More on bureaucracy and good governance
Sherard Cowper-Coles at length on what is wrong with the way we are addressing the situation in Afghanistan.
I believe this first appeared in The Daily Telegraph. I read it a couple of years ago, and it impressed me at the time so I saved it for a possible blog topic. In view of my post yesterday I’m going to resurrect it now, unedited.
As ambassador in Kabul, I wrote to each of our dead soldiers’ next of kin. Too many of the young women to whom I wrote had either just had, or were about to have, the dead soldier’s child. Naturally, I accentuated the positive.
The family could and should be proud of what he had been doing, and of the cause for which he had died. But I could not help asking myself: 10 or 20 years from now, what would we tell the dead man’s as yet unborn son or daughter about the war in which his or her never-known father had fallen?
No one could deny that, especially in the early years after American and British special forces helped the Northern warlords push the Taliban out of power, first in Kabul, and then in Kandahar, much had been achieved. Afghanistan had seen great leaps forward in literacy, huge improvements in health, and the return to school and work of the women and girls of the north and west, and of much of the south and east. Roads had been resurfaced, mobile masts erected, clinics and schools built. For those who believed that democracy was our mission, and elections the measure of success, there had been ballots, too.
In Helmand as well, there had been progress. There was a governor in most of the district centres, rudimentary administration across much of the centre of the province, and, for visiting politicians and generals, the sure sign of success: the walk through the suq without body armour, with the surrounding ring of steel well out of sight of the cameras.
But the real test is not what happens when and where Western forces are present, but what happens where and when they are not. And here the record of lasting achievement is more mixed, and the prospects darker.
If the insurgency infecting much of Afghanistan is compared to a cancer, the International Security Assistance Force’s operations are little more than anaesthetic. Those military operations lower the fever of anarchy, temporarily and locally. But they are not curing the underlying disease. General Petraeus’s own Counter-Insurgency Field Manual makes the point that COIN – counter-insurgency – is mostly politics. Without a credible political product to offer populations caught in the crossfire, no settlement will hold. That is the fatal flaw in the whole intervention.
Despite or perhaps because of the heroic enthusiasm of often ignorant armies keen to do as much of this as they can themselves, we have never seriously addressed the politics of stabilising Afghanistan. The problems began with the decision 10 years ago to co-opt the hated warlords as our agents for overturning the Taliban regime. In doing so, we forgot, if we ever knew, that the Taliban had begun, in the early 1990s, as a popular religious movement against the depredations of those same warlords.
We compounded the error by convening, at Bonn in December 2001, a peace conference to which only the supposed victors of the short war were invited. The vanquished were never part of what followed. Worse still, they hadn’t even been properly vanquished, merely pushed back into the great sanctuary areas of the southern deserts, and back across the Durand line into Pakistan.
We then went on to give Afghanistan a constitution, designed by a Frenchman and imposed by an American, out of keeping with the tradition of informal federalism which had kept the country together for its two centuries of existence. In our well-meaning naivety, we insisted on concentrating power in Kabul, in a single executive president, and on an elaborate – and quite unsustainable – superstructure of elections.
And the errors of omission were almost as bad as those of commission. We set out to counter an insurgency without anything approaching the mass of troops on which the Americans’ own manual insists. I well remember my first ISAF commander, the much underestimated General Dan McNeill, telling me that “to do this properly, Sherard, I need 500,000 men”.
Nor did we – could we – do anything much about the sanctuaries into which the insurgents withdrew as we squeezed the balloon. And, ignoring all the lessons of the Great Game, we failed to engage Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours systematically in the struggle to return Afghanistan to its proper place as the crossroads of south-west Asia.
The serial bilateralism of American diplomacy, the table rounds at the occasional international conference, were little more than diplomatic showbiz. We never treated the neighbours as true partners in solving a problem that was a much more direct threat to their security – through the export of drugs, refugees and violence – than to ours.
But by far the worst omission has been our failure to devise, let alone implement, anything approaching a credible political strategy. Anybody who knows anything serious about Afghanistan knows that our present “strategy” is fantasy: building forts and filling them with Western soldiers whose place will gradually be taken by mainly Tajik forces almost as alien to the Pashtun tribes of the south as the young Britons or Americans, or Danes or Dutchmen or brave Australians, now populating the forward operating bases and combat outposts scattered across the land; and then supposing that, in the secure bubbles thus created, Afghan “governance” will somehow take root, and grow, and survive when those bubbles burst.
More damaging still to the trust essential for making peace is the policy of killing (usually) or capturing (less often) as many Taliban as we can through special forces’ night raids. The history of the Pathans shows that we cannot shoot our way to the conference table.
Securing and stabilising a country in the state Afghanistan was in when we first stumbled in was and is a truly daunting task. There is still time to correct the errors and omissions of the first 10 years. But it will require a Herculean effort of American-led diplomacy, to bring together all the internal parties to the conflict – not just the various brands of Taliban – and, so as to apply outside in pressure for peace, all the regional powers as well.
I do not know whether Obama’s America is up for it. Perhaps we shall find out at the conference of regional powers in Istanbul next month, or at the tenth anniversary meeting in Germany in December. But I do know that, bad though it is to send a young soldier out to fight and die for his country without the best equipment, it is even worse to send him out without a strategy in which any serious analyst can believe.
Cowper-Coles’s article has been scanned with OCR software, so it might not be a hundred per cent accurate.