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A formula for failure: the Kabul Conference on the future of Afghanistan

The Afghan mission continues to flounder without direction, over a month after the "future of Afghanistan" was discussed at the Kabul Conference.
Carlo Ungaro
30 August 2010

More than a month has gone by since the much heralded Kabul Conference on “The Future of Afghanistan”, which was held on July 20, in the course of one of the deadliest months in this long Afghan venture.

Already in the weeks preceding the Conference, the signals coming from Kabul had appeared contradictory and indicative of a state of disarray among the recognised decision-makers in Afghanistan, Brussels and the capitals of the principal players. For its part, the International Conference did little or nothing to clarify the situation.

Taking into account both the potential importance of the event, as well as the advance publicity it received, it seemed reasonable to assume that the Conference could become a defining moment in the tormented history of Afghanistan’s present conflict. These expectations were doomed to disappointment and, if anything, the entire situation appears to be unravelling at an alarming rate.

There was a time when experts were fond of warning us of the fundamental differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. This basic truth appears to have been forgotten, and no lessons at all have been learned either from Iraq or from Afghanistan itself.

There is a need to examine these differences further: if the “surge” worked in Iraq – and even that is debatable - there are good reasons to believe that a similar numerical increase of troops will not work at all in Afghanistan, and if the training of military and security forces, as well as the civil service, proceeds, as we are repeatedly told, with some success in Iraq, the same process, applied to Afghanistan, will not reach even remotely acceptable levels by 2014 or further in the future.

Setting aside the issues of the legality or the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq, or whether the outcome can be deemed a “success”, it has to be remembered that, at least at the onset, the operation was very much more like a conventional war, compared to the Afghan mission that had preceded it. A regular army was rather easily defeated, and the country totally and readily invaded. The “enemy” then, of course, as many had predicted, was substituted by an identifiable set of deadly, ruthless insurgent forces which, however, ended up being isolated, attacked and at least temporarily worn down.

A very different situation presented itself in Afghanistan, where the attack was aimed at a specific target (the Al Qaeda headquarters and training camp), but never encountered the opposition of a regular army. The insurgents, as traditional there, melted away and took refuge in surroundings which worked as a perfect camouflage, while their leadership – such as it was – took refuge in a neighbouring country.

The hopelessness of a “surge” could be further confirmed by a brief reminder of the failure of the Soviet invasion, where a massive regular army, not a coalition of heterogeneous forces each with its own political agenda and rules of engagement, was unable to overcome the local resistance, in spite of a lengthy, costly and much more ruthless campaign.

It is true that the resistance, then, was aided and financed by outside help (United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), but the same, quite evidently, holds true now, and this was quite evident even before the recent Wikileaks revelations.

Similar considerations must be made regarding the formation of a workable civil service: Iraq, when invaded, did have a government and a government structure – some say even rather efficient. Afghanistan, after decades of conflict – starting with the Soviet invasion of December 1979 - was already what could be termed a “failed state”, and the cream of its middle class, traditionally the backbone of a civil service, had either been killed or dispersed, or, if luckier, had fled to more hospitable foreign countries.

The formation of military and security forces presents even greater obstacles, most of which are seldom mentioned in dispatches and reports issuing from Afghanistan. Two of the main obstacles are, on the one hand, the massive percentage of illiteracy among the personnel which, in the future, should be upholding the law, and, on the other hand, the necessity to respect ethnic and tribal differences which could create considerable problems in the formation of a professional military force. It was particularly disturbing to hear, from General Petraeus himself, the idea that the problem could be circumvented by training and arming local militias. This, of course, was the policy which contributed to the defeat of the Soviet invaders, but also brought the country into a savage civil war, which could easily be repeated.

Not only is there no obvious, short-term solution to the Afghan problem in sight, but, and this is far worse, there is no clear definition of what would be meant by a “solution”, and what the real war aims are at this moment, except for survival and the protection of the by now fully fortified and garrisoned city of Kabul.

The real pity is that, away from the triumphalism of our military and political rhetoric, some real progress is being made in civilian sectors, thanks to many Afghan and foreign NGOs, and, of course the traditional international and national organisations. The tragic events of the past days illustrate the dangers involved, which will increase as the occupation continues, in a country almost totally outside the control of its government or of the invaders..

In this context, defining a target date for an ill-defined “handover” is basically unrealistic and, perhaps, not a little dishonest, smacking, as it does, of prefabricating an alibi and, above all, a cynical betrayal of expectations, contributed to by the Nato invasion, forming within Afghanistan’s civil society.

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