Over the past few centuries, however, it has more often than not been treated as a pawn in the “great game”. The country has also developed a reputation as the “graveyard of empires”, not least because outsiders’ forces have never succeeded in pacifying the place. Internal stability, such as it has ever existed, has been predicated typically upon de-centralized, and frequently shifting political arrangements between a weak centre and roiling periphery.
Reeling from the shock of 9/11 and in the absence of adequate reflection, in late 2001 NATO in effect took sides in a complex ethnic, tribal, sectarian, and geographically rooted civil war. Nine years later, the coalition not only has failed to prevail, but the continuing presence of foreign forces, viewed widely as occupiers by the population, has exacerbated the conflict. The Russians learned the same lesson not long ago, and at great expense.
Such is the burden of history. Yet today – if it ever was – Afghanistan is no longer the epicentre of transnational terrorism. That pretext for contemporary Western involvement no longer exists, and indeed, was achieved by early 2002. Al-Qaeda camps had been dismantled and the membership dispersed . The Taliban, for their part, had and still have mainly national goals with neither the capability nor the intent to threaten international security. The two organizations should never have been conflated.
There are no military solutions to Afghanistan’s problems of bad governance and severe underdevelopment. Instead, the pursuit of non-violent economic and political progress through development cooperation and the encouragement of power sharing and national reconciliation should be front and centre. This seems the best strategy, both for helping the country to move forward and for ending the influence of extremists.
It is time to get beyond the received wisdom on counterinsurgency and nation-building, neither of which has produced the advertised results. Narrow tactical calculation must give way to the higher level of analysis afforded by grand strategy.
The following seven steps are offered in that spirit:
1. Suspend all offensive combat operations, drone attacks and selective assassinations by special forces; de-escalate and immediately begin a drawdown of NATO forces. This will provide convincing testament to a fundamental change in strategic direction.
2. Remove sanctions from members of Taliban leadership and announce the intention to seek a negotiated political solution and promote economic development, rather than military victory, as the top priority.
3. Transfer the political lead from NATO to the UN. While imperfect, it is clearly a more suitable choice. Although NATO entered Afghanistan with a UN mandate, circumstances have changed, and the Western military alliance, far out of theatre and way out of its depth, is not the instrument now required.
4. Organize a national referendum on the temporary placement of Afghanistan under UN trusteeship, or its legal equivalent, pending the conduct of fair, and carefully monitored elections. Public administration is not working and the Karzai government suffers from a serious legitimacy deficit. An alternative governing structure seems now a short term necessity.
5. Encourage international cooperation by convening, under UN auspices, an international peace conference involving all internal parties, regional/bordering states, and the USA, Russia, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the EU, and Japan. Engage the OIC, SCO, and OSCE in this enterprise, with NATO present as an observer, and support the ongoing Af-Pak dialogue through the Abu Dhabi Process to rebuild confidence and trust and foster collaboration.
6. Redirect annual savings of the $100 billion plus now going into the military effort to fund a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan; provide new and substantial resources to appropriate Afghan and international NGOs, multilateral financial institutions and specialized agencies to support sustainable economic development. To encourage commerce, consumption and investment, and to bypass warlords and corrupt local officials, jump start this initiative with an immediate infusion of cash delivered directly to the people. For example, buy up the poppy crop and transfer the returns to producers. Follow up with generous incentives to attract private sector involvement in trade and investment, with an initial focus on the agricultural, energy and mineral sectors to create employment and generate growth.
7. Commission a detailed background study by a blue ribbon panel of disinterested experts on Afghanistan’s history, culture and development prospects. Almost a decade ago, NATO member states rushed to intervene in Afghanistan almost blind, without the benefit of sufficient intellectual preparation. That myopia has proven costly and must not be allowed to recur.
There is no panacea for Afghanistan’s many challenges, but the status quo is unacceptable in every respect. The international community owes the Afghan people something better than more of the same, but worse.
The moment is overdue to give dialogue, negotiation and compromise a chance.