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A very long endgame in Afghanistan

In 1989, I spent some time in Afghanistan looking at the prospects of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime after Mikhail Gorbachev had pulled Moscow's demoralised ''Afgantsy'' expeditionary force back across the Oxus River.

Kabul was surprisingly peaceful and secure, though planes came in and out of the airport in tight spirals, spewing flares against any missiles that might be launched from the barren hillsides. Afghan top guns flew us in Antonovs and Mi-8 helicopters around the country. At Mazar-i-Sharif airport, Mikoyan and Sukhoi fighters shuttled in and out to blast the mujahideen fighters besieging Jalalabad.

Russians were still around, but in the background. A colonel from Soviet military intelligence who travelled around with our group declared that a long-term strategic interest remained. Scud missiles were paraded through the city, and every now and then one would be fired at the Jalalabad besiegers with a great rumble.

An endgame had started. But it took a long time to end. As Anatol Lieven, a regional expert at King's College London, points out, the Afghan state fostered by the Soviets fought on with surprising resilience, actually outlasting the Soviet Union itself. ''Its collapse in April 1992 occurred when it did because the end of the Soviet Union also brought an end to Soviet supplies of fuel, guns, and money,'' Lieven wrote recently in The New York Review of Books.

Another endgame in Afghanistan is now well under way. American forces are gearing up for their last major offensive, the Taliban or Haqqani insurgents have mounted a show-off attack in Kabul itself, and the Western governments are reassuring publics that their soldiers will soon be out of harm's way.

In Australia, that has meant some deft news management. Julia Gillard's media office has figured out that if you give out a speech a day ahead, giving it the aura of a scoop, it gets more coverage. So midweek, the public were looking forward to our 1550 troops ''coming home'' from Oruzgan as early as the middle of next year.


By Thursday, the Afghan ambassador was suggesting as many as 400 would remain. In Brussels, meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, and the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, were reassuring NATO allies that Australia was committed to ''supporting and sustaining'' Afghan security forces beyond 2014.

But the ''transition'' model is falling apart even as it is being launched. The Afghan military being handed security responsibility is a local monster requiring more than the entire resources of the state it is meant to protect. And it still lacks the air power, special forces capability and other high-tech weaponry that was at Najibullah's disposal. That apparently will be provided by American and allied support forces, operating from bases retained inside Afghanistan. That means a withdrawal which is not a withdrawal, losing the political gain of removing the single biggest cause of Afghan resistance and popular anti-Americanism in neighbouring Pakistan - the presence of foreign forces, and their cross-border raids with drones.

The state being protected is in much worse shape than the one inherited by Najibullah, which as Lieven notes, incorporated the real, if limited, modernisation achieved during the 20th century under earlier monarchs and presidents.

Most of that modern fabric was torn up in the civil wars and Taliban rule between 1992 and the US intervention of 2001. Having supported the most Islamist of the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s, Westernisers later came to appreciate such outfits as RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), set up by the local communists.

The current president, Hamid Karzai, was installed by the Americans because he is English-speaking and a Pashtun, like 40 per cent of the population and most of the Taliban's supporters. He sits atop a cabal of incompetent, corrupt warlords, mostly from non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The West sends in $US16 billion a year in aid. It is estimated about $US8 billion was carried out of the country in cash by car, private jets and horseback, double the Afghan government budget. Karzai was caught rigging his 2009 re-election, and can't stand again constitutionally in 2014. There is no obvious successor.

Let's not be too hard on Karzai. Contempt is palpable among American officials and soldiers towards him and Afghans in general, reflected in recent distasteful incidents and one gun rampage. But the greatest corruption is American.

The US Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recently looked at the $US86 billion in aid for Afghanistan since 2002, $52 billion for training and equipping the Afghan security forces, the rest for governance and development, counter-narcotics efforts, and humanitarian aid.

Out of that, only 15 per cent reached the intended recipients. About 70 per cent was taken by ''overhead costs'' and the remaining $US13 billion is lost to waste and corruption. Don't tell me that American contractors weren't getting most of the action.

So we are heading for quite a transition year in 2014. America is not going to disappear like the Soviet Union. The Najibullah example shows that cities can hold out perhaps indefinitely with the right backing.

But the chances of US and other Western governments having the stamina for a long, perhaps indefinite campaign of support for the Kabul government, while trying to rebuild the state around it, are slim.

You feel sorry for the modern Afghan civil society that has emerged, or re-emerged in some cases, in the cities since the Taliban were expelled. Lieven suggests the best outcome we should now work towards is an agreed dispersal of power that leaves these urban pockets of modernity, perhaps to gradually expand, while the Pashtun villages are left to the Taliban and other local forces.

Without the energising influence of a foreign troop presence, the level of civil war might then decline. ''Most of them [the insurgents] are not really fighting for the Taliban as such, but for what they see as the defence of their country and their honour, and for revenge for relatives killed by Western forces,'' Lieven writes.

In newly liberated Herat in 2001, I encountered poets and writers coming out from years of repression, and girls who'd furthered their education under the guise of sewing circles. I hope a modern space can be preserved for them.

As for the rural Pashtuns, Kipling wrote about ''fools who try to hustle the East''.