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Afghanistan: Knowing our limits

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This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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23 July 2009 11:29


This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Allan Behm ends his defence of the Afghanistan operation with the warning that Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Noordin Top 'would derive considerable encouragement' from any Western decision to 'walk away from a military unwinnable fight against the Taliban'.

But when the fight against terrorism demands the continuation of a costly and unwinnable war, just because ending it would encourage terrorists, isn't it time to question our strategy? If we saw someone we didn't like continually butting their head against a brick wall, we wouldn't be intimidated by them or admire them for their toughness; instead, we'd question their sanity and perhaps think we had the upper hand against them.

Basing our strategy on what would 'encourage' the likes of Noordin Top is to enter a hall of mirrors. Sure, leaving Afghanistan might look like weakness, but hasn't going in there in the first place encouraged terrorists too? It has certainly exposed the West to just the kind of defeat the Soviets suffered and which so bucked Osama bin Laden.

The only good reason to be in Afghanistan is if it can make a practical contribution to reducing the risk of al Qaeda-led or inspired terrorism. That's why we invaded in the first place, but as Rory Stewart argues in this piece in the London Review of Books, the massive nation-building campaign that has been bolted on to that initial modest military ambition has transformed the Afghanistan operation into its present absurdly ambitious state. It can be wound back to a few core ambitions:

After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

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 and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

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