Afghanistan: Through an Unfashionable Lens

Devoid of full context and without appropriate perspective, it is all too easy to view the problems in Afghanistan as insurmountable, the adversary as invincible and the mission as doomed. A credible assessment can be achieved if viewed in the long-term.

By Paul Smyth, Head Operational Studies Programme, RUSI.

An Unfashionable Lens

Commentary on Afghanistan is invariably bleak. Bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the nation is an immense task replete with enormous difficulties, challenges and risks. Indeed, the enterprise is so vast and complex that it will take perhaps decades to reach a point where Afghanistan ceases to be a country of especial concern to the International Community. Set-backs, calamities and mistakes are inevitable company in such an endeavour and will regularly punctuate the Afghan story as it unfolds, but they do not condemn the venture to inescapable failure. It is therefore imperative that judgements and observations on the international mission in Afghanistan are based on realistic expectations of what can be achieved there and in what timescale, otherwise simple examinations of the data collected by various organisations and in-country media reports will be understandably negative in character. Observations devoid of context lack full meaning, and without an appropriate perspective it is all too easy to view the problems in Afghanistan as insurmountable, the adversary as invincible and the mission as doomed. Certainly, adopting such a view will promote that outcome, but the reality is that only two years after the active expansion of the ISAF mission across Afghanistan, it is impossible to pass a credible verdict on its final outcome, which is probably ten to twenty years away. The following reflection might therefore seem unfashionably optimistic, but nevertheless deserves consideration.


2008 – A New Period in Afghanistan?

History may prove that 2008 opened a new chapter in the Afghan chronicle. In 2006-07 the UN-mandated, NATO-led, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission expanded throughout the country and posed a direct challenge to the influence Taliban and other groups had enjoyed in many areas beyond Kabul. The consequent violence which erupted in southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan was a predictable response from insurgents who hitherto operated free from government interference. Yet despite significant Taliban efforts and a paucity of ISAF ground forces, the coalition proved resilient and successful in battle, although insufficient forces meant ISAF could not hold ground that had been seized from insurgents and the opportunity for decisive success was lost. 

Nevertheless, 2006-07 were damaging years for the insurgents – stated claims and objectives were not met, they sustained heavy casualties, many of their experienced leaders were killed or captured, ISAF (though severely stretched) remained undefeated, the Government of Afghanistan (GoA) was preserved and important progress was made in developing the nascent Afghan National Army and Police (ANA/ANP). Consequently, the insurgents have had to abandon a military strategy that sought to replicate the defeat inflicted on the Soviet Army, for one increasingly reliant on terrorism. The former approach threatened the humiliation of ISAF and NATO, the inevitable collapse of the elected GoA, the evaporation of international engagement in Afghanistan and the restoration of Taliban rule over much of the country; but the latter gives the security initiative to ISAF, threatens President Karzai but not his office, and does not prevent increasing international investment. Refined by combat, ISAF’s operational effectiveness closed a window in which the insurgent’s goals might have been achievable through military victory; the period ushered in by 2008 is one where these goals can only be attained if ISAF and the Kabul regime fail. Insurgents could still ‘win’ in Afghanistan, but prime responsibility for that outcome now rests firmly with the coalition, not the insurgents.   

The Price of Success

Paradoxically, the insurgents’ inability to defeat ISAF militarily will lead to numerous instances of successful terrorist attack, giving an impression of progress. But the health of the insurgency should rather be measured by the insurgent’s ability to exercise affect beyond the tactical arena. It is true that tactical events can have strategic effect, but a huge mistake to assume that all do. So although the insurgents enjoy many tactical ‘successes’ such as roadside and suicide bombings, attacks on mobile phone antennas, the murder of civilians and even high profile assaults in Kabul, they have yet to conduct a level of violence which is beyond that which ISAF, the GoA and the International Community can absorb. Despite their devastating local effect, the terrorist attacks currently lack the intensity and impact to cause decisive strategic effect, and this situation will continue while the coalition’s capacity to accommodate violence remains larger than the insurgents ability to conduct it. However, in this regard the insurgents’ relative weaknesses are obscured and largely neglected.

First, violent incidents in Afghanistan are routinely attributed to the ‘Taliban’ regardless of their criminal, internecine, local or individual provenance (for example, is the repeated interception of World Food Programme aid convoys insurgent or criminal activity?). The ‘Taliban’ can exploit this trend by simply claiming responsibility for any incident they wish to. The coalition’s inability to discriminate between violent actors is an unavoidable reality which undoubtedly amplifies the insurgent’s operational tempo and reach. An exaggerated assessment of insurgent activity increases the perception of their ability which in turn magnifies their perceived capabilities, an accumulative cycle which counter-insurgency efforts must break.

Second, the insurgents know that events in Afghanistan will be readily reported in local, regional and international media, providing a welcome source of publicity. The bombing in Baghlan in November 2007 illustrates this point vividly, where the atrocity was not only credited in the media to the insurgents but viewed as ‘proof’ that the ‘Taliban’ have extended their activities north of Kabul; this, despite the existence of a violent local feud, the area having a Hezb-e-Islami, not Taliban, presence and the Taliban’s refusal to accept responsibility for the attack. The credibility of the insurgency is proportional to its deemed effect, so associating all violent activities with the Taliban and propagating that error to local, regional and international audiences is both beneficial to the insurgents and damaging to foreign domestic support for the international intervention in Afghanistan. It should therefore be avoided.   

Good News

Although there is much to cause concern in Afghanistan, there is room for optimism. For example, when ISAF and the ANA mount concerted operations (such as at Musa Qala), the insurgents cannot hold even critical ground which has been prepared for defence. Nor have they proven able to retake areas where ISAF has established a permanent presence. Consequently, if ISAF is given sufficient resources to repeat such operations and continues to extend its enduring footprint, it is difficult to see how the insurgents could avoid suffering a loss in capability and influence, but it may be that unless US troops are freed up from Iraq, ISAF will have to await reinforcement by Afghan security forces, which would take considerable time (measured in years) and provide the insurgents with a period of respite that would draw out the ISAF mission.

Furthermore, the change of insurgent strategy entails risk which should be exploited. If the insurgents degenerate into terrorists reliant on intimidation and indiscriminate violence, they abdicate the moral authority to govern, risk alienating the people of Afghanistan and undermine their own end state. Steadily, the focus of insurgent violence is drifting from ISAF to Afghan security forces, officials and civilians which may prove to be highly counter-productive, and provides a host of narrative opportunities which should be developed by the coalition.   

A Challenge

In conclusion, coalition success in Afghanistan is for the losing, not the taking. Therefore, perhaps the most important challenge in 2008-09 is for the GoA to show that it is making progress. Central government is an alien concept to most Afghans, but its potential benefits (e.g. social services, the rule of law, peace, stability and public prosperity) must be tangibly demonstrated. The Afghan people must experience an improvement in their quality of life which clearly indicates that an elected government in Kabul is in their definite interests. This requires both effective governance and the commitment of substantial foreign resources. The Kabul regime must be seen to be a credible entity. Afghan citizens must believe in it, and most of them live beyond the Capital. President Karzai’s government must therefore not only develop the capability to govern but also the capacity to do so provincially. Cultivating the necessary skills, standards and maturity in Afghans is a responsibility that rests with the International Community, and it must fulfil its part. The present focus on military operations is understandable, but foreign intervention must also encompass civil ministries if the conditions secured through military activity are not to be squandered. Afghanistan must grow as a nation, a benefit of which will be to expand the coalition’s ability to absorb insurgent violence. There are many obstacles to this growth, but from 2008 they principally sit in the coalition, not insurgent, arena.


This article previously appeared in Afghan Scene in 2008.



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



Explore our related content