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Afghanistan’s decade of war, and the endgame

The war in Afghanistan is at a critical point as it enters its tenth year – and the view that it is unwinnable can be glimpsed in unexpected places.

The war in Afghanistan enters its tenth year in early October 2010. It is already clear that 2010 is proving to be a turning-point point in its course. The clearest indication of this is the intensifying difficulties faced by the United States-led coalition as the Taliban campaign spreads and the increasing criticism  among Afghans of the foreign presence.

But there are many signs of this change too among those western professionals whose role it is to explain and analyse the war for their various domestic audiences. In the worlds of think-tank research, journalism and scholarship, a number of influential current publications argue that the United States war in Afghanistan is failing.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) published its annual global-security review on 7 September 2010 - Strategic Survey 2010: The Annual Review of World Affairs. The document is highly critical of the conduct of the war in Afghanistan; it says that  "the) Afghan campaign has involved not just mission creep but mission multiplication", warns that "for western states to be pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan will not be in the service of their wider political and security interests" (see “Afghanistan: wind of change”, 9 September 2010). The IISS’s position at the centre of the international defence establishment means that its views cannot be dismissed so easily as are those of other critics of the war.  

The same is true in the world of journalism, where the veteran “insider” American journalist Bob Woodward publishes a new book - Obama's Wars (Simon & Schuster, 2010) - which reports deep divisions within the Barack Obama administration over its policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president views the current military “surge” in Afghanistan administration as a way not to achieve victory but to create the conditions for negotiations with the Taliban, and is determined to begin a drawdown of forces in mid-2011. Woodward’s book reveals in more detail than before that elements of the administration, including presidential advisers, believe both that this strategy is misconceived and that the United States-led effort in Afghanistan is becoming a lost cause (see Sidney Blumenthal, "The Bob Woodward version", 17 October 2006).

A series of academic and biographical studies amplifies the understanding of the Afghan war and confirm the picture of the western forces’ deepening military predicament. They include the work of Antonio Giustozzi, who has consistently been one of the very best western analysts of the Afghan conflict, not least in openDemocracy (see "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban" [15 December 2007], and "The neo-Taliban: a year on" [11 December 2008]). Giustozzi has written Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan (C Hurst, 2009), and edited Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (C Hurst, 2009). Alongside these is a remarkable memoir by the former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef - My Life with the Taliban (C Hurst, 2010) – containing rich detail on the origins of the movement in the 1980s.

Anatol Lieven, another openDemocracy author, makes a perceptive point in an extended and perceptive review of these three books. He remarks that “[had they] appeared in 2002, and been read by western commanders and officials, they might have changed the course of the Afghan War.  Even today, should a US administration ever be able to disentangle itself from the Hamid Karzai government and nerve itself to open serious negotiations with the Taliban, such works will be indispensable to understanding the people on the other side of the table” (see Anatol Lieven, “Insights from the Afghan Field”,  Current Intelligence,  6 September 2010).

The first sign

The war in Afghanistan began with United States bombing raids on 4 October 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington (see "The war begins", 7 October 2001).  There were many signs even in the early stages that this was going to be a prolonged conflict, though they were ignored by a George W Bush administration already fixated on Iraq.  A column in this series published a year after western forces had displaced the Taliban from Kabul noted the evident problems.

True, the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) troops then in the country (around 5,000, compared with over 120,000 now) had brought some stability to Kabul; but “in much of the rest of the country warlordism has returned with a vengeance, often aided by the flood of light arms cascading through the country as a result of the rearming of the Northern Alliance and other groups opposed to the Taliban last year” (see "Is al-Qaida winning?",  7 November 2002).

It was already clear to informed observers at the time that the Taliban was reorganising along the Pakistan border and preparing for a comeback. A New York Times report quoted Pentagon officials saying that some of the recently uncovered weapons-dumps had been left by retreating Taliban forces, but others “are fresh caches planted by units preparing guerrilla attacks against the government of President Karzai” (see "Afghans Raise Concerns That Taliban Are Reorganizing in Pakistan", New York Times, 2 November 2002).

It took another four years, until 2006, for the Taliban revival to be more broadly registered. Now, four further years on, the notion that Afghanistan is an “unwinnable war” is a staple of everyday comment (see "AfPak: the unwinnable war", 16 October 2009).. But aside from the avalanche of media reports to this effect, and from the report and the books mentioned above, another and less noted current source on the progress of the war is worth noting. This is the nature of the western coalition’s military propaganda about Afghanistan in recent months.

The last call

Most wars fought by major powers in the age of mass-communications technology have been underpinned by a persistent narrative of inevitable victory that is independent of the actual circumstances on the ground. The pervasiveness of this dominating message to the “home” audience is visible in the propaganda efforts of the Americans during their war in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Argentineans and British during the Falklands/Malvinas war (1982), the United States-led coalition forces in Kuwait (1991), and of the combatants in many “smaller” wars (such as the Russians in the two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s). In all these case, the military-political “information professionals” and their outlets in the media sought to maintain this core narrative by putting the most benign “spin” possible on the unfolding conflict.

What has become striking in the case of Afghanistan – and this is further evidence that 2010 is proving to be a turning-point year – is how far the bubble of assurance has dissolved. True, some neo-conservative commentators still argue that more troops on the ground and more vigorous combat will bring a resounding victory, but they sound hollow and forlorn. The repeated message from Nato itself amounts to at best half-hearted claims of limited progress in "the United States's longest war" (see Michael E O'Hanlon, Staying Power: The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan Beyond 2011, Brookings Institution,  25 August 2010).

The public emphasis in Britain on the bravery of the young men and women fighting in Afghanistan - not the prospect of victory - confirms the point. This approach, both officially endorsed and embraced by the media, recognises the unusual combination of widespread domestic backing for the soldiers but declining support for what they are being called on to do.

This very absence of a convinced narrative of victory - resembling Sherlock Holmes's noting of “the dog that didn't bark” - suggests that Nato’s sophisticated propagandists themselves know only too well that the war cannot be won.  And if they are doing the job with little conviction, this can only reflect the judgment of some of the most senior coalition military commanders.

Here, the official view of the war (albeit still one of code, atmosphere, and between-the-lines signals) and the semi-official or unofficial ones represented and reported by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Bob Woodward and scholars such as Antonio Giustozzi begin to converge on a single conclusion: that the Afghan war is now effectively lost. This makes inevitable a fundamental rethinking of strategy and tactics (see Bruce Riedel, Obama's War: Prospects for the Conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Center for International Governance Innovation, 15 September 2010).

When will it be undertaken? The imminence of the mid-term elections in the United States in November 2010 means that little will happen before then. A strategy review is due in December, though it is unclear how thorough it will be. It is probable in any event that reality finally impinges on politics during the coming Washington winter. If this is indeed the case, then there may well be some radical changes in policy by the next Afghan spring.  

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001, and writes an international-security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group

His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)


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