Afghanistan continues to edge towards the precipice. State-building efforts in the country are still plagued with inefficiency, corruption and disorganisation, whilst international coalition forces in the form of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) find themselves at the losing end of a battle to dominate the public perception on the Afghan street: ongoing daily violence, coupled with increasing calls for a firm withdrawal among the international community has signalled to average Afghans that the West will soon pack up and go, whilst the resilient, unwavering Taliban are there to stay.
All is not yet lost though. Nato nations will have to soon start taking tough decisions and bring their war aims back to basics if they are going to achieve the underlying objective that took them to the country in the first place.
The US and its international partners’ objectives in Afghanistan have generally fallen under three over-arching categories: stability, representative governance and the rule of law. The ‘stability’ objective in specific terms means ensuring Afghanistan does not once again become a place from which extremist forces can attack the West and its interests. The narrative, as diplomats, analysts and academics alike currently tell it is that this can only be achieved once the other objectives are met. In other words, Afghanistan cannot be secured until you have an efficient and legitimate government that can implement some respectful standard of democracy and human rights.
It is now clear that this strategy is utterly flawed and unrealistic. Nine years on, the Obama administration’s year-end review of its Afghanistan war strategy, released this month, tried its best to provide as rosy a picture possible, emphasising that the strategy in Afghanistan is working but that it is nevertheless fragile and reversible. What the nine-year conflict has in fact shown is that the numerous over-arching objectives cannot be met in their entirety, will certainly not be achieved should the US begin its drawdown in July 2011 or within the five year troop withdrawal deadline being proposed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, and will most certainly not be achieved within the next ten years – if the current record is anything to go by.
Firstly, there is no political strategy in Afghanistan that can reconcile the Karzai-led government with other rival tribal and political factions, all vying for power and a serious stake in the country. The current government is entrenched in a tribal and political web of patronage and corruption that has become impossible to remedy.
Beyond this, and secondly, there is no clear consensus on how, and whether, to negotiate and reconcile with the fragmented Taliban. The Taliban is not the cohesive, hierarchical and organised entity that it may come across as being. Widely accepted is that there are at least three disparate entities fighting in the country: the Taliban, which is led by Mullah Omar, whose whereabouts remains elusive; the Haqqani network, led by the former mujahideen warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj Haqqani and, finally, a collection of domestic and foreign fighters that includes al-Qaida. There is, therefore, no one leader to negotiate with.
A group of fieldworkers, in an open letter to President Obama, did recently call for a political settlement that includes the Taliban. That proposition centres around engaging with the so-called Quetta Shura, a council of Afghan insurgency leaders based in Pakistan. Yet, even if the Taliban and any representative leaders were to sit at the roundtable, it has to first be asked whether or to what extent they will accommodate any of the conditions imperative for lasting peace and stability, which includes giving up their arms and recognising the Afghan constitution. How the Taliban could do so without losing face and credibility among the local populace must be determined, given that it is they who have the momentum and benefit of time, not us.
Finally, even if a grand strategy was offered, elements within and beyond Afghanistan in neighbouring states have become convinced that Nato will not be around long enough to enforce it or assist with its implementation. The now clear commitment to withdraw troops within a fixed deadline or, at the very least, reduce troops in the country justifies their concerns.
What this means is that Kabul will have little incentive to engage with the insurgency and carry out the reforms essential for any counter-insurgency initiative to work. The Afghan government, suffering from a legitimacy crisis, is not committed to maintaining stability. It is aware of the above limitations in the state-building process and thus individuals within its upper echelons will continue to maximise their political and financial gain while they are in a position to do so, convinced that an Isaf withdrawal and potential defeat lies on the horizon.
Nato powers, unwilling to publicly repudiate the government and its shambolic elections, or advocate an alternative, have inadvertently consolidated their positions and are now unable to displace them and their obstructive networks of power peacefully, so that reform takes place. To remove them from power now would invite a violent backlash of epic and uncontrollable proportions.
The international community must accept that an efficient and representative government is no longer feasible, and certainly not one able to adequately implement the rule of law and enforce human rights. These are values that may have to be sacrificed. Sadly, Afghans never had such luxuries in the first place, at least not in recent times, and, although a Chatham House report released this month advocates the promotion of justice in the fight for peace and stability, in truth the West is unlikely to ever be in a position to provide them with it.
To carry on in denial and futility will be a waste of human lives, resources and in essence unfair on the Afghan people. Instead, the West must go back to what it does best: make do with what it has and pursue its historic policy of supporting suspect regimes in the middle east, Asia and Latin America.
Karzai and his government may have to be heavily propped up; financially and militarily supported and assured, so that it becomes the West’s bulwark against the insurgency and extremists – the ultimate objective. The West would therefore leave Afghanistan to (some) Afghans but without handing the state back to the Taliban and al-Qaida.
To make this effective and rewarding, focus must continue to be on the Afghan security forces, ensuring they are up to the task of countering the insurgency. Defeating them may not be an option, containing and reducing them to sporadic attacks is though.
That requires maintaining, beyond any withdrawal, an international force of military and police advisors, engaged in non-combat duties and comprised of the renowned EU police training missions. At present there are some 3,600 trainers on the ground. There is still a shortfall of nearly 500 trainers, but once the focus turns from combat to training that can be rectified by states who may have previously been reluctant.
More challenging is keeping at bay Afghanistan’s neighbours. The proxy conflict between the Pakistani intelligence service (the ISI) and the Indian intelligence service (RAW) suggests that Pakistan will not cooperate with Nato in Afghanistan, despite pretences to the contrary. In reality, Pakistan seeks instability in Afghanistan since a stable Afghanistan will likely be pro-India. India has a vested interest in the current government, possibly more so than the West, because it is a means of containing Pakistan.
China feels that Nato’s presence in Afghanistan is an effort at securing a strategic base in the region whilst securing access to energy resources and encircling China. Iran, meanwhile, will be ill at ease with a stable Nato ally on its Eastern border. Keeping Nato resources tied up in Afghanistan means the probability of war against Iran is reduced.
All this renders it even more imperative to ensure the current government is consolidated, lest the withdrawal of Isaf leads to a civil war intensified by regional neighbours and which leads to the collapse of the Karzai government, much like the 1992 collapse of the Najabullah government three years after the Soviet withdrawal.
Pursuant to this, it is also an option to maintain the above-mentioned international force of advisors for at least another twenty-years. There is no reason why these non-combat personnel cannot be deployed alongside Afghan forces in the most extreme and unlikely of cases, upon the request of the Afghan government and in the event the government does edge towards the brink.
In short, any strategy in Afghanistan must revolve around what is viable and sustainable. Propping up Karzai is not the ideal choice to take but it is perhaps the only realistic option amidst what is a complex political, security and geopolitical environment.