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The United Kingdom announces an increase in troop numbers – the highest level so far – only days after Britain mourned its hundredth combat death in Afghanistan. But the sacrifice and the rise in troop levels should not distract us from the military successes in that country and the focus required by the international community to reap a positive legacy.
By Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI
16 June -- The sad milestone last week of the hundredth British death in Afghanistan, and then two more also among the Parachute Regiment, sparked a wave of soul-searching about the purposes and prospects of Britain’s operations in that country. Today, five bodies are flown back to the UK from Afghanistan as the Government announces that more troops will be deployed in the next year, taking the total to more than 8,000. The questions are persistent. Are our troops there for a good enough reason? Are they winning? How will we know when we’ve done enough? Such questions are difficult enough to answer in most military conflicts, but in the circumstances of Afghanistan, they are particularly contentious; deliberative rather than inquisitive questions. And when questions are deliberative, the answers are almost always political.
Some pointers to that political judgement which will ultimately be made on Afghanistan are beginning to emerge following the NATO build up of troops which began in 2006. Firstly, the Taliban are now being held at bay and face the prospect of some serious reverses over the coming year. Contrary to their bravado in 2005 when NATO deployments were announced and their subsequent aggressive but botched offensives of 2006, the last eighteen months have seen them dispersed, weakened and less organised; reduced in 2008 from hardy guerillas to opportunistic terrorists, more dependent on their Baluchistan havens on the Pakistan side of the border than their bases in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan. This does not mean that the Taliban are likely to be eradicated by coalition forces. They are a long-term presence in Afghanistan if only because of their ethnic identity. But they can be politically neutered – pushed into violent irrelevance in Afghanistan’s future. The coalition is on the brink of making this happen and could achieve it by this time next year. That is why the new deployments announced by the Ministry of Defence emphasise the role of specialists and more trainers. And when 3 Commando Brigade deploy next to Afghanistan they will be supplemented by more ‘stabilisation’ assets, in the form of engineers, CIMIC units and military stabilisation teams.
Secondly, it is not clear that the international response community in Afghanistan, still less the Afghan government itself, is in a position to use this breathing space the military has given them. The international response community brings its own characteristic vices into the territory to which it gears up to assist. Agencies compete for resources, they soak up facilities for their own staffs, they import consumer inflation into the economies of capital cities, they absorb too much of the local expertise for their own operations. The international response community quickly becomes an intrinsic part of the problem it is there to mitigate.
So it is in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is, unsurprisingly, struggling for authority and unable to curb those tendencies towards the warlordism and corruption that are built into its DNA. It struggles to assert itself constructively in the face of the sheer scope of the international community’s presence. And the international community struggles to express its presence coherently or effectively. President Karzai went to the Paris Donors’ Conference last week with a plan for a $50bn National Development Strategy. He has about $25bn already pledged and might expect another $7bn in taxation receipts, but he is unlikely to get much more than has been put on the table already, despite the fact that the donors’ meetings seemed surprisingly ready to make new pledges. The problem is not so much the pledges themselves as the ability to spend them effectively. Since 2002, less than $15bn has been spent out of $25bn pledged by the international response community. Even that has had precious little effect on security, infrastructure or the narcotics problem. About 30 per cent of that total still remains completely unaccounted for, and new pledges are conditional on governmental reform and a serious attempt to address corruption throughout Afghanistan. The problem is therefore circular: new money cannot be spent until governance is addressed in Afghanistan, and governance cannot be addressed without significant amounts of new money. The forthcoming Afghan Presidential elections in 2009 may concentrate minds to some extent, but the circularity of this problem remains persistent. The fact is that neither the governmental nor the development community has stepped up to plate in the way the troops have and there is a limit to the time the military can buy for them.
Thirdly, the Al-Qa’ida presence in Pakistan and its affinity with Taliban leaders is a factor in the overall picture, but no longer a determining one. Al-Qa’ida core maintains a dangerous intent but it, too, is disrupted, its leadership locked into a territorial base and its tactics beginning to attract significant opprobrium among Muslim communities it regarded as its natural base. Afghanistan might again slip into the sort of state that could harbour Al-Qa’ida if the ‘Afghan project’ goes badly wrong. But if the ‘project’ succeeds in any meaningful way, Al-Qa’ida could be contained for the next few years and time will do its work among those supporters in Asia and elsewhere who so glamorised it a few years ago.
All this means that the political calculation of success in Afghanistan, still more of victory, is a piece of string. In a country as undeveloped as Afghanistan, the developmental work will never be finished. In a country as fragmented as Afghanistan, the government will never have enough influence over the countryside. So the political calculation becomes at once simple and complex. When can the international community leave Afghanistan with the credible claim that whatever happens next in the country will be in the hands – and will genuinely be the responsibility – of the Afghans themselves? If all continues on the present trajectory, that point will certainly arrive at some time. But if all proceeds at the current pace, it will not be any time soon.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.