fails in Afghanistan, cannot be postponed much longer. It is whether or not to effectively bypass the Pakistani army's Frontier Corps and order US forces to intervene directly and deeply in western Pakistan. The aim would be to destroy the extremist bases and eliminate the al-Qaida leadership. The only alternative may be negotiations with the Taliban.
Concerted, prolonged intervention could stop the haemorrhaging in Helmand and elsewhere. But it would be politically and militarily explosive, as analyst Graham Usher pointed out recently, with potential to provoke a Pashtun nationalist uprising, a fatal split in the Pakistani army, and the wrecking of the post-9/11 US-Pakistan alliance.
It might be thought only a crazy guy would advocate such a hazardous course. But Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, currently the man most likely to succeed George Bush, thinks it might be a good idea. As Murphy's photographs graphically illustrate, Afghanistan and madness are rarely far apart.
Click to view image: '197075-seamus.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|