This article is based on a discussion on Afghanistan convened by the South Asia and Middle East Forum held at the House of Commons on 25 February this year. The panel comprised the Rt Hon Claire Short MP; the Rt Hon Edward Davey MP; Professor Anatol Lieven, King’s College; Jonathan Paris, Hudson Institute; Major-General Gordon Messenger, Spokesperson on Afghanistan for the Ministry of Defence; together with the author. The issues raised in the article are those which the author found to be of interest in hearing the full discussion. While particular perspectives are not attributed to particular speakers in the article, it is hoped that what follows reflects the consensus of the views expressed while also identifying some of the major challenges.
In the wake of yet another major offensive by international forces in Afghanistan, what prospects are there that they will be able to turn the situation around? The declared objective was to extend the writ of the Afghan government to the Marjah area, which lies to the south-west of Lashkar Gah. Now that the combat phase has concluded, with the surviving local Taliban fighters largely removed from the area, the hope expressed by the international military is that government services and other assistance can be delivered.
However, the Afghan government will find it difficult to overcome the cynicism with which it is viewed – a cynicism arising from perceptions of widespread corruption, including a predatory police force. This corruption is fuelled both by the drugs trade and by the patronage dispensed by President Karzai as he seeks to maintain his position. Crucially, Karzai’s government is not yet capable of providing the effective rule of law or the level of governance that might shift these negative perceptions. The aid community, meanwhile, is unable to provide development assistance on any meaningful scale in the face of ongoing security threats to its personnel; moreover there will remain strong resistance to any such involvement so long as the military continues to deliver its own assistance, aimed at winning Afghan ‘hearts and minds’ – a practice which has unfortunately led many Afghans to associate the UN and NGOs with the military effort. Further, the population are keenly aware of their vulnerability to reprisals from the Taliban if they are seen to get too close to the government. Therefore, the rationale for continuing to engage in major military offensives against the Taliban, if the intention is indeed to bring development assistance and governance to the population, can be seriously questioned.
At the same time, troop-contributing nations are facing cynicism from their own populations, along with pressure to show clear results within the next year as the prelude to a phased process of withdrawal. Their final exit will need to be carefully managed if it is to win the support of home constituencies – this should certainly be no ‘scuttle and run’. But a responsible process of withdrawal and handover cannot take place while international forces continue to engage in military offensives. These operations are not only harmful to the objective of bringing the Afghan population onside – as the casualties mount, they also serve to weaken international public support for the counter-insurgency.
In light of these realities, there is an increasing consensus on the potential value of engaging with those who currently support the Taliban in order to gauge whether some form of political settlement might be achievable. In a situation where a majority of Taliban fighters are defending their own villages or population centres against a perceived army of occupation (and a perceived Christian crusade), much could be achieved by removing the core motivation for their resistance – that is, the visible presence of foreign forces – before turning to the other grievances which sustain their movement. With resistance from those in the North of Afghanistan to any attempt by the Taliban to again conquer the whole country a virtual certainty, Taliban leaders may choose to accept a compromise position in which their interests are effectively defended but their designs on total conquest are denied.
Regardless of whether the Taliban proves amenable to compromise, any successful military withdrawal will need to be preceded by a period in which international armed forces are barely visible to the population. The international military should therefore be focusing its efforts on training Afghanistan’s fledgling army and police force, the latter in combination with civilian police training components under Eupol and the US government. Otherwise, operations should be limited to holding ground that has already been taken, with a view to handing it over to the Afghan National Army at the earliest opportunity.
As international forces increasingly confine themselves to their barracks, they will create a political space in which Afghanistan’s many actors can engage with each other, instead of merely jockeying for position to benefit from the resources on offer from the international military. But first, the West will have to let go of its ever-increasing need to control outcomes in Afghanistan. As donor and troop-contributing countries begin to accept their many failures in Afghanistan, a compensatory desire to impose even greater controls on the governance process will only serve to weaken the objective of Afghan self-determination to which they have committed themselves.
Instead, Afghanistan’s neighbours will need to be allowed a much more active role than they have enjoyed hitherto – otherwise they will act out their competing interests on Afghanistan’s soil. (The potential for ethnic grievances to be exploited by other countries in the region is considerable.) Iran is a key player in Afghanistan and it needs to be brought more fully into the frame. The cooperation of the Saudi Government is also essential if the resources which flow to the Taliban from Saudi donors are to be better controlled.
Most importantly of all, Western governments urgently need to address how they are perceived among Muslims in the region. The highly dominant role of the US government in Afghanistan, in combination with its use of drones over Pakistani soil, is generating intense hostility in Pakistan and fuelling suspicions that the US is seeking to conquer the Islamic world; a clear statement from the US government that it plans to remove its bases from Afghanistan would do much to ease these suspicions. Similarly, it is very much in the UK’s interests to make a long-term commitment to Pakistan, based not only on the large Pakistani population within the UK but also on the risks posed by an unstable Pakistan. (The Pakistani government is itself taking more active steps to combat radicalism within its borders, amid an atmosphere of détente with India; however another Mumbai-type terrorist attack could yet renew tensions between the two countries, and the paranoia that Pakistan feels in relation to the involvement of India in Afghanistan needs to be very seriously addressed if Pakistan is to be dissuaded from seeking to fill the vacuum created by a US withdrawal.) Further afield, any armed intervention, either by Israel or the US, against Iran would greatly increase radicalism not only in Pakistan but also in Turkey.
In short, the US and the international community should give far greater scope for those in Afghanistan and the wider region to determine outcomes. So far the dogged pursuit of military goals, in singularly failing to win local hearts and minds, has proved insufficient to defeat the insurgency, and has moreover added fuel to the fire of radicalisation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.