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Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 October 2008

The war in Afghanistan - the opening shots in the war on terror declared after the attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States - was launched on 7 October 2001. Seven years on, there is no end in sight (see the two-part retrospective published on 25 September and 2 October 2008). The realisation that this is the case is causing anguish and intense debate in western capitals. Three different views are now circulating in Washington and London in particular about the best way forward in Afghanistan.


Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The first is that the war is still winnable - in the sense that the Taliban and al-Qaida militias in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be comprehensively defeated. This view, held by influential figures in Washington, entails both a substantial increase in foreign forces and the dedicated pursuit of the war in western Pakistan. It also assumes that the government of Asif Ali Zardari will fall into line with such an approach, and that Pakistani public opinion will be obliged to accept it (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: a country on fire", 24 September 2008).

The second view is more cautious about total victory. A principal reason is the experience of United States troops in eastern Afghanistan since spring 2008. As late as winter 2007-08, US commanders believed that they were winning the war in this key region; at the time, they were markedly critical of the relative failures of Nato allies operating in other areas (the Canadians and Dutch, but especially the British in Helmand province). The experience of the summer months has been of an upsurge in Taliban activity in precisely those areas where the US troops believed they were in the ascendant. It is this experience - along with the expansion of the Taliban/al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan - that has persuaded some in the US military that what is occurring in Afghanistan cannot be pressed into a straightforward narrative of victory.

Yet overall, United States policy is still based on the fundamental requirement of attaining military superiority. The new head of US Central Command (Centcom), General David H Petraeus, now faces the responsibility of applying some of the lessons learned during his time in Iraq to the very different Afghan conditions (see Andrew J Bacevich, "The Petraeus Doctrine", Atlantic Monthly, October 2008). He may well encourage a change in counter-guerrilla tactics, including far greater attention to matters such as improving intelligence, relations with civilians and avoiding collateral damage. But even with such a refocus, the bottom line is still that the United States must lead a coalition that subdues the Taliban to the extent that the movement can have little or no role in Afghanistan politics in the future (see Anatol Lieven, "The dream of Afghan democracy is dead", 11 June 2008).


In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

Petraeus and his colleagues can hope that operations in Pakistan will finally end any prospect of the al-Qaida movement using the frontier districts as its core safe haven - though there is far from any certainty here, given the politically febrile (and economically parlous) condition of Pakistan. This approach, after all, will certainly involve a substantial increase in troops and more US involvement in western Pakistan and thus have to contend with widespread opposition in that country too (see "Pakistan: the new frontline", 18 September 2008). In any event, there is no question that Washington's political and military leaders alike still see the Afghanistan situation in terms of an essentially military operation.

The third view is that the Taliban cannot be defeated and will have to be brought into the political process in Afghanistan. This outlook is embodied in reported comments from two high-level British figures: the British ambassador in Kabul (Sherard Cowper-Coles) and the most recent head of Britain's forces in the country (Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith). The analysis is often combined (as in this case) with the belief that the Taliban are in retreat, but larger perspective is a sobering one: as a war, this project is not winnable. There are people within the Afghan government who think the same, and many experienced civil servants in Pakistan also believe that negotiations with the more moderate elements of the Taliban are essential. General Petraeus himself may be arriving at the same point.

Five developments

How will this debate be reflected by policy and practice on the ground in Afghanistan? It is possible that there will be some changes in military tactics by US forces in the coming months - though both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, currently see the difficulties they are facing as an argument for reinforcing troop-levels. But even a change in tactics would leave a central question unresolved: is it possible to secure a stable and successful pro-western government in Kabul while deploying foreign combat-forces that many people in Afghanistan view as occupiers?

This question raises a wider issue related to the entire post-9/11 conflict. Many columns in this series have argued that there is a fundamental problem at the root of the war on terror - that it is becoming politically impossible for a country such as the United States to remake middle-eastern and southwest Asian countries in a western image (see, for example, "A mission impossible", 7 February 2007). In an echo of the way the colonial era was clearly out of time by the mid-1950s (even if the French and British empires hung on to some of their territories for a few more years), so it is no longer feasible for western countries to occupy major states across this region.

This view, previously confined to a minority of analysts, is becoming shared in some surprising quarters. Andrew J Bacevich, for example, is a widely respected specialist in international relations in the United States who writes from a broadly conservative perspective. He argues:

"The achievements of Gen. David H. Petraeus notwithstanding, the primary lesson of the Iraq war remains this one: To imagine that the United States can easily and cheaply invade, occupy and redeem any country in the Muslim world is sheer folly. That holds true in Afghanistan, too, where the reinforcements that Gen. David D. McKiernan, the recently appointed U.S. Commander, says he needs to turn things around will be unavailable until at least next spring" (see "He Told Us to Go Shopping, Now the Bill Is Due", Washington Post, 5 October 2008).

The context of such contributions is a notable inconsistency in the actions being taken and the attitudes adopted by the war's western strategists. Five concurrent developments make the point:

▪ US forces in the country could increase by as many as 20,000 over the next year

▪ the conflict in western Pakistan is widening into a significant war between Pakistani army units and Taliban militias, while Pakistani public opinion is becoming more anti-American (see Jane Perlez & Pir Zubair Shah, "Pakistan's frontier turns into war zone", International Herald Tribune, 4 October 2008)

▪ the US defence secretary, Robert M Gates, acknowledges that there will need to be political engagement with "reconcilable" Taliban elements (see Lolita C Baldor, "Gates: Afghan militants key to country's future", Washington Post, 6 October 2008)

▪ there are reports that a meeting was held in Saudi Arabia - hosted by King Abdullah - in September 2008 between senior Taliban figures (including the movement's former ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Saleem Zaeef) and members of the Hamid Karzai government (including the president's brother, Qayum Karzai); Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was also present (see Kim Sengupta, "Secret Saudi dinner, Karzai's brother and the Taliban", Independent, 8 October 2008)

▪ there are unconfirmed reports that the original Taliban leader, Mullah Omar - who in October 2001 was regarded by the George W Bush administration as an enemy outranked only by Osama bin Laden - may be allowed quietly to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan (see "Karzai assures safety to Mullah Omar if he returns home", AFP/Daily Times, 4 October 2008).

Two trends

What is apparent in this combination of events is that different actors are pursuing different paths. They reveal too that the British view (as expressed by the ambassador) is shared to some extent by Robert M Gates; but the dominant view among western strategists is still that the war must go on and be expanded. There is, however, one way (and one only) to reconcile the rival outlooks: by arguing that there must indeed be negotiations with the Taliban, but compromise on their side will only come if they are faced with defeat or at least suffer major losses on the battlefield. In other words, the Taliban must be fought - not invited - to the negotiating table.

This is the central dynamic underlying what is going on in Afghanistan, western Pakistan and even Saudi Arabia. But it carries a huge risk that could reverse it. This is the possibility that Bacevich and others are right - that an expanding military offensive will have the opposite effect to the one intended and hoped for. That is, that an increase in the number of foreign troops with all their firepower in Afghanistan will solicit an even more forceful response from the Taliban rather than any willingness to negotiate - and that the cycle of war will prove unbreakable.

This outcome in turn is not certain - but two trends (often belatedly acknowledged) that have emerged strongly in 2007-08 are relevant in an assessment of what is happening. The first is that the experience of these two years has been that the more western forces are put into Afghanistan, the stronger and more influential the Taliban militias have become. The second is the abundant evidence that increasing Taliban strength has further encouraged paramilitary jihadists to flock to Afghanistan and western Pakistan to join the fight against the "far enemy" (the United States and its partners). Indeed, an extraordinary twist in the Afghan situation is that some of these young men have previously gained their combat experience in fighting American troops in Iraq.

These trends suggest that the idea of "negotiating from a position of military superiority" has little or no purchase on the realities of present-day Afghanistan. If that is indeed the case - and in a context where the idea retains political traction in the lead-up to the United States presidential election and perhaps beyond - the implication is that the war in Afghanistan may still have many years to run.

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