First Published: 2009-04-16

What New Strategy for Afghanistan?

Is there an exit strategy from Afghanistan? It may seem encouragingly so coming from the voice of Obama’s smooth rhetoric, but 'the devil is in the details', says Paul Burton.


Middle East Online

With the whirlwind of activity surrounding President Barack Obama’s much vaunted “new” strategy for Afghanistan now over, there is a brief pause for reflection, a chance to look beyond the confident soundbites. For it is difficult not to be swept up by the new president’s charismatic oratory, particularly when backed by the unwavering support of his new friends in Europe.

Remarkably, even Obama’s oft-repeated justification for the ongoing military presence in Afghanistan can seem convincing when delivered in that smooth rhetoric. Why would NATO forces be dying in that harsh outpost of South Asia other than to preserve security on the streets of Paris, London and Berlin? But of course, they’re protecting ordinary citizens from the invidious excesses of militant Islam, whose tentacles would surely be wrapped tightly around our cities were it not for the ongoing battle against the Taliban.

Justification aside, the new strategy will unfurl in a predictable fashion over the coming months. The president’s additional 21,000 forces will roll into the “restive” provinces of southern and eastern Afghanistan. And they will dutifully train the nascent yet improving Afghan National Army.

They might even start to create the semblance of a functioning National Police force, although this is unlikely. According to a US Government Accountability Office report of June 2008, the $6.2bn already spent to this end has not resulted in a single police unit capable of fulfilling its mission.

The troops will probably provide the security required to hold a presidential election on 20 August: Failure to hit this most high profile of benchmarks would surely announce the beginning of the end of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Naturally there will be a rising number of “security incidents,” but these will be written off as a necessary cost in the pursuit of bringing an alien brand of democracy to a country to which it is ill suited but which, remarkably, ordinary Afghans have embraced.

But strip away these short-term measures, and the exit strategy remains as elusive as ever. The ultimate measures of success that will facilitate NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan are yet to be outlined, and the goalposts continually shifting. Since when was talking to the Taliban a stated aim?

This chimerical mission, started nearly eight years ago with the aim of punishing the perpetrators of 9/11, is further from achieving satisfactory resolution than at any time in its existence.

The morass of contradictory mission statements can be traced back to the original casus belli: Washington and London were seemingly at loggerheads from day one about what the Afghan mission should achieve.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke blithely about a “light footprint” for Afghanistan, insisting that the goal was not reconstruction but a surgical regime change. His panacea was simplicity itself: force the Taliban out, half-heartedly try to capture al-Qaida leaders, enjoy the eternal gratitude of the Afghan people and move on to Saddam.

The swift military phase would satiate the US viewing public’s apparent desire for revenge after 9/11 while the nefarious Taliban would be swept from power before the world’s media – a perfect symbiosis of cause and effect. And all this would be without a heavy military presence.

The protracted campaign has been hamstrung by this paucity of ambition ever since.

While no one in London disagreed with the tactical need to remove the Taliban, Britain’s strategic goal was far more ambitious. Following his vaunted humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, prime minister Tony Blair and his cohorts viewed Afghanistan as another country that could -- no, must -- benefit from liberal democratic ideals.

The post-Taliban void could be filled with good governance, equal rights for women, a flourishing civil society, rule of law, institutions. After the continual warfare of the previous 25 years, Afghanistan would surely appreciate our goodwill and largesse.

The disregard for history and cultural norms in all of this is staggering. Central governance from a strong capital has never been a feature of Afghanistan. The only functioning level of governance is at local level, where shura councils provide leadership tailored to the realities in their own region. The indigenous tribal law of Pashtunwali will always hold primacy in southern provinces.

And as Churchill discovered in 1897, nothing binds disparate Pashtun tribes like an occupying foreign force (and that is precisely how western forces are viewed by many Afghans).

It is, of course, easy to depict NATO’s military presence in a bad light when robotic, unmanned bombers operated from hangers in the Nevada desert are becoming the Pentagon’s weapon of choice. Any chance these overstretched soldiers have of winning Afghan hearts and minds is shattered by a misplaced payload dropped from 15,000 feet.

And let’s not forget the disastrous effort to rid Afghanistan of opium -- the only source of income for many farming communities. (Perhaps using the crop for medicinal purposes would be a wiser project to sponsor? The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) recommends a Poppy for Medicine programme, converting part of the opium crop into morphine for use in the under-developed world.) Mercifully, new special envoy Richard Holbrooke has driven a tractor through the current policy, describing it as "the most wasteful and ineffective programme I have seen in 40 years." But, as always in Afghanistan, the devil is in the detail.

At least Obama seems to realise that any durable solution must come from within. With Taliban moderates being courted and Pakistan brought closely into the fold, the grounds for egress from this stark theatre are being laid. But the financial and human cost of this botched conflict will provide a stark legacy: Let us hope lessons will be learned about future neo-imperialist jaunts in faraway lands.

Paul Burton is Director of Policy, International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), London.

Copyright © 2009 Le Monde diplomatique

(Distributed by Agence Global)


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