27 Jul 2009

What's the endgame in Afghanistan?

It is very hard today to read the foreign secretary’s new strategy for Afghanistan.

The aims of Nato are laudable.  They are invariably necessary and they are vital for the security of both Britons and Afghans alike. 

But, worringly, they are becoming more unattainable every day.

President Obama has rightfully made Afghanistan his priority.

The American media reported a meeting with the joint chiefs in which they laid out their requests for more troops, but were unable to answer the presidential question: what’s the endgame?

The troops have been sent anyway, and the immediate goal is to get the country through the presidential vote on 20th August before coming up with any more grand strategies.

David Miliband’s speech today is doubtless aimed at providing a British vision of the way towards the endgame.

Public support may wane and casualties will continue to rise; but there is a fundamental problem with the ideas delivered by him to Nato this morning.

It’s stuff we’ve been trying to do for years, that hasn’t worked. It’s no closer to working now than ever before.

One paragraph in the speech really shows this up:

“The three biggest barriers to this happening more widely are: first, that Afghans fear that international forces will leave prematurely, leaving a state unable to protect them from the Taliban; second, the absence of clean and consistent local governance; and third the lack of economic opportunity and consequent unemployment.” 

“So people hedge their bets, turning a blind eye when they see insurgents laying IEDs or refusing to inform on insurgent infiltrators in their midst.”

It is important to point out that these three factors are now, arguably, worse than ever. Time is now pressing hugely on the US and Nato to make this work fast.

Congress will start picking apart the campaign’s progress in about eighteen months, some believe.  

And, the drafting in of the new Nato commander, Stanley McChrystal, was testament to Washington’s clear belief there need to be new moves fast.

British public opinion is not going to tolerate such high death tolls indefinitely.

It would not be misguided for the Afghan public to fear now that the international community will, after years of ignoring Afghanistan, make one last massive effort before rewriting their definition for success there, and pulling slowly out.

“The absence of clean and consistent local government” – was something that the west railed against earlier this year. There was a consistent whispering, or even open, campaign about the government of President Karzai.

Then Pakistan went up in flames, and the west suddenly seemed happy with the devil they knew again.  Or, at least, too busy to keep pushing for change.

The result is now a vote which Karzai is expected to win, despite broad dissatisfaction over his government among Afghans and Nato contributors.

The lack of “economic opportunity” is almost a given, in a war torn land where reconstruction is so often impossible because of security.

However, Mr Miliband’s key point was that we should be talking to the Taliban. Again, this is a laudable aim, but one that’s too regularly articulated and too hard to meaningfully pursue.

There have been various initiatives to begin reconciliation and negotiation. A small scheme called PTS (Program Tahkim-e Sohl) faltered over suspicions it was not effective enough.

Since then, another scheme has been pushed forwards. But past problem must surely remain: the Afghan Government insisted on running talks. Nato knew Afghans had to be involved for talks to work.

But the mistrust of the Karzai government must surely have contributed to the almost non-existent pace of talks now.

One official told me some time ago, at the height of speculation about a Saudi peace initiative, that there simply were no talks of any consequence going on.

There is one simple reason why: the Taliban don’t want to talk. They are thriving militarily and the US troop surge will likely take about a year to set them back.  If it works at all.

Right now the militant leaders cited today by Mr Miliband – Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network – have little need to negotiate. The government is weak. Nato is playing catch up.

Mr Miliband made another suggestion today that is both accurate and laudable, but perhaps betrays how bad things have got.

He said the Taliban was an awkward definition: indeed, many Nato forces now refer to AGE, or “anti-government elements”.

Now, the insurgency is often peopled by a civilian population that is simply angry towards current corruption and an occupation that appears both endless and clumsy.

Today, Mr Miliband seemed to want to reach out to those in the AGE who aren’t hardcore extremists. He even implied their desire for Islamic rule might not be that repugnant to any political deal.

This is the bit:

“First, a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation.

“That means in the long term an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, which draws away conservative Pashtun nationalists – separating those who want Islamic rule locally from those committed to violent jihad globally – and gives them a sufficient role in local politics that they leave the path of confrontation with the government.”

Nearly two years ago, British officials at the FCO briefed that they would talk to any militants, via the Afghan Government, bar about a handful of eighty or so “mostly living in Pakistan”.

The olive branch was pretty simply refused. Now, another one is extended.  

But, instead of it aiming higher up the militant food chain; it points downwards, seemingly to a wider group of people in society who are disgruntled at misrule.

The problem is simple. We are not talking to the Taliban, as they don’t want to listen. We are not beating them as the troop surge has only just arrived.

It is difficult to know what part of today’s speech constitutes the decision to try something new, and how much of it is an old idea that’s failed. 

An idea that is being resold in a time of real and tragic misgivings about “what’s the endgame” in Afghanistan?