Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

The gloomy topic of Afghanistan is expected to dominate the Nato summit in Chicago on May 20-21, when the assembled leaders will have to wrestle with three uncomfortable facts:

The first is that talks with the Taliban have broken down, removing any immediate prospect of a negotiated exit from the conflict. This conjures up the spectre of a forced Nato retreat — in other words of a humiliating defeat.

This month provided worrying evidence of the Taliban’s growing ability to mount coordinated attacks all over the country, even in areas of maximum security. On April 15, Taliban suicide fighters infiltrated into Kabul and attacked the heavily-defended Embassy Quarter and Parliament. In the ensuing gun fights, some 36 insurgents were killed as well as 11 members of the Afghan security forces.

The second uncomfortable fact is that public opinion in the United States and its allies is weary of war and seems unconvinced that fighting and dying in distant Afghanistan makes them safe from terrorist attack. The Obama administration has not yet come round to this view, as may be seen from a recent statement by Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Kabul: “To get out before the Afghans have a full grip on security, which is a couple of years out, would be to invite the Taliban, Haqqani [a Pakistan-based Islamist network], and Al Qaida back in and set the stage for another September 11. And that, I think, is an unacceptable risk for any American.”

But is Crocker right? Some US allies clearly do not think so. One or two of them have already announced their decision to quit before the previously agreed 2014 deadline. Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this week that Australia’s 1,550 soldiers would shift from a front-line role to a largely support function by mid-2013. At Chicago, she is expected to try to persuade her fellow leaders that mid-2013, not end-2014, should be the date to end Nato’s combat role in Afghanistan. France’s Francois Hollande has gone one better. If he is elected President of France on May 6 — as is widely expected — he has pledged to bring France’s 3,550 troops home by the end of this year.

Thirdly, because of what it sees as a continuing terrorist threat, the US seems determined to maintain some sort of long-term presence in Afghanistan — much to the displeasure of Iran and Pakistan. Nato leaders are bound to squabble in Chicago over who will foot the bill for continued assistance to Afghanistan after 2014. Because budgets are tight, Nato members have agreed that it will no longer be possible to fund and equip an Afghan army of 352,000 — an overly-ambitious target which is expected to be reached this year. Instead, the force is to be reduced to 230,000, at a cost to donors of about $7 billion (Dh25.7 billion) a year. The US will probably have to pay the lion’s share, with the rest coming from other Nato countries.

Contentious issues

But if the Afghan army is slimmed down, as is proposed, what will happen to the 120,000 men laid off? Armed and trained, they might join the insurgents — a nightmare scenario for Nato. A disturbing development this year has been a rash of incidents in which Afghan soldiers turned their guns on their Nato trainers. Since January, 16 Nato troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers.

Agreement was reached last weekend on a draft US-Afghan strategic pact, providing for counter-terrorist cooperation and US economic aid for at least another decade after 2014. In the lengthy negotiations, two contentious issues were resolved which opened the way for agreement on the strategic pact. First, the US agreed to hand over to Afghans the detention centre at Parwan, where suspected insurgents are held and interrogated, and secondly, the US agreed to give Afghans control over night raids on houses of terrorist suspects by US Special Forces. To the outrage of many Afghans, these night raids often involve the forced entry into houses where families are asleep. The violation of the privacy of women has caused particular anger.

One wonders when the US will grasp that its counter-terrorist policies create more terrorists than are killed by its drone attacks, air strikes and other violent acts. America’s ongoing ‘war on terror’ has aroused fierce anti-American feeling in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other Muslim countries, undermining the legitimacy of leaders in these countries, who are seen to be collaborating with the US in waging war on their own people.

Earlier this month, the US offered a $10million reward for information leading to the arrest of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group. Apparently undaunted, Saeed continues to criss-cross Pakistan making fiery anti-American and anti-Indian speeches. He does not seem to be in danger of arrest. Pakistani opinion is still inflamed by a US air strike last November which accidentally killed 24 Pakistani border troops. A Financial Times report from Islamabad this month noted that US-Pakistan relations had sunk to their lowest level in a decade.

Several shocking incidents have greatly damaged America’s reputation and seem to point to poor training of young American soldiers and a breakdown of discipline. In January, a video was released showing American soldiers urinating on dead Afghan insurgents; in February, the accidental burning of copies of Quran at Bagram Air Base led to widespread rioting. In March, a US sergeant went on a rampage killing 17 Afghan civilians, including women and children; in April, the Los Angeles Times published photos (allegedly taken in 2010) showing grinning American soldiers of the 82nd airborne division posing with mangled body parts of Afghan insurgents.

The US might perhaps ask itself why it has aroused such hate in the Islamic world and what it might do to restore its reputation. It might care to consider the following suggestions: Wind down the ‘war on terror’ and stop killing Muslims; put a firm check on Israeli colony building and promote the creation of a Palestinian state; reduce the US military presence in the Gulf States by reverting instead to an ‘over the horizon’ naval presence.

Above all, the US should strive with maximum goodwill to reach a fair settlement with Iran over the nuclear issue. In return for a verifiable Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium above the limit allowed by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the US should end its economic warfare against Tehran. Instead of inciting the Arabs against Iran — and thereby fuelling Sunni-Shiite antagonism — the US should encourage Gulf States to include Iran in the region’s security architecture.

Washington seems unaware that it will need Iran’s help if peace and stability are ever to be established in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Crippling sanctions’ on the Islamic republic are unlikely to win its cooperation. This is not the least of the many incoherent features of American policy.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.