There Is No Military Solution to Afghan Problem
SINCE 2001, some 1,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan. More than 300 Brits have met their deaths there – more than the number who fell defending the Falklands.
Months after the Obama administration’s surge of 30,000 US troops and our contribution of 500, the situation is as follows: the Taleban insurgency has not declined or remained static, but has increased, even installing shadow local governments.
The Karzai government controls only 29 out of 121 strategic districts. Only one in four Afghans in strategically important areas backs the government, and the overall level of violence rose 87 per cent between February 2009 and March 2010. These assertions come not from critics of the war, but from the Pentagon’s latest assessment.
Directly after the troop surge, the US chose Marjah as the site of its first offensive, not for its military importance but because it was a mission that was relatively do-able, something which would be able to raise the spirits of the international force and put the momentum back on the side of the allies. Three months later, it is partially back in Taleban control.
There is a growing perception that Marjah has become “a bleeding ulcer”. Those are the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who was the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan at the time of the attack. Since then, of course, he has been replaced by General David Petraeus, but there has been no change in strategy.
Of course, if you look hard enough you can always find good-news stories, such as a senior al-Qaeda leader being killed or the retaking of certain parts of Helmand province, but I believe that the big picture is not a positive one.
After nine years of fighting, most of the areas around Kabul are still too dangerous for westerners to travel through unless by tank or armoured convoy. That is not a fact which implies that those nine years have yielded any military progress. Most damningly of all: the Taleban controls 70 per cent of the country.
In light of these sobering facts, it is worth revisiting the arguments for our continued deployment in Afghanistan.
The central argument is that it makes us safer. Successive prime ministers have argued that if the allies leave Afghanistan, then it would once again become an ungoverned area – a haven for terrorists to plot attacks on “the streets of London”.
With each news story, that argument looks weaker and weaker. Of course, it is true that terrorists can launch plots against us from areas that have a government which is hospitable to them.
But the reality is that this deployment will not protect us from terrorism, for four reasons.
First, because while the allies have been in Afghanistan, there have still been many areas left ungoverned from which terrorist groups can and have launched attacks, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, which has never fully been under Pakistani government control, much of Yemen (where the Christmas Day bomber trained), Somalia, Sudan, and, as the 70 per cent control figure shows, much of Afghanistan itself.
Second, because terrorists do not need ungoverned areas from which to launch attacks. The 7/7 attacks were planned in Britain, the 2004 Madrid bombings were mainly planned in Spain, much of 9/11 was planned in Germany, the failed attack on Glasgow Airport was planned in Scotland. The thousands of homegrown attacks foiled by security services every year are testament to the fact that fighting in Afghanistan cannot protect us from terrorism.
Third, because everybody knows that, sooner or later, the allies will leave. However formidable a fighting force the Afghan army is by then, there is no way that it will have the power to prevent terrorist plots emanating from 647,500 square kilometres of mountainous terrain with no effective border at all with Pakistan.
And fourth, because it looks increasingly like that being in Afghanistan does not in fact protect us from terrorism, rather, it provokes more incidents. There is much anecdotal evidence that our presence has radicalised Afghans. That widens, not shrinks, the pool from which terrorists can recruit.
The next most common argument for our continued deployment is that we must leave Afghanistan secure. We must only leave when the Afghan army is ready to take on security of the country without us. But as the years roll by and the hoped-for progress does not appear, this argument also looks weaker and weaker.
Afghanistan as a single sovereign entity mainly exists only in western minds and on western maps. As well as a lack of real borders, most people there feel loyalty first and foremost to their tribe or area, with the abstract idea of “Afghanistan” only a distant second, if at all. Then there are the liberal arguments. There can be no doubt that a Taleban return would be a disaster for human rights, secularism, and girls’ education. It is heart-rending to consider abandoning the progress made.
But there simply is no military solution. Let us not forget that the Taleban already controls more than two-thirds of the country. Unless we are seriously going to consider staying in the 30 per cent of Afghanistan we control forever to protect the population from the reintroduction of such mores, these practices – however barbaric and unjust – are not a problem which any Nato military strategy can solve. Even the civilian elements of the strategy – drilling wells, opening schools – cannot stave off practices we find repugnant.
Afghanistan is not our country.
Many of the arguments to stay in Afghanistan – the sense that leaving would put us in danger of terrorism, the national pride, and the revulsion at what our leaving would mean for those in the country who want to play their instruments or educate their daughters – still pack the same emotional punch they used to, but they look increasingly detached from the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
We have not controlled most of the county in nine years of fighting and we are not about to now. The best we can hope for is a negotiated withdrawal.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.