The Afghan War February 2012
And so the long baleful litany of tragedies of the eleven year Afghan war continues. On Saturday it was announced that the civilian death toll in the country rose for the fifth consecutive year – by 8% to 3,021.
Among these tragedies is that fact that this was a war we didn’t have to lose. Launched in 2001 was not a detested invasion like the Russian one which preceded it. It was underpinned by a UN Security Council Resolution and overwhelmingly supported by the Afghan people. But now it will end almost exactly where the Russians ended; an untimely exit leaving behind, at best, a strong military, a corrupted police and a weak Government. The tragic price paid for that in Western blood over the last decade will end in a little over two years. But the even higher price paid by the Afghans will not.
We, the Western nations, have no-one to blame for this but ourselves. Afghanistan will be seen in the future as a copy book example of how NOT to do these things.
We failed to concentrate first on the rule of law and now find ourselves both burdened and besmirched with a Government in Kabul so tainted with corruption that its writ (and ours) declines by the day, while that of the Taliban increases. At the important moment when we should have concentrated for success, we distracted ourselves with by Iraq. For too many years our military strategy was chasing the enemy, when we should have been protecting the people. We wasted resources, money opportunities and lives on our own impossible ambitions rather than delivering the simpler things the Afghans would have been content with. We have been blunderingly ignorant of Afghan customs, traditions and language because we thought we knew better. We have repeatedly deluded ourselves about “successes” which never existed and thus took so long recognising that a victor’s peace was beyond our reach, that we wasted the best opportunities for a negotiated one. We failed to understand that, in these wars it is the politics, not the weapons, that counts most; even if you win on the battlefield, you lose if you lose politically – which we have, painfully. And – greatest mistake of all – when unity of command and action on the part of the interveners is the crucial ingredient of success, we have completely failed to achieve this in the places, Kabul chiefly, which really matter. And we’re still doing it. As everyone rushes for the door in Afghanistan, there is a real danger, following the French unilateral withdrawal and US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta’s unwise announcement that they weren’t fighting after next year, that this now turns into a disorderly retreat.
Only the “Poor Bloody Military”, who have done the jobs we asked of them with such outstanding courage and professionalism, can march out of Afghanistan with their heads high. One of our biggest challenges over the next two years will be to sustain their morale and explain to the country, why young lives should continue to be maimed and sacrificed for a cause which is now dribbling away towards an end which is so much less than we said it would be when it all started. Another will be to ensure that, as the Western armies head for the exit, they do it together, in good order and continue to sustain their aid programmes in Afghanistan. But having wasted so many billions, do we have enough left?
So now, this eleven year extended exercise in self-delusion has to end. It is vital that we see the next forty months before final withdrawal with an absolutely clear eye.
First, talks with the Taliban, coming so late, are now little more than a mask for retreat – we know it, they know it and every Afghan knows it. The peace process can now result only in an Afghanistan government in which the Taliban, armed or not, will play constitutional part, especially in the Pashtun south. That is the bitterest pill, especially for those – chiefly women – who looked to us for a chance to get on with living their lives by more civilised values. But it is nevertheless a pill we need to swallow. Perhaps there is meagre comfort in the thought that, once the Pashtuns can choose their own Government it will not be long before they choose not to have a Taliban one.
Second, as after the Russians, the danger now is civil war. All our last actions in Afghanistan have to be dedicated to building the best bulwarks we can against this possibility. That – not “beating” the Taliban – is the reason why leaving behind a professional, constitutional and non-political Afghan Army is so important.
It is also why we have to do what we can to promote a change to the constitutional structure of the country. It was arrogance compounded by ignorance which led us to press for a western style centralised constitution in a country which as been decentralised and tribal for at least two thousand years – complete with elections they couldn’t afford without our money. A sustainable peace in Afghanistan requires a new de facto constitutional structure which runs more with the grain of its tribal realities.
It also needs an external context in which to better sustain its internal peace. The best means of ensuring this is through a treaty based international agreement, rather like the Dayton Agreement for Bosnia, underpinned by great power guarantors (especially Russia the US and China), in which the neighbours – crucially Pakistan, India and Iran – commit to preserving the territorial integrity of the country and refraining interfering in its internal affairs. This will not act as a perfect bulwark against further blood in Afghanistan, especially if Pakistani malevolence cannot be restrained (though a Taliban government in the south may make that less tempting for Islamabad). But it’s probably be the best we can do.
Because of our mistakes, we are heading towards a malodorous exit from Afghanistan – one which will probably – and probably rightly – stop us ever doing this kind of thing again. Let us at least do this last bit right, so that we do not add even more innocent lives to the price of our failures.