Afghanistan Update

The topic of Afghanistan was covered in a speech by Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for Defence, UK and also in a question-and-answer session with him. It also arose during many other discussions at the IISS conference in Geneva in September 2010.

As background you need to understand the extensive pessimism in the strategic studies community, after nearly 10 years effort in Afghanistan. Almost all of the issues in the attached  section on state building apply to Afghanistan today. In essence few of the building blocks for successful state building or even for a successful sovereign state, exist in Afghanistan today, and probably have not existed since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

The Soviets failed in Afghanistan, not because of the Stinger issue (they were dealing with that), but because of the effective open border between that country and Pakistan. That is still the case today and Pakistan still unfortunately sees Afghanistan (and Kashmir) as giving it “strategic depth” against what it sees as its key enemy, India. The Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan, General Afshaq Parvez Kayani said in February 2010  ” a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan a strategic depth.” A counterinsurgency campaign cannot win in these circumstances (even a “scorched earth” one such as the Soviets). Therefore the search for alternatives continues.

It was repeatedly noted that, as the IISS Strategic Survey put it-“War aims traditionally expand, but in Afghanistan they ballooned into a comprehensive strategy to develop and modernise the country and its government. Defeat of the Taliban insurgency was seen as virtually synonymous with the defeat of Al-Qaeda, even though much of its organised capabilities had been displaced to Pakistan. Many worry that the large presence of foreign troops is what sustains and fuels the Taliban fighters. Reconciling the insurgents to a distant government in Kabul whose legitimacy is questioned and authority weak will be hard. Finding a constitutional dispensation that recognises the very loosely federal reality of Afghan regional fealty and governance structures would require an enormous political effort that includes not just all local actors but all regional states”. In that latter regard, to date, Pakistan, India, and China have not been forthcoming.

The alternative being considered currently, similar to that of a nuclear capable Iran, is a strategy of containment and deterrence, focused on the international terrorist threat from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions. This strategy needs to be fully thought through, as at some stage (for example after a withdrawal, assuming the Taliban have not been completely defeated) it will be required. Such a strategy would have the benefit of limiting the military effort to dealing with the threat as originally defined by coalition forces when they intervened in Afghanistan. Overall this will require a political solution in Afghanistan, not capitulation, some arrangement with its neighbours, and a deal with some elements of the Taliban.

Some speakers saw   great progress in some parts of the country and insisted that the situation is not hopeless yet.

It is sometimes forgotten that the Pashtun, who are the core of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, number approximately  45% of the population. The majority of the population clearly do not want the Taliban back. It is also frequently forgotten that of almost 200 countries worldwide, only three (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) recognised the Taliban regime. Its appalling atrocities were condemned worldwide, including by most Muslims, Muslim NGOs, and governments.

With the estimated size of the insurgency at 30,000 and the size of Afghan security forces earlier this year at 230,000, it should be possible, with the continued focus on training Afghan security personnel, to get to a situation where most security effort is provided by Afghans themselves over the next three years. While corruption is a significant issue, including in this effort, there is still hope yet. Much work remains to be done and that effort needs to be considered from an Afghan perspective rather than a Western   one. There is in truth significant Western ethnocentrism in much comment and analysis of Afghanistan today.

Looking to the future a number of issues are likely to form the basis for the future relationship in the broadest sense between the people of Afghanistan and Western governments. The West is likely to eventually return to its original objective-ensuring Al Qaeda cannot easily use Afghanistan for its campaign against the West. Strengthening the Afghan/Pakistani governments in the widest sense is likely to be central to this new approach. A new governance-support strategy will be developed, with less focus on central government and more on regional/local government and tribes and other power centres, with whom various arrangements, similar to those in Iraq, would be structured.

A different perspective on Afghanistan is provided by “netwar¹ and can be summarised as follows: “A strategy that puts a focus on networks at its heart rather than on an inevitably troubled nation-building quest will prove more socially, culturally, and historically sensitive to the deep patterns of Afghan life. Such a ‘netwar’  strategy would also allow for a smaller but smarter-and thus more effective-military campaign, while at the same time re-energising and empowering the civil society networks that have already done so much in Afghanistan, and are poised to do so much more. A net shift now is the change we need”², according to analyst and former Rumsfeld advisor John Arquilla.

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