Time to be honest about Afghanistan
Article first published in The Financial Times on 21 September 2012.
Whatever the west feels it should do, it cannot bring a political or military solution.
More than 50 US and British soldiers have been killed by their Afghan partners this year. The attacks have been described as Taliban infiltration of the police, which could be addressed by better vetting. But the very words “Taliban”, “police”, and “vetting” are misleading.
Insofar as it is possible to understand the motives of the attackers (almost all are killed immediately) it seems that only a quarter have any connection to the Taliban. The “police” in question are a hastily formed, poorly trained militia. Ninety-two out of 100 recruits in a Helmand unit I visited last year were unable to write their own name, or recognise numbers up to 10. Their five weeks of training amounted to little more than weapons-firing and basic literacy. Thirty per cent of recruits deserted that year. With up to 10,000 villagers recruited in a month, “vetting” was not a serious option.
This gap between the language of policy makers and the reality is typical. It is time to be honest about Afghanistan: we face a desperate situation and an intolerable choice. If the US, Britain and their allies leave Afghanistan, there will be chaos and perhaps civil war. The economy will falter and the Afghan government will probably be unable to command the loyalty or support of its people. The Taliban could significantly strengthen their position in the south and east, and attack other areas.Powerful men, gorged on foreign money, extravagantly armed and connected to the deepest veins of corruption and gangsterism, will flex their muscles. For all these reasons departure will feel – rightly – like a betrayal of Afghans and of the soldiers who have died.
But keeping foreign troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will not secure the country’s future either. Every year since 2004, generals and politicians have acknowledged a disastrous situation, produced a new strategy and demanded new resources. They have tried “ink-spots” and “development zones”; counterinsurgency and nation-building; partnering and mentoring; military surges, civilian surges and reconciliation. Generals and ministers called 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 “decisive” years in Afghanistan. None was. None will be.
We may wonder why politicians and soldiers have insisted for so long that things are improving. We have been isolated from Afghan reality, and obsessed with misleading jargon. But it is not all the west’s fault. Afghanistan is poor, fragmented and traumatised; and blame should also be put on the Afghan government and on neighbours such as Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of brains and hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested over a decade in understanding failure, without overcoming it. The culture and behaviour of foreign troops, diplomats, Afghans, the Kabul government and Pakistan are not likely to change in the next two years. What we have seen is roughly what we will get.
In the absence of “victory”, three alternative strategies have been proposed: training the Afghan security forces, political settlement with the Taliban and a regional solution. But training Afghan forces, which cost $12bn in 2010 alone, will not guarantee their future loyalty to a Kabul government. Two years and many regional conferences have passed since the formation of the Afghan Higher Peace council, and the clear Nato endorsement of reconciliation: but there is no sign that insurgents, the Kabul government or its neighbours will reach a deal, or feel much desire so to do. So there is no military solution, and no political solution either. Nor will there be before the troops leave. We will have to deal for decades with a troubled Afghanistan, which is not likely in my lifetime to be as wealthy as Libya, as effectively governed as Iraq, as educated as Syria, or as institutionally mature as Pakistan.
What then? The point is not what the US and its allies ought to do but what they can. We have reached the limit of our knowledge, power and legitimacy. Whatever the west feels obliged to do, it is not capable of bringing a political or military solution. That task will be for Afghans. The west should continue financial support, so the Kabul government does not collapse, as it did in 1991, and give enough military support – air power in nearby bases, for example – to prevent the Taliban mobilising tanks and aircraft, as they did in 1995. But this is support, not a solution. Honesty about this will be the start of better policy.
In the best case, removing almost 200,000 foreign soldiers and civilian contractors may force the Afghan government to assume responsibility; allow the insurgents and neighbours to recognise their relative weaknesses; and provide a basis for a political solution. I believe Afghans can find such a thing. But it is not certain. What is certain is that foreigners haven’t, and now can’t.