This article appeared in the excellent NATO WATCH Observatory, October 2010: it clarifies matters in regard to Afghanistan today and places in context the statements being made by President Obama, Premier Cameron, and General Petraeus. It is reproduced in full below:
NATO Watch Editorial:
Blowing security bubbles in
By Ian Davis and Ben Thomas
When British forces handed over control of Sangin to the Americans recently Prime Minister David Cameron was adamant that the 106 servicemen killed in action in that country over the last nine years had not died in vain, stating that “they made
Under the security-bubble strategy, troops are expected to create a continuous safe zone in the most populous areas of the south, where the Taliban are strongest, and push violence to rural areas on the fringes. "I am constantly looking at the shape of the security bubble and how we can link one security bubble to another," said General Petraeus. With similar efforts playing out in northern and eastern
However, such announcements are increasingly at odds with the realities of the political and security situation in
At the heart of the problem is the lack of any real unified political purpose in NATO’s Afghan strategy or any realistic and acceptable end state for operations there. Al Qaeda—the very reason for intervention in the first place—has been
reduced to a peripheral entity (at least in
NATO forces seem to have become stuck in a quagmire – the initial mission having largely been accomplished while the realities on the ground have surely put paid to any grandiose conceptions of building a democratic Afghan nation.
Essentially all that appears to be left is the search for a face-saving exit strategy.
This, then, is the dilemma that faces military commanders on the ground, who, lacking any real political guidance as to how to proceed, are desperately seeking to establish a security space within which some form—any form—of political progress can be made. This seemed to be the message from Major General Nick Carter when he spoke of the need to ‘dominate’
the audience that if NATOtroops could improve the security situation in Kandahar whilst building local services and
governance capacity then over time the Afghan people’s confidence in government might gradually be restored.
Like General Petraeus, the British commander was essentially placing the NATO effort in Afghanistan in the same context as the US surge in Iraq. While force in Iraq did bring a temporary halt to the deadly sectarian violence that was threatening to engulf the country in civil war, and as such could be regarded as a qualified success,
it did so mostly because of a confluence of factors: Muqtada al-Sadr’s unilateral ceasefire, the American-sponsored ‘Sunni awakening’ as well as the military surge (and perhaps also the rather inconvenient truth that much of the country had in reality been 'ethnically cleansed' by the time the surge was fully underway). In Afghanistan, however, the coalition is battling an insurgency drawn almost entirely from Pashtuns, the country's largest and traditionally
dominant ethnic group. In addition, rampant levels of corruption, weak governmental structures and the fragmented nature of Afghan society (especially increasing tension between the Pashtuns and the smaller Tajik, Uzbek and
Hazara ethnic groups) make it unlikely that any successful military campaign would be accompanied by the sort of political improvements that were trumpeted in Iraq. What is perhaps hoped for, but largely left unsaid, is that NATO will leave behind an Afghan security force competent enough to strong-arm enough of the country to maintain a relatively stable order into the near future (or at least until the next US and British election cycle). So the reality is that
NATO troops are being sacrificed for short-term political expediency in Western capitals and the creation of a corrupt
and authoritarian regime of questionable efficiency in Kabul.
Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that the NATO presence in Afghanistan is itself acting as a radicalising process for young Islamic militants, and rather than ‘making Britons safer’ the mission is actually making them less so. Indeed, even General Petraeus attributes the rise in violence in the past two years in Afghanistan in part to the massive spike in allied forces. "I can trace the line of the violence, right along the security bubble," Gen. Petraeus said. "When we have an operation going on, people shoot back from their sanctuaries and safe havens", he added. Well, there’s a surprise, the blighters have the audacity to shoot back! The National Army Museum in London currently has an exhibition entitled ‘The Road to Kabul: British Armies in Afghanistan, 1838–1919’. The
advertising poster, in an uncanny echo to modern times, quotes Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, one of the most successful commanders of the Victorian era, as saying (in 1880): I feel sure I am right when I say that the less
the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.
The current strategy rests on the hope that NATO forces can batter the Taliban to the negotiating table. And while Maj. Gen. Carter was adamant that the initiative had swung back in favour of NATO forces in Kandahar, without further political progress military action is only likely to provide limited and short-term success. In the meantime politicians back home continue to give their citizens platitudes that have long ceased to be relevant and NATO troops and Afghan civilians continue to die for an unpalatable but ‘necessary’ end state.
A recent report by the US-based Afghanistan Study Group claims that “US interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice” and that “prospects for success are dim”. It is hard to disagree with that conclusion as well as the report’s main recommendation: the need for a “new way forward” based on reconciliation among the warring parties, economic development, and region-wide diplomatic engagement. The real tragedy of the conflict is that none of the options left open are very appealing and any outcome is likely to be riddled with uncomfortable compromises. However, while the focus remains on expanding security bubbles, the prospects for a comprehensive peace settlement in Afghanistan continue to fade and die.
Ian Davis is director of NATO Watch and
Ben Thomas is a post-graduate student at
Kings College, London