The west knows it can't win in Afghanistan. The only prospect for lasting peace is to negotiate with the Taliban, which we must learn to see through Afghan eyesby James Fergusson / August 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Taliban members in Quetta, Pakistan; the Taliban’s governing council, the Quetta shura, formed in the city after the US invasion in 2001
All counterinsurgencies, it is often said, end with negotiations with the enemy. After nine miserable years of fighting in Afghanistan, the signs are that the war there has entered this final phase. It is not before time.
Nato’s strategy is visibly faltering, not least since the unauthorised release of thousands of US military documents on Julian Assange’s Wikileaks website. Washington’s indignation at the way these “war logs” were released was probably justified, but should not distract us from the painful portrait that emerged. Among other dismaying revelations we learned that, from 2004-09, Nato forces were involved in 144 “blue on white” incidents—army-speak for killing civilians by mistake—none of which had previously been reported. New media has brought a new era of warfare. It may never again be possible, as the US army manuals advise, to “control the narrative” of a counterinsurgency.
The US troop surge was supposed to put the west into a position of strength from which it could dictate its negotiating terms. Brigadier Ed Butler, who led the British deployment to Helmand in 2006, once told me that it was necessary to go through “a Hobbesian cycle of violence” before the tipping point of popular support for peace could be reached. “You’ve got to go through… an attritional war to exhaust those physical battles before people start to recognise that there is a political solution to be negotiated,” he argued.
But that military approach is not working, and the generals can no longer spin their way to success. The paradox of Afghanistan—one that also confounded the Soviets in the 1980s—is that the more troops and resources we pour in, the more the insurgents seem determined to resist. So the more fighting there is, the more civilians are killed, and the weaker the west’s ultimate negotiating position becomes as we lose ever more local hearts and minds. Afghans suffered 1m dead in their war against the Soviet Union. Compared to these losses, this insurgency has barely started. And the battles are intensifying, while the only sign of attrition is in the west, where support for the war is sliding, and leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have publicly discussed dates for their exit.