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…
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