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Friday, 1 October 2010

Disaster in Afghanistan

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 Afghanistan

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 Afghanistan a safer place and they have made Britain a safer place and they will never be forgotten”. Meanwhile General Petraeus has been talking about his work over the last two months to get a "feel" for the security situation in Afghanistan. He drew comparisons between the current situation in Afghanistan and the situation in Iraq a few months after the 2007 surge began there. With the surge forces ordered last year to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama now in place, the current strategy, General Petraeus said, revolves around expanding what he calls
"security bubbles".

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 Afghanistan, the counterinsurgency campaign is focused on lessening violence and restoring confidence in President Hamid Karzai's government. Within established security bubbles General Petraeus plans to thin out international forces and replace them with Afghan forces.

However, such announcements are increasingly at odds with the realities of the political and security situation in Afghanistan where levels of violence remain high. A helicopter crash that killed nine troops in the NATO-led mission last week made this the deadliest year for the force, bringing the total number of ISAF troops killed this year to at least 529. Afghanistan civilian casualties are spiralling even higher: up 31% on the first six months of this year. Nearly 2,000 Afghan policemen and some 3,600 Afghan civilians were killed or injured in the insurgency period.

Moreover, widespread reports of rigging during the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan have reinforced doubts over the capacity of Afghanistan’s patronage-based political system to deliver the reforms envisioned by NATO membersand further undermine efforts to find a workable solution to the Afghan problem.

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
Afghanistan), while the Taliban retain enough residual support, especially in rural areas, to ensure that no acceptable political outcome is likely to succeed without their inclusion. As such,
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’ Kandahar in order to create a security space (he avoided calling it a bubble) within which a political solution could be found. At a carefully choreographed media briefing on 7 September, Maj. Gen. Carter outlined current military operations in the province and efforts to build the capacity of Afghan Security Forces. He told
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

1 comment:

  1. This is a great piece to include. Thanks Inderjeet. Picking up on this, I don't think the author goes far enough. With regards to the allies presence, this itself is causing security problems well beyond those stated in the piece - Congress has picked up on this in the Warlord Inc. report :

    In this report it talks about the effects of supply line security leading to much larger insecurity throughout the country - in many ways it works like the development bubble, which seems to do more harm than good.