Fighting Words

Did We Take a Wrong Turn in Afghanistan?

Absolutely. But it’s far too early for despair.

Rory Stewart has been one of those most intelligently as well as passionately engaged with the liberation of Afghanistan, so when he writes as soberly as he does in the essay “The Irresistible Illusion” in the July 9 London Review of Books, he makes one want to pay close attention. Let me quote his statement of the problem, as it is commonly propounded by our leaders:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, “If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.”

I haven’t been in Afghanistan for some little time, but it is getting harder to avoid the impression that some kind of wrong turn was made quite a long way back on the road. Or perhaps a series of wrong turns—at any rate, some combination of losing the “drug war”; over-relying on airstrikes that frightened and harmed the civilian population; ceding many border zones to the Taliban and their Pakistani backers; and failing to check corruption, jobbery, and apathy in the ministries of the Hamid Karzai government, which is now slouching toward a re-election that seems to inspire nobody in particular.

Stewart points out the improbability of a “surge” being able to reverse this situation. There are no mass-based political groups in Afghanistan, and Kabul does not possess the relative strength and legitimacy of Baghdad. Afghan tribal groups are not approachable in the same way as Sunni Iraqi ones were, and they often do not exhibit the same level of coherence and legitimacy. It is in these circumstances that the Taliban have been able to emulate at least some of the success of the anti-Soviet mujahidin, successfully posing as the defenders of the Islamic faith and the enemies of foreign intervention and becoming a virtual government in some provinces and towns.

However, the picture is not as absolutely dark as one might be led to expect. On my own ventures into the Afghan hinterland, I found that the Taliban also labored under one giant disadvantage from which the earlier mujahidin had not suffered: They had already been the government of Afghanistan and had not been loved for it. Countless people, especially women and city dwellers, had ugly memories of their cruel and stupid rule. Many Afghans fled the country to get away from it and only came back when the Taliban were thrown out. Several religious and ethnic minority populations, who also suffered grossly, are unlikely to submit to another round of Taliban control. Rory Stewart makes a point of noticing this:

The Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek populations are wealthier, more established and more powerful than they were in 1996 and would strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their areas. The Afghan national army is reasonably effective. Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before. It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

If I am reading Stewart and other analysts correctly, they are warning that in Afghanistan we may be making the best the enemy of the good. It reminds me of what great Welsh radical Aneurin Bevan said to the British Tories during the Cyprus crisis of the late 1950s. The government did not seem to know, he pointed out, whether it wanted to keep a base in Cyprus or to have the whole island as a base. Extending the analogy, might we not be able to shape events in Afghanistan nearer to our heart’s desire without making ourselves responsible for the running of the whole nation and society?

Stewart again: “A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development. …” On the military front, al-Qaida can be kept out of Afghanistan—even if at the cost of being pushed into Pakistan—in the same way as it is now: by the use of special forces and aerial surveillance. If another safe haven is granted to it by any provincial Taliban warlord, we are not inhibited from striking this with “over the horizon” forces based in neighboring countries.

The problem could be that, in his anxiety to deflect any charges of weakness over Iraq (and starting at a time when the Afghan-Pakistan picture was a good deal brighter than it is now), Obama may have promised in Afghanistan more than he can hope to deliver. As it is, we are now committed to a huge new Afghan security apparatus at a cost that continues to grow every day, while NATO allies become increasingly edgy. Even the British are expressing restiveness about the casualty rates and the ever-receding horizon of political stability. Finally, and unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has no economy (except the “informal” one that we have so foolishly committed ourselves to uprooting). But there are many options short of despair, let alone capitulation, and it ought to be possible to mention them as well as to think about them. Stewart’s essay provides a good place to start.