Afghanistan: preparing to lose?

Reports about the situation in Afghanistan in this country are ridiculously parochial, concentrating on British deaths - understandably, but to the exclusion of any real explanation of what is going on there, and why - a largely beside-the-point debate about the shortage of helicopters, and the statements of British ministers, with their evasive and constantly changing justifications for our involvement. But as the ever-perceptive Matthew Parris pointed out last Saturday, there real reason for our continued presence in Afghanistan is that the Americans are there, and how long our forces remain, and what they do, and what level of success they will ultimately be able to claim, all depend on the US. That isn't to say that the British contribution is negligible; far from it, it is, comparative to all other countries involved, hugely disproportionate. But it is, nevertheless, secondary. The Americans call the shots. As Parris put it,

It is not reasonable to suggest that Britain simply declare national defeat, turn tail and abandon our US ally at months’ notice....We British don’t stick the knife into a new and admired US President. We just don’t. There’s no point in recommending it.

Parris also suggested that the politicians and generals were well aware of what a mess the whole situation is, even if they don't, and can't, admit it in public. I'm not entirely convinced. He underestimates the vast capacity for self-delusion that most people have, the tendency to focus on positive news and the psychological power of "one last heave". But he's right, of course, that they are aware that all is not as it should be, and that they have to pretend otherwise. The constantly shifting justifications for the war are proof enough of that. What is it this week? The "domino theory", I think - the idea that if the Taliban aren't defeated in Afghanistan they'll walk over Pakistan and its half million strong army and seize the nuclear weapons. The region is now "AfPak", which is a little like calling the non-Canadian parts of North America Mexus. But don't worry, if you don't like that explanation there will be another one along in a few weeks.

But it doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter what Matthew Parris thinks, and it doesn't even matter what Gordon Brown thinks. What matters is what they think over in the States. And there are signs that war-weariness is setting in. The LA Times recently carried the assessment of Defence Secretary Robert Gates that "after the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway" and that "the troops are tired; the American people are pretty tired." At the moment the Obama White House is engaged on a major push, but if that doesn't work, it is quite possible that the ground is being prepared for admission of defeat.

Time highlights a report (pdf) issued this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a well-connected think tank (and "no bunch of liberal do-gooders"). Its author, Anthony Cordesman, is a member of the Strategic Assessment Group set up by General StanleyMcChrystal, the new(ish) American commander in Afghanistan. He isn't entirely without optimism. "I believe that that the war can be won if the US and its allies act quickly and decisively", he writes. But his assessment of the current situation is bleak. The war, he thinks, "now has five, not one, centers of gravity" - six, if you include Pakistan. Indeed, "the situation has deteriorated into a crisis where the Taliban and other Jihadist movements are now winning."

Even Cordesman's assertion that the war can be won is two-edged: the theory only works if you accept that it has thus far been a comprehensive failure and are prepared to accept a major escalation. He pulls no punches on that score:

Years of chronic underresourcing, failures by the Afghan central government, corruption and waste on all sides, a lack of effective civil-military cooperation and anything approaching a real-world unity of effort within the US team, NATO/ISAF, and UN and international agencies have had serious costs. So have past efforts to deny the scale of insurgent success...

The USA and its allies have been "living in a world of politically correct denial about the dangers, waste, and ineffectiveness" Cordesman claims. He is scathing of politicians who talk only of nation-building and supporting the Afghan authorities (such as John Reid's notorious comment about wanting to be able to leave "without a shot being fired", perhaps): "The failure to treat war as war, and the resulting focus on individual national political interests, is an act of political and moral cowardice on the part of the governments involved".

To turn the situation around, he thinks, will require a far greater commitment of resources - which means, primarily, US resources. It will also mean a trebling in size of the Afghan army to almost a quarter of a million men, and a thoroughgoing reform of the Afghan state, which isn't just corrupt and underdevelopedbut, in many areas of the country, practically non-existent.

He is especially blunt about the deficiencies of the Karzai government. "Corruption and abuses by power brokers are so pervasive that they have widely discredited the Afghan national government" he comments. The Kabul regime is so bad, indeed, that it is almost as dangerous as the Taliban.

The threat does not simply consist of insurgent movements like the Taliban and Al Qa’ida. It consists of a central government and many elements of provincial and local governments that now lack capacity at many different levels. It is a government whose real and perceived excessive corruption, ties to informal power brokers, and links to narcotics trafficking and organized crime have severely undermined its popular legitimacy -- regardless of the fact that the central government is elected. Just as there are no purely military solutions to counterinsurgency, there are no solutions where the host government fails its people. The NATO/ISAF and US mission face the equivalent of two threats rather than one.

Then there is "the self-destructive lack of unity of effort" between the various governments and NGOs involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. There is he writes "an unforgivable lack of transparency and integrity in the US and international aid community, sometimes mixed with direct corruption."

And then, of course, there is the additional problem of Pakistan, many of whose "actions are ambiguous at best". He also warns of possible "spoiler operations by Iran".

His conclusion is fairly stark: "Provide adequate resources or give up and leave". And his definition of "adequate" is

adequate manpower and adequate funding over a period of years and major funding for at least the next four to five years. In practice, the US must also deal with the reality that most of the new resources will have to come from the US and that this will probably require substantial increases in US forces beyond those that President Obama and the Congress have so far committed.

In other words, even the major escalation that Obama administration has already announced - and which he has had trouble getting through Congress - is not going to be enough. Not nearly. In addition to troops, Cordeson advocates a programme of rebuilding (indeed, building) Afghanistan, by-passing the official government and so ambitious that it would amount (though he doesn't admit it) to a full-scale colonial occupation. It sounds just too much, and perhaps it is intended to. Even while pouring resources into the country, he says, the US and its allies should be "planning for the possibility of failure". The "odds of success are not yet good" he writes, "and failure is all too real a possibility". And, indeed, "defeat is excusable", even if failing to warn "that it is probable" is not. Cordesman provides a list of ten things that are likely to go wrong. Of these, he identifies two as the most probable causes of any eventual failure. First, the strong possibility that "the corruption, predatory behavior, and failure to meet the needs of the Afghan people will grow worse after an election that many Afghans perceive as rigged to the point of being illegitimate or meaningless". Secondly that

The US and NATO/ISAF nations will continue in the tendency to deny the extent to which a crisis exists, to claim unrealistic successes, and promise more than NATO/ISAF and the US can deliver....Every denial of this reality for political reasons will further compound the risk of defeat. The US, NATO/ISAF, UNAMA face a serious risk of defeating themselves and this risk will require constant attention.

Cordesman may believe that the war is winnable, but he manages to make it sound like a lost cause.


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