Afghanistan: a new realism?

Richard Fyjis-Walker
31 March 2009

A series of events has at long last allowed western governments to begin to face the inconvenient truths about the Nato coalition's war against the Taliban: that Nato is not "winning" and that any lasting settlement (other than virtually permanent foreign occupation) will have to involve direct dealing with all but the hard-core Taliban.

Richard Fyjis-Walker is a former diplomat who entered Britain's foreign office after army service in India and the Netherlands, and two years' work for the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa. He served as British ambassador to Sudan and Pakistan, and in other posts in Ankara, Washington and New York. On his retirement he chaired the Commonwealth Institute

The new strategy towards Afghanistan outlined by President Barack Obama on 26 March 2009 - involving an increased commitment of troops and the pledge of millions of dollars in aid - is one measure of this shift. The conference in The Hague on 31 March, attended by representatives of eighty countries under the auspices of the United Nations, is another. But the main element in enforcing what may be described as the coalition's "new realism" is the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan itself.

It is evident that none of the strategic objectives originally set for Nato in Afghanistan when the war began in October 2001 - the capture of Osama bin Laden; the elimination of the Taliban; a reduction in international jihadi terrorism; improved Afghan governance and central control; elimination of the narcotics trade - has been or is being achieved. It is also being realised that there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan's problems; politics too must play its part.

It is late in the day for such "new realism" to be dawning. Much damage has been done, as amid the wider strategic failure coalition tactics have been reduced to nothing much more than killing as many Taliban as can be found - irrespective of the "collateral" impact in the form of civilian casualties that in turn refuel support for the Taliban.  More broadly, coalition forces have been largely tied down in "lawn-mowing"; the taking, loss and retaking of territory and towns such as Gereshk and Sangin, involving numerous casualties on both sides.

An enemy outlasted

Also in openDemocracy on the Afghan war and western responses:

Antonio Giustozzi, "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban" (14 December 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan in an amorphous war", 19 June 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: state of siege" (10 July 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" (28 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk" (9 October 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Antonio Giustozzi, "The neo-Taliban, a year on" (11 December 2008)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)There are many historical precedents here. In the 19th and 20th centuries, external intervention in Afghanistan led on repeated occasions to the ignominious withdrawal of foreign forces.  The Soviet occupation of 1980-89 is a sobering recent example: not least the moment in 1986 when the politburo realised that it could neither win nor outlast Afghan resistance. Many people in a fiercely nationalistic nation - the Pushtu in particular, but also a large proportion of other Afghans - have come to see Nato's forces as they did the Red Army: as agents attempting to impose by force a foreign culture under a puppet ruler.

The Pushtu-led resistance, involving skilled asymmetric warfare, has found increasing resonance across many other parts of Afghanistan. This has placed Nato in a quandary. The border with Pakistan continues to give the Taliban almost impregnable sanctuary, while Nato's own supply-routes are increasingly disrupted; and unlike for the Soviet Union, its own satraps in neighbouring states are highly problematic, leading to the search for other (perhaps even Iranian) options to reinforce its troops.

Nato has also demonstrated its ineffectiveness as a "hard-power" military organisation in battle situations. The dilution of its command structure and fighting capacity (not least by the inclusion of so many decorative or "pot plant" members) has rendered it hardly fit for purpose; something the Americans are seeking to substitute for with their "surge" of 17,000 troops into Helmand and the British base at Camp Bastion, as well as the 4,000 extra to be deployed under Obama's new strategy.

A reality faced

It is too early to say whether the new approach, or the conclusions reached at The Hague conference, will make a measurable improvement to a desperate situation. What is clear is that the west needs to do two things on its own account and explore three points of overlap with Afghans of all stripes.

First, the west's overriding strategic objective has to be redefined as the earliest withdrawal of foreign forces. (Both Rand Corporation and Carnegie Institute studies support Lord Roberts of Kandahar's dictum of 1880: "I am sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us"). All other aims are contingent upon a withdrawal.  These include the promotion of political agreements - internally (between the insurgents and central authority in Kabul) and externally (with a coalition of neighbours, including Iran, India and China). Saudi Arabia will also play an important role here,  in helping ensure that there is no external succour  for al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Second, the fact that the epicentre of international jihadism has shifted to Pakistan makes that country ever more crucial. All western countries and their potential allies will be deeply disturbed at the thought of a nuclear state disintegrating at the hand of Islamic extremists. But their cooperation will be proportionate to the distance from their borders of American troops.

The three points where the west and majority-Afghan perspectives might find common ground are equally significant.

First, the withdrawal of foreign forces is again fundamental. Not all Afghans agree with Mullah Omar: "Our friend Osama chose the route of international jihadism; we have chosen the way of cleansing Afghanistan of foreign presence" - but many do. The west and the Afghans each need to staunch the flow of blood, treasure and reputation by withdrawing.

Second, there must be non-interference in the evolution of Afghan society, particularly the tribal structures. Again, many Afghans - not just the Taliban or its supporters - see the Nato presence as part of a series of attempts to impose an alien culture upon them.  Afghan problems have to be seen to have Afghan solutions that are Afghan "property".

Third, there must be financial input across a range of initiatives: for improved security, particularly on training the Afghan police; for rural rehabilitation and prosperity (in Helmand a thousand small generators and their fuel would have won far more hearts and minds than the monster Kijaki generator); for education, poppy-substitution, administration. This is a long and costly list, but will be far more economical than continuing fruitless and counterproductive military offensives against a proliferating enemy.

The starting point for change will be political contact with the Taliban and the improvement of coalition performance in regard to the Afghan population. The "surge" of US troops promised by the new strategy - described by one seasoned US diplomat as "not a policy but a delivery system" - may risk exacerbating this situation. 

It took the Soviets three years to withdraw even after recognition of their impending failure. They left no welcome legacy. It is to be hoped that the Americans and their allies can find a more rapid and more successful conclusion.  The same man who in one sense, as head of the CIA, oversaw the Soviet withdrawal may now have to supervise a parallel western operation - US defence secretary, Robert M Gates. It is another unsettling historical echo.

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