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Western governments are pouring more troops into Afghanistan.
But this strategy is doomed to fail unless they can master the far harder tasks of counterinsurgency, state-building and development.
Winning the Afghan war is about politics, people and jobs.
Although the success of the surge in Iraq and the recent military victory by Sri Lankan government forces over the Tamil Tigers may have emboldened those favouring the military as the principal providers of stability, this is a chimera.
According to conventional wisdom, the principal problem is that the footprint of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is too small to secure a vast, mountainous and inaccessible terrain. Whereas Western forces in Kosovo blanketed that micro-state at a ratio of one soldier per 0.3km2, the ISAF ratio has been about 50 times less. Being “troop light” supposedly results in a balloon effect: as the ISAF pushes in one area, the Taliban squeezes out to somewhere safer that the ISAF cannot simultaneously cover.
But this argument presupposes that the fresh increase of 22 000 troops will be enough to fill the harsh ungoverned spaces especially of south and eastern Afghanistan. It presumes that the Taliban are not spoiling for a fight. And, more importantly, it assumes that the surge will be useful in supporting a political solution accepted by the bulk of Afghans.
While President Hamid Karzai has proved an instantly sartorially recognisable, if not entirely popular, figure in the West, he has proved underwhelming in leading his fractious country to peace. This is partly because of his own inadequacies—his absence of vision and delivery, the corruption allegations that taint his family—and partly because he was, whatever the subsequent electoral niceties and his attempts to put distance between himself and his foreign benefactors, initially elevated by outsiders. And if one homily is true about Afghanistan, it’s that foreigners have historically a limited welcome and grace period to get things done.
But Karzai’s weakness also relates to the fissures in Afghan society and to the failings of Western approaches.
There are two Afghanistans. There is the Afghanistan of those who believe in the possibility of a peaceful and prosperous multi-ethnic society, a progressive extension of the cosmopolitan Kabul the city’s elite once experienced, the type of Afghan that earnest Westerners talk to and prefer to hear. Then there is the Afghanistan of a hard-scrabble, prosaic existence in the countryside, where tribalism pervades and law and order is defined less by the law than the Qur’an, chauvinism, deterrence and retribution.
Karzai has not bridged the gap between the two Afghanistans. And the surge alone will not enable him to do so.
Until now the West’s development efforts have foundered because its methods do not intersect those of Afghan power groups. For example, are attempts to open up the economy and stimulate growth in the best interests of those who prefer to keep power close to their chests? Put differently, where the plans of outsiders are linear in their intent and actions, Afghans (like others being “helped” in Africa and elsewhere) are deliberately vague, non-committal and apparently unhelpful and thankless.
Their attitudes and actions are shaped primarily not by Western interests, but by their own “governmentalities”: power interests, culture, leadership, religion, society, capacity, finance and other values. Of course they are interested in how the actions and money of foreigners can assist their own ambitions.
This creates a dilemma for the West. Walking away is not an option. If nothing else, 9/11 illustrated the costs of complacency, just as Iraq demonstrated the folly of inventing a rationale. Doing nothing and allowing Afghanistan to fester, and likely fall apart violently, is not in anyone’s interests.
So what to do? The first lesson: do not give the insurgents what they want. The Afghan war is an instance of asymmetric means (where one side uses its weakness to military advantage). It is also, more profoundly, a war of asymmetric ends (where both sides do not want the same thing). The presumption that both sides in Afghanistan want the fighting to end may well turn out to be foolish. Instead, cultural differences in the attitude towards war as a way of life, and the bearing of arms defining manhood may reinforce political calculation favouring a long war.
Second, in each and every country example, the process of recovery from conflict to stability involves the same formula: jobs, a stake in the system, political accommodation, security, stability, education, long-term investments in public goods and so on. All of these aspects are part of a virtuous (or, if they are not attended to, vicious) cycle.
In Afghanistan economic differences mirror the attitudinal divide and make reforms more treacherous. A large part of the elite gets by on activities related to the presence of foreigners, sometimes shading into frank rent-seeking (often from donors). The bulk of the population, though, survives through a combination of informal trading, agriculture (including poppy) and cash from family in other countries.
Alienation over access to wealth coupled with historical enmities is a volatile mix. This is as true for the Pashtu in Afghanistan, for example, as it is for the Mandingo in Liberia. Where access to income and jobs is determined by sub-national allegiances and connections, stability is elusive.
Stability thus rests on understanding what sort of job-producing economy is possible in Afghanistan and, as the border cuts between one people, Pakistan. And since development is more than just goals, targets, objectives, strategy, frameworks and plans, this is unlikely to be delivered by international consultants bearing high-altitude plans that, for all the best intentions in the world, scarcely ever survive contact with the realities of local capacity and politics.
A recurring pattern follows in which the West forces local partners to agree to things they know they will never be able to deliver on. This needs to be avoided. It only makes Kabul appear weak.
Third, accept the way local systems operate. The West’s development planners and nation builders might baulk, but local solutions, including political choices, need not only to be respected but encouraged. This means avoiding turning up with a design and dogma that will “show” the locals how things should be done.
This may involve dismissing some cherished notions. The Western concept of tolerant multiculturalism might chime with the worldview of a Kabul elite, but may be meaningless or threatening to many others. Always the West has to be aware of local political and capacity limits. It should not set too many operating guidelines, but rather a few clear “red lines” over which Afghans should not transgress.
Finally, in the same vein, the West should not try to do everything at once. It needs to be clear about what it is trying to uphold and secure. It should be willing to let some areas “go” while concentrating on those things and places it prefers, picking the fights where it and not the Taliban chooses. Only then might the war in Afghanistan be winnable.
Dr Greg Mills, who heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, served in 2006 as an adviser to the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He is currently on leave as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.
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