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How to End the War in Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai; drawing by John Springs

Neither the UK nor the US started the war in Afghanistan. In the 1990s that country’s Taliban government provided a safe haven and support for al-Qaeda. In return Osama bin Laden provided the Taliban with money and fighters. Afghanistan became the incubator for the September 11 attacks. The international intervention in response to those attacks had widespread support around the world. But we never meant for our militaries to be there forever. Eight years later, with al-Qaeda pushed into Pakistan, it is not enough to explain to people why the war started. We need to set out how it will be ended—how to preserve what has been achieved and protect South Asia from a contagion that would affect us all.

The route to progress depends on recognizing the centrality of politics to issues of war and peace. Violence of the most murderous, indiscriminate, and terrible kind started this Afghan war; politics will bring it to an end. A political settlement for Afghanistan must have two dimensions. First, a new and more inclusive internal political arrangement in which enough Afghan citizens have a stake, and the central government has enough power and legitimacy to protect the country from threats within and without. And second, on which the first depends, a new external settlement that commits Afghanistan’s neighbors to respect its sovereign integrity and that carries enough force and support to ensure that they abide by that commitment.

Britain fought three wars in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1919. Each time it was defending its power base—and economic stake—in British India. And each time it suffered military reverses as it sought to establish order. Yet on every occasion, once that lesson had been learned the hard and bloody way, Britain’s imperial strategists sought—and secured—a saner and more sustainable objective: a self-governing, self-policing, but heavily subsidized Afghanistan, whose tribes balanced each other and that posed no threat to the safety of British India.

Soviet strategists reached strikingly similar conclusions. When the Soviet forces in Afghanistan withdrew in 1989, they left behind a government, led by the Afghan Communist Mohammad Najibullah, that survived for three years. It did so—in the words of advice from the Kremlin—by “forgetting communism, abandoning socialism, embracing Islam, and working with the tribes.” As with every other regime in modern Afghan history, the Najibullah government could not have existed without external subsidy. And so it fell when Boris Yeltsin’s newly independent Russia cut all aid to Kabul.

Britain’s experience in the nineteenth century, and the Soviet Union’s in the twentieth, showed that the best way, perhaps the only way, to stabilize Afghanistan in the long term is to empower the Afghans themselves in charge so that they can secure and govern their own villages and valleys. To achieve this, the Afghans need full political and military support, and generous economic subsidy, from outside. But the Afghan people neither need nor welcome our combat troops on their soil any longer than is necessary to guarantee security and set them on a course to regulating their own affairs.

A recent study of Britain’s bloody withdrawal from Kabul in 1842 concluded that the first cause of that disaster was the reluctance of junior officers to tell their superiors the truth about the dire situation the British forces found themselves in. I know from my own discussions with diplomats and commanders in the field that such “happy talk” is no longer the order of the day. Getting Afghanistan right means getting down to ground truth. These are the facts as I see them:

• The Afghan people are tired of thirty years of war. They have been traumatized by the fighting and the denial of basic rights and opportunities. The majority of them hate, for good reason, the brutality of the Taliban. But sometimes they see them as their only protection from other brutal powerbrokers or warlords.

• The Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai faces competing demands from its own people, from powerful criminal and commercial interests, and from the international community. But it lacks the capacity to govern. The concerns about its credibility run deeper than last fall’s elections, which were marred by widespread corruption and fraud. They also relate to the very structure of the political system.

• The Afghan insurgency is a broad but shallow coalition, with shifting relationships, geographical bases, and tactics. The Taliban is led by members of the former Talib regime under Mullah Omar, who has been based in Pakistan’s border areas. A variety of other factions are also operating, including the Haqqani network, Hizb-e-Islami, and a range of smaller groups. These groups all trade on the uncertainties of the people and the weaknesses of the state.

• The Taliban are still despised—one recent poll suggests that only 6 percent of Afghans want them back in power. But they do now have organized cadres that enjoy some limited support—in the south, east, and north—and are able to mount operations in Kabul and elsewhere.

• Having fled Afghanistan, al- Qaeda’s senior leadership is now also hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A significant number of its leaders have been killed or arrested. Despite the historical ties between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, their relationship is predominantly tactical and local. Yet al-Qaeda retains the capacity—including through its affiliates in other countries, such as Yemen—to plan and carry out deadly attacks around the world.

• There has been a significant change in Pakistan in the last eighteen months under President Asif Ali Zardari’s democratic government. The reality and threat of domestic terrorism has brought new purpose to civilian and military leadership, and new consensus between leaders and the Pakistani electorate. It is now realistic to talk about complementary pressure on the insurgencies on both sides of the border.

The Afghan and international strategy over the last eight years has been to focus on building up the key functions of the state and delivering better lives for the Afghan people. Despite many setbacks, there is a real record of achievement here, continuing today. The return of five million refugees in recent years is perhaps the greatest sign of the growing confidence of Afghans in their safety and security, and an important indicator of our own progress in protecting them. Still, polling shows that Afghans regard the lack of security as one of the biggest problems; last year more Afghan civilians were killed in insurgent attacks than ever.

In 2003 the Afghan National Army numbered fewer than two thousand. Today it is over 100,000 strong, though the ethnic balance within it—and particularly the proportion of Pashtuns—is weak. The total will grow by a third by the end of the year, and further in the years to come. Afghan soldiers are gaining frontline combat experience, including in the current Moshtarak operation in Helmand province. Plans are now being developed for the transfer of “lead security responsibility” to the Afghans—district by district and province by province—once the Afghan National Security Forces, local government, and other institutions are able to meet key conditions of effectiveness. As the Afghan National Army gets stronger, international forces will be able to withdraw from combat operations—although their training and mentoring of their Afghan counterparts will need to continue for a number of years.

Concerning education and health, in 2001 only one million Afghan children attended school, all of them boys. This year we expect to see seven million Afghan children enrolled in school—a third of them girls. Eight out of ten Afghans now have access to health care.

Poppy growing and the drug trade are major problems for Afghanistan; but during the past two years there have been successive reductions in poppy cultivation: 19 percent in 2008, 22 percent in 2009. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cultivation will not increase in 2010. Improvements in governance and security, along with high wheat prices, have supported these results.

The achievements of the National Solidarity Programme—which aims to improve local and regional government—would be a remarkable story in any country. Over 22,000 village councils have been elected by their peers since 2003. They have not just designed but implemented almost 40,000 development projects, and are now forming, from the bottom up, district councils.

There are also areas where progress has not been so impressive. We are now stepping up our efforts to address these concerns, and the Afghan government needs to do much more:

• Justice and law and order are a critical battleground. The Afghan National Police number almost 100,000, but the biggest problem is now quality, not quantity. Part of the force is involved in the drug trade. It also suffers from illiteracy, patronage by criminals and insurgents, and corruption. The Afghan government is launching a robust and far-reaching program of reform. But the government needs, with our help, to build up the informal judicial structures for resolution of criminal and civil disputes. That is, after all, what Afghans often mean by the rule of law.

• Despite the success of the National Solidarity Programme, civil administration remains an extremely difficult and uphill struggle. In large parts of the country, district governance is almost nonexistent; half the governors do not have an office, fewer than a quarter have electricity, and some receive only six dollars a month in expenses. Over the next two years the international community has promised to help train 12,000 civil servants to serve on the district level.

• Last, there is the problem of corruption. According to January’s BBC/ABC/ARD poll, 95 percent of Afghans see corruption as a problem in their local area. In some regions Afghans are paying an average of $100 in bribes to officials every year. Such widespread abuse has deep roots. President Karzai has promised to tackle corruption and build independent institutions to monitor and drive progress. The international community will judge him by his actions, not his words. Donors are trying to provide him with incentives by promising to channel more aid through the government as certain tests are met, for example the verification and publication of the assets of senior officials and ministers; the adoption of new procedures for senior appointments; and a clear timeline for the enactment of comprehensive anti-corruption legislation.

The achievements of the last eight years would not have been possible were it not for the tireless efforts and unstinting bravery of our troops. Without them, the insurgency would have overwhelmed the Afghan government and probably overrun Kabul. Our development work would have ground to a halt. And al-Qaeda would have seized more space to plan its terrorist atrocities.

The work ahead—on each of these fronts—is both clear and pressing. The additional troops that the United States, Britain, and others are deploying are vital if progress is to be made. Britain’s commitment and determination will endure until we have achieved our shared objective—an Afghanistan that must not again be used as a basis for international terrorism.

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