There has been much commentary and speculation in recent weeks regarding Pakistan’s national elections, and the possible impact of the results upon events in Afghanistan. While the nature of developments in Pakistan might well amount to the single most important external influence, not least because of the shared Pashtun population on either side of the Durand Line and Pakistan’s longstanding pre-occupation with Indian designs in the region, in Afghanistan there are many other factors and actors at play.
That country, situated at a crossroads of civilizations, is an almost bewilderingly complicated place. The burden of history is enormous: over the past few centuries, Afghanistan has more often than not been treated as a pawn in the imperial “great game.” It has deservedly developed a reputation as the “graveyard of empires,” not least because outsiders’ forces have only ever succeeded in pacifying small parts of the country. Internal stability, such as it has ever existed, has been predicated typically upon the decentralized, often shifting political arrangements between the capital and the provinces.
That pattern was long gone by the time NATO intervened. Still reeling in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S.-led coalition effectively took sides in a complex ethnic, tribal, sectarian, and geographically rooted civil war. Twelve years later, ISAF is shrinking by the month, and is further than ever from prevailing. Unsurprisingly, the continuing presence of foreign forces, viewed widely as occupiers by the population, has exacerbated the conflict.
The Russians, who had much better supply lines and enjoyed an enormous cultural and linguistic advantage conferred by the presence of Central Asian troops, were taught the same lesson not that long ago and at great expense. They, too, claimed to have come to educate children, emancipate women, and roll back religious extremism…
Afghanistan is no longer the epicentre of transnational terrorism. That pretext for continuing armed Western intervention no longer exists, and indeed, the essential strategic objective was achieved by early 2002, by which point Al-Qaeda camps and infrastructure had been dismantled and the membership dispersed. The Taliban, swept from power and replaced by a coalition of warlords, were never the principal threat to West. Their goals are essentially national and they have never had the capability or the intent to threaten international security. Like the opportunity to move from the surgical application of armed force to intensive development assistance which NATO chose not to take a decade ago, conflating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was a serious mistake.
These multiple analytical failures, compounded by the disastrous launch of a war of choice in Iraq which for years relegated Afghanistan to the status of a sideshow, have been costly. As the U.S. and NATO rush for the exits, and with a continuing high incidence of green-on-blue insider attacks against ISAF personnel, there are few signs of this misadventure ending well.
In short, whatever happens this weekend in Pakistan, greater or lesser stability in that country will not change the fact that there are no foreign military solutions to Afghanistan’s problems of bad governance and severe underdevelopment. NATO’s attempt to prop up the hopelessly corrupt and unrepresentative Karzai regime, while training and equipping his army and police, looks eerily similar to the USA’s effort at Vietnamization forty years ago. Similarly, the increasing reliance upon special forces conjures memories of the controversial Phoenix Program.
Are there alternatives? By my reckoning, there are only three ways to effectively counter an insurgency:
- Recourse to large scale, systematic brutality, particularly in response to specific provocations. This tactic found favour from Roman times until WWII, but with a few exceptions, such as the Balkan wars of the ’90s, such practices are no longer possible due to amateur digital reporting, media connectivity, and heightened sensitivity to human rights abuses.
- Massive occupation. Success here requires ratio of between 1:10 to 1:200 foreign troops/units of local population, depending on the ferocity and extent of resistance. At its numerical peak, even at height of the unsuccessful ‘surge,’ ISAF strength was only near very the bottom end of that scale and hence clearly inadequate to the scale and intensity of the revolt. Occupation therefore was, and remains mission impossible.
- Cutting a political deal directly with your opponent through negotiations. This might have worked a few years ago, and circumstances can always change, but it appears too late for that now. In the wake of increased drone attacks, continuing civilian casualties (collateral damage), rogue killings of women and children, Koran burnings, urinating on dead insurgents, and posing with severed body parts, ISAF has become an integral part of the problem rather than the solution.
Indeed, with the Taliban re-established, and quite possibly poised to resume control – or at least try – following the almost certain collapse of the current regime or its post-war successor, Afghanistan is in many respects worse off now than it was a decade ago. And a host of regional players with competing, and largely divergent objectives – Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Turkey – are waiting anxiously in the wings, eager to intensify their engagement in the vacuum which will follow the completion of ISAF’s drawdown next year. For instance, during the current electoral campaign there has been discussion of terminating Pakistan’s shaky alliance with the USA. That would immensely complicate ISAF logistics, and set the stage for an intensification of Pakistani efforts to influence Afghanistan’s future.
The outlook is certainly bleak, if not unrecoverable. Countless lives, and the billions of dollars which could have been used to rebuild the country several times over have been wasted. A completely different approach is required.
Clearly, there are no easy or obvious ways forward. One possibility, however, could be for ISAF to cede the multilateral lead on Afghanistan to the UN. The country could then be placed under some form of international legal trusteeship pending the organization of new elections and the convening of a broadly based conference of interested national and international parties. In addition to the Taliban, whose participation is already widely mooted, the obvious candidates for a place at the table would include all of the adjacent states, plus major and emerging powers, and the EU, OIC, OSCE and the SCO.
To turn the page and seek a broadly-based new beginning is a long shot. But it is the very least that the Afghan people deserve. It is worth recalling one of the Cold War’s most important lessons, namely that militaries work best when they are not used. Take the sword from the scabbard and it makes a dreadful mess. When policy becomes an instrument of war, problems quickly compound. For Afghanistan, the pursuit of economic and political progress through development cooperation and the encouragement of power sharing and national reconciliation is surely worth a serious try.