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An "exit strategy" is little use in the Afghan labyrinth

We need to break old assumptions if Afghanistan and Pakistan are to be secured, argues Carlo Ungaro
Carlo Ungaro
19 May 2010

The term “exit strategy” often signifies a tacit admission of basic mistakes committed upon entering a conflict. This is particularly true in the case of Afghanistan where an analogy can be drawn with the story of Theseus and his hunt for the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.

In fact, just like the initial occupation of Afghanistan, entering the Labyrinth did not pose major problems for Theseus, but his twenty-first century’s successors – the NATO forces – although they quickly found the Minotaur’s lair, discovered that the beast had fled and that, lacking Ariadne’s clew, they remained trapped in the impenetrable maze of Afghan political and social reality.

It would be useless, at this stage, to indulge in recrimination and to lament the fact that, at the time of the invasion and in its immediate aftermath, advice was apparently not sought, or perhaps it was obtained and not heeded, from those who could have foretold many of the problems, which so often have seemed to come as a surprise both to the NATO leadership and to many political commentators. It would be just as futile for those Cassandra's – among whom I include myself – to come out in triumphant “I told you so!” statements. The situation is far too serious to allow these attitudes.

It was clear, already many months back, that a totally fresh assessment was needed, and that the reiteration of NATO’s oft intoned mantra’s would not bring the problem any closer to a solution. It appears, however, that the reluctance to “learn lessons” persists, and that NATO is preparing for another military “triumph”, this time with a dauntingly ambitious objective, Kandahar, a city of significant importance which, occupied countless times but never really conquered, has had an important role in Afghan history throughout the centuries.

Granted that, with the massive armament and logistic abundance at their disposal, the NATO forces will manage to gain at least apparent control of Kandahar, would that in any way signify that final victory is at hand? And has a lucid and unequivocal idea ever been expressed as to what would really be meant by “victory”, other than the avoidance of obvious defeat?

Clearly, a solution has to be sought somewhere between the alternative of precipitous withdrawal and dogged resistance. The only question that insistently comes to mind is whether there is still time for a radical rethinking process aimed both at halting, or at least diminishing the bloodshed, and at the search for a long term solution not conditioned by past prejudices.

One of the eminently foreseeable – but apparently unforeseen – consequences of the military action in Afghanistan has been the extension of the conflict into Pakistan, a development which will leave deep scars, no matter what the outcome. This, in reality, and not the military conflict in Afghanistan itself, is the principal obstacle to any real and lasting solution. The fact is that the boundary existing between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West (the “Durand Line”) has never been recognised by any Afghan government since the creation of Pakistan, nor was it ever accepted by the tribal populations on the Pakistani side of the border. This situation, which should have been addressed with energy and decision as soon as the inevitability of Pakistan’s involvement became apparent, was instead allowed to fester, creating an area of permanent conflict, which shall remain so until reality is recognised. 

This is the key on which all future attempts competently to address the Afghan quandary will have to be based. As past experiences have shown, and the Soviet debacle comes readily to mind as the most recent example, throwing in more troops and vast additional sums of money destined for development projects would be a tragic waste, unless the underlying political problems are taken into unprejudiced consideration.

A process of radical revision of war aims and future scenarios should be undertaken with great urgency. The opening phases should preferably take place in a third country, possibly neutral, and should begin by the bold eradication of two fundamentally flawed beliefs which doggedly persist in all present-day evaluations:

1. That Afghanistan and Pakistan can be treated as two separate problems and that, after a militarily imposed “normalisation”, they will be able to coexist within the present geo-political framework;

2. That Afghanistan can ever be ruled efficiently as a monolithic entity from a government – whether autocratic or “democratic” – situated in Kabul.

These are complex and potentially dangerous issues, but until they are taken into careful consideration there will be no hope for any kind of satisfactory settlement.

This may seem un-realistic, and our political leaders will prefer to continue in their belief that the repetition of well-tried platitudes can bring about the solution of problems.

They ought to cast their minds back about twenty years and try to remember how many greatly respected personalities from the United States and Europe would come away from Belgrade swearing solemn oaths on the absolute inviolability of Yugoslavia's territorial integrity. It is also essential to recall where this kind of obstinacy finally led.

It is furthermore important to consider that the visible growing war-weariness in the public opinion of many NATO allies, and the need for democratic Governments at least partially to heed the feelings of their electorate, add poignancy and urgency to the quest for a valid new approach.

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