As US troops continue to withdraw, Britain too must scale back its ambitions in the regionby Matt Cavanagh / November 28, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ten years after the fall of the Taliban, and more than five years after British forces were first deployed to Helmand—which has claimed all bar a handful of our nearly 400 fatalities—the public’s attitude to the Afghan campaign seems to be one of weary resignation. There remain, however, big decisions to be made. The new commander of international forces, US marine general John Allen, has promulgated his plan for 2012, shifting his focus from Helmand and Kandahar towards the east, and the ministry of defence has been working through the implications for Britain’s 10,000 troops, as well as charting our way to the exit in around three years’ time.
The good news is that fatalities among international forces are significantly down on last year—among British forces, by more than half. The bad news is that Afghan civilian fatalities are going in the opposite direction: UN figures for the first half of 2011 indicate a rise of 15% on last year, itself 15% higher than the year before. These grim statistics must be seen in context: roughly 3,000 civilian deaths per year is less than one tenth the level in Iraq five years ago, or in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, or in the civil war which followed. Nevertheless, on current trends Afghanistan will soon move from third to first in the league table of conflict-related deaths around the world. It will be hard to call this a success.
As well as the steady toll of suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices, this year has seen a series of high-profile “spectacular” attacks in Kabul, notably the siege at the Intercontinental Hotel in June, the storming of the British Council building in August, a 20-hour shoot-out near the US embassy in September, and a bomb killing seventeen international troops and contractors in October.
At the same time, the campaign of targeted assassinations has continued, including among its victims General Daud, the pre-eminent regional police commander; Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and de facto boss of Kandahar; Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and lately head of the peace council charged with reaching out to the Taliban; and a number of district governors and town mayors.
American and British officials stick doggedly to the line that the spectaculars and assassinations are irrelevant, or even encouraging. Philip Hammond, the new defence secretary, in his first major newspaper interview on Remembrance Sunday, reported that “the military advice is that the insurgency is on the back foot,” and argued that these “so-called spectaculars…rather suggest desperation.” In saying this he was echoing not only his four predecessors, but also General Allen, who dismissed the attack on the US Embassy as having “no military significance,” and the American ambassador Ryan Crocker, who called it “not a very big deal” and “actually a statement of [the insurgency’s] weakness.”
An alternative view is that the switch to spectaculars and assassinations reflects not desperation, but a deliberate strategic move in response to the new international strategy of “transition” to Afghan control. This may be crediting the insurgent groups with too much sophistication—and some of the assassinations, particularly at lower level, may have criminal or other opportunist motives—but as a general rule, it is better to over-estimate your enemy than under-estimate him; and it is definitely a mistake to under-estimate the effects. General Daud observed before he was killed how the assassinations were “creating mistrust” and “demoralising” Afghan forces, and the spectaculars, especially the sieges, capture the 24 hour news far more effectively than the trickle of combat casualties.
The media debate continues to ask who is winning and who is losing, between international forces and the insurgency. But the real question, given our strategy, is what are the chances of the long term success or stability of the Afghan state: a hard question to answer underneath the distorting international presence. What General Allen, Ambassador Crocker, and their political masters need to focus on are the strategic threats which could lead the Afghan state to collapse, to be replaced by civil war, or state failure.
The first is the direct threat to the state from the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network. The second is a different kind of threat, to the legitimacy of the Afghan state in the eyes of its people—in particular the threat of unchecked corruption, and the competition from the “rough justice” of Taliban shadow governance. The third major strategic threat is destabilising interference by Pakistan, and to a lesser extent other neighbours.
The critical mass of decision-makers in both the American and British systems no longer believe we can defeat or neutralise any of these threats, especially in the timeframe we have set ourselves. We may not even be able to reduce them significantly. Instead, our strategy appears to be as follows. On the first, continue killing or capturing insurgent commanders while building up the Afghan security forces to the point where they can handle the insurgent threat after we leave. If the insurgent threat remains high, that is no longer seen as a bar to leaving. It just means we have to build up the Afghan forces even further before we do.
On the second, push the Afghan government into talks with the Taliban and other excluded groups, dealing with the threat to the state’s legitimacy not by improving the government’s performance—which increasingly seems impossible—but by binding its critics into some kind of political process.
And on the third, again try to bind in Afghanistan’s neighbours, through mechanisms like the recent Istanbul conference, while continuing to press Pakistan in particular to stop the most damaging interventions.
It is worth emphasising that this framework involves giving up not just the aim we had from 2006 to 2008, of defeating the insurgency militarily; but also the aim we had in 2009 and 2010, the more sophisticated counter-insurgency aim of defeating the insurgency indirectly, by protecting the Afghan population and securing their loyalty to the state, a state which we then hoped would grow in legitimacy as well as competence.
Having abandoned these earlier aims for a far less ambitious set of objectives, the signs are still not encouraging. The first track, building up the Afghan forces, is generally the one the British reach for when they want to sound upbeat— including Hammond during his recent visit. It is true that the Afghan forces have handled the Kabul attacks with far more professionalism and discipline than would have been possible a few years ago, and there is similar evidence of improvement in Helmand. But the Afghan army continues to face massive problems with retaining trained personnel, which, if not remedied, could dissipate all the investment that has been put in. It also faces a growing problem of Taliban infiltration, along with the rest of the Afghan security machinery (on the same day as Hammond’s interview, the Taliban obtained the security plans for the upcoming Loya Jirga, and emailed them round the Kabul press corps).
The political track was also looking fairly positive, until recently. The balance of power inside the American system had tilted away from those who insisted on delaying talks, to give the military more time to weaken the insurgency and force them to the negotiating table, towards those who argued that the political and military tracks should be pursued in parallel.
Over the summer the UN removed senior Taliban names from its terrorist blacklist, and the international community encouraged the Taliban to open a formal office in Qatar (an idea which had been around for years, bogged down in pointless squabbles over location). Reports indicated that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar was open to sharing power with other ethnic groups, as well as talking to the Americans. There remains a massive gulf between the Taliban and US positions—the central Taliban demand is immediate withdrawal of all international forces, whereas the Americans plan to have combat forces in Afghanistan until 2014, and significant numbers beyond that in non-combat roles—but both sides have been prepared to talk about secondary issues like prisoner exchange, which are often the way such dialogues get going.
Unfortunately, whatever momentum had built up stalled after Rabbani’s assassination, and the subsequent investigation has confirmed the shambolic nature of Karzai’s reconciliation efforts. The Bonn conference, starting 5th December, is a vital opportunity to pull things round, but the omens are not good.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, the crucial relationship, with America, has continued to deteriorate since the Osama bin Laden raid in May. US officials have gone further than before in their public accusations of complicity between Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and the Haqqani network, which America has blamed for many of the Kabul spectaculars. Last week, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington was forced to resign over an alleged memo seeking American help to pre-empt a military coup, despite insisting that the memo was a fake, leaked by the military to discredit the civilian government. American drone strikes, though highly effective at targeting al Qaeda leaders and their associates, remain hugely controversial inside Pakistan; and on Saturday, over twenty Pakistani personnel at a border checkpoint were reported killed by a Nato air strike, condemned as “outrageous” by Pakistan’s civilian leaders. With the official relationship barely functioning, and public opinion in Pakistan extremely hostile to America, the chances of a more constructive approach in Afghanistan seem increasingly remote.
To compound these problems we must now add a new risk, the growing and understandable American reluctance to pay the bills. Many of the proposed cuts in support to Afghan forces are entirely sensible: whatever the counter-insurgency manuals might say about ideal troop densities, it was always a fragile strategy to attempt to recruit, train and equip a force many times the size Afghanistan could afford in the longer term (the current plan calls for 350,000 armed forces and police, costing around $10 billion per year, over a third of the country’s GDP, and many times higher than its tax revenue).
The new fiscal discipline has also resulted in a timely cull of the more “gold-plated” elements of previous plans, including high-end military equipment, air conditioning, and so on. But there is still a risk in making cuts of this scale, around 50 per cent between now and 2014, at precisely the time when the strategy demands that the Afghan forces carry an increasing share of the burden. The proposed American grant by 2014 will still be generous—equivalent to Britain’s total annual budget in Afghanistan—and for that Britain should be grateful, along with the rest of Nato and of course the Afghan government.
But given how central it is to the exit strategy, it is a small and shrinking fraction of overall American spending on the campaign, at ten per cent and falling. If the mood of domestic American politics leads to it being cut more deeply or rashly, that would be a false economy.
Tightening American budgets may also cause problems for Britain, in areas where we rely on their equipment for contingencies, but our biggest problem will be the quickening pace of American drawdown. Britain’s military chiefs are reconciled to the overall timeframe, of ending combat operations by the end of 2014, not least since they now realise how deeply the public dislike the idea of a more open-ended commitment.
Within that broader argument, they felt they had won a small victory in frustrating David Cameron’s desire for larger reductions this year. But as American forces start leaving, Britain is facing a familiar dilemma: the same one which has characterised the whole Helmand campaign, with the brief exception of the last 18 months, during which the high water mark of the American surge enabled British forces to concentrate on a relatively small area of the province.
As US forces start to move out in greater numbers, will we allow ourselves to be pulled back into the neighbouring districts, “stretching” our forces, diluting their effectiveness and increasing the risks? Or will we refuse and try to preserve what we have achieved in the central districts of Helmand, with the risk that this will be vitiated by deterioration elsewhere?
Neither of these options is remotely attractive. We should, instead, seek to align our own drawdown more explicitly with that of the US. Presumably we share the same broader strategy, which is to scale back our ambition in Afghanistan to that of leaving a tolerably stable outcome, allowing us to re-focus our efforts elsewhere: Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Arab Spring, the nuclear threat from Iran, the rising threat of cyber attack, and so on.
If this is our overall strategy, there is no point whatever in us backfilling the Americans as they leave Helmand, and there is also no point or justification in our forces persisting with an operational plan which retains echoes of purist counter-insurgency, with the higher risks that involves. Most of all, we need a joint road-map with the Americans and the rest of Nato which takes us to 2014 in a way that makes sense across the international campaign as a whole, and deploys our forces accordingly, rather than striving to leave an especially impressive slice of Helmand with a British flag in it.