The war in Afghanistan has now lasted almost 10 years. It has cost many billions of dollars and the lives of thousands of soldiers from the United States, Britain, Canada and other NATO countries. Many more have been injured. The loss of life among Afghan military and police forces has been even greater and there have been innumerable civilian casualties.
The Taliban has also suffered many casualties and the extensive military operations against them have limited their ability to exercise control over rural areas. The military surge agreed by U.S. President Barack Obama has doubtless put further pressure on them but has not eradicated the threat and the war has not been won. Life in Afghanistan remains fraught with danger. The threat of terrorism is ever present even in the capital Kabul.
The allied aim is to train up the Afghan forces so that they can take over responsibility for security by 2015. But they are underpaid and ill-disciplined and unlikely to be a fully effective force in the foreseeable future.
Another allied aim has been to eliminate the trade in opium but little if any progress has been made.
The killing of Osama bin Laden has been a major blow to al-Qaida, but although there was doubtless some cooperation between them, it was always a mistake to regard the Taliban as a part of al-Qaida. It has also been an error to regard the Taliban as a unified force. The Taliban is a collection of diverse groups inspired by fundamentalist Islamic ideas and by a xenophobic determination to rid Afghanistan of foreign forces.
It should by now be clear to Western leaders that a total military victory in Afghanistan is unattainable. Even if the size of NATO forces were to double and wholesale destruction were to be inflicted on the country opposition to foreign forces would not be eliminated. Such forces are not available and the world would rightly not accept an escalation in violence which would increase civilian casualties and involve unacceptable infringements of human rights.
As Sherard Cowper Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul from 2007 to 2010, has said in his memoir “Cables From Kabul: The inside story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign” (Harper Press, 2011), “the West got into Afghanistan without a clear idea of what it was getting into or how it was to get out.”
The Russian ambassador in Kabul said to Cowper Coles: “You are making all the same mistakes as we did.” (Anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of what has been happening in Afghanistan should read Cowper Coles book.)
One of the most fundamental mistakes the West has made was to believe that there was a military solution and that good battle tactics were a substitute for an overall strategy. The mantra of the military briefings for the many VIP visitors to Afghanistan and NATO forces was an over-optimistic estimate of progress tempered with the caution that “challenges remain.”
The military understandably want to justify what they are doing and to persuade reluctant politicians to provide more resources. Intelligence officers in the field inevitably cannot see the overall picture, and out of loyalty to their superiors and a wish to justify to the fighting men the sacrifices they were making, the picture they drew always had to have rosy tints.
Political leaders and diplomats as well as some of the more far-sighted military staff officers have recognized for some time that there has to be some sort of political settlement in Afghanistan. But how is it to be achieved in a way which will not make the sacrifices of so many lives seem to have been in vain?
There are many internal Afghan obstacles to a settlement. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Afghan government is corrupt and lacks an effective bureaucratic structure. There are too many local warlords in positions of power. Almost everyone in the countryside has access to firearms and supplies of more sophisticated weapons are still coming in over Afghanistan’s porous frontiers.
The Taliban, who must be brought into any settlement, have yet to accept the Afghan Constitution and to be prepared to give up armed struggle.
Can they be persuaded also that their extremist views on for instance the rights of women must be modified? Can we condone any settlement which does not protect human rights?
A political settlement must involve also the countries surrounding Afghanistan. These include Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. All have an interest in a stable Afghanistan, although they also have divergent interests which may be difficult to reconcile. In particular India and Pakistan are highly suspicious of one another’s activities in Afghanistan.
At some stage there will need to be an international conference on the future of Afghanistan involving these states and also the Western powers most closely involved including NATO countries plus Japan and Australia. But before such a conference can succeed there must be a willingness on the part of the Afghan authorities and Taliban leaders to work out the basis for a settlement. An ill prepared international conference that failed could be a setback to the peace process.
The Afghanistan problem has to be seen also in the wider context of the Arab revolts and the festering sore of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The initiative for a political settlement must come from the Americans who have provided the bulk of the Western forces operating in Afghanistan.
We are all junior partners who cannot afford to upset the Americans by any unilateral withdrawal or by any action that might be seen as rocking the boat.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.