By the end of 2014, NATO's war in Afghanistan will end. Looking back on more than a decade of foreign intervention in the country, it becomes clear that a mismatch of political goals and military tactics have mired NATO's strategy. Consequently, America's longest war has failed to deliver a basic level of security and a government that can provide essential services.
Notwithstanding a fierce and ongoing debate on its legal and moral foundations, the last 20 years have been the age of interventionism – in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently Iraq and Afghanistan. While the occupation of Iraq ended in December 2012, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) continues to battle in Afghanistan. But, after almost 11 years, NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan seems to be drawing to an end. At NATO's yearly summit last May in Chicago, world leaders endorsed plans to gradually and responsibly draw down its forces to complete the ISAF mission by December 31, 2014.
With NATO leaders putting an end to ISAF's combat mission and heralding the beginning of a new enduring strategic partnership, it seems timely to evaluate the success of NATO's intervention mission. Has Afghanistan merely been "one act in a five-act tragedy", a failed state with a potential for increased chaos? Or has ISAF's Counter Insurgency (COIN) strategy worked, and brought about basic security that can be maintained by Afghan security forces, with the existence of a government that can provide essential services such as healthcare and education? And, what lessons can we draw from our engagement in Afghanistan?
The Real Strategic Mistake in Afghanistan
As time passes, the US administration has increasingly shied away from setting specific "benchmarks" to be achieved before the end of the ISAF missions. However, there is a consensus among senior officials that success in Afghanistan can be defined on some level — a basic security that can be maintained by Afghan security forces, and the existence of a government that can provide essential services to the Afghan people.
Such tenable security depended principally on disrupting, disabling, and dismantling al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to prevent it from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a base to attack the United States. The ISAF, and the US forces in Afghanistan (USFor-A) specifically, have been rather successful in achieving this. Al-Qaeda leaders have been captured and killed, its bases of operation eliminated, its financing restricted, and its ability to launch international attacks disrupted. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was the cherry on the cake.
At the same time, it was absolutely crucial to co-opt the Taliban into a political arrangement that would underpin a secure Afghanistan. As Michael Semple, a deputy to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007, argued in The Guardian recently, it is this failure to squeeze the Taliban out of their Faustian alliance with al-Qaeda that has been the real strategic mistake in Afghanistan.
Instead, the NATO coalition has conducted a relentless campaign against the Taliban movement. It has echoed the first “prong” of what former US President George Bush articulated in his 2010 memoir Decision Points to be his discrete concept of the Bush Doctrine that informed strategy in Afghanistan: “make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them — and hold both to account."
As a result of this doctrine, evidence that the Afghan-Taliban movement was a veritable extension of al-Qaeda and thus must be fought resolutely, came to obscure the larger strategic fault lines of Afghanistan's ethno-political geography. The War on Terror has made us forgetful of Afghanistan's past. It has ignored the fact that the Taliban have been engaged in their own struggle with fellow Afghans, seeking to define the identity of the Afghan state and redress perceived power imbalances within it since the Russians left the country.
Thus, despite the Taliban's national religious liberation discourse and co-operation with al-Qaeda, however disastrous their effects, the War on Terror is hiding the real conflict within Afghanistan and a looming civil war. Yet, international efforts have done little to offer alternatives to the Taliban. The Bonn Agreement that laid out the framework for a future Afghanistan has given the Taliban no stake in the new system. For example, the agreement gave all security and police controls to the rivalling Northern Alliance.
Only recently has there been a growing realisation that any political solution must include the Taliban if it is to be successful in restoring stability and security in Afghanistan. In an article in The Telegraph, Michael Semple expressed this hope by saying: "Now that counter-terrorism has found its mark, perhaps politics will come to the fore." But the timetable for withdrawal may be fatal for Obama’s ambition to "open the door" to the Taliban. Or as Rory Stewart, a senior coalition official in Iraq, has argued: "a lighter, more political, and less but still robust militarized presence that his argument implies could facilitate a deal with the Taliban, if it [military presence] appeared semi-permanent."
"Failure is Not an Option"
Coupled to a limited political objective, the War on Terror was a rather maximalist military tactic to build a government that was able to provide the Afghan people basic service or to nation-build, euphemistically called counter-insurgency (COIN). Known as the "hearts and minds" strategy, it has come to signify a population-centric approach to defeating an insurgency by protecting the people and convincing them they are better off with their own government, backed perhaps by foreign forces, than they are with the insurgents.
The military establishment really came to believe in the promise of counter-insurgency especially after the successful surge in Iraq in 2007. However, according to Colonel Gian P. Gentile, a visiting fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, it became "such a tightly wrapped straitjacket that it prevents us from seeing alternatives, especially in a place like Afghanistan." Alternatives that echo Barack Obama's statement at West Point in 2009 suggest that "we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars."
This paradigm shift should not simply be because of electoral and financial reasons; a decade’s commitment or more is often suggested for Afghanistan with war approval rates on an all-time low. It should take place because decision-makers realise that Afghanistan's size and the region's many safe-havens, especially Pakistan, make a so-called enclave approach of capturing, holding and securing territory, and moving gradually out from the secured enclaves, doomed to fail.
Moreover, an effective counter-insurgency relies, in large measure, on a competent and legitimate host country government. The Hamid Karzai government hardly qualifies as such; Afghanistan's GDP is composed mainly of bribes and drugs trade, and the Afghan National Army (ANA) is based solely upon the forces of the old Northern Alliance.
As such, the coalition has, in the words of Stewart, again fallen into the trap of increase or withdraw. Either "they want to dramatically increase troops and expenditure, defeat the Taliban, and leave. Or they just want to leave," as Stewart proclaims. What Stewart rightly argues is that "instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons, and doing "whatever it takes" and "whatever it costs", we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don’t have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do."
Two Lessons for Future Interventions
Looking back on over a decade of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, two conclusions can be drawn. First, while the counter-terrorism strategy has been a policy success, it has further marginalised any prospects of political reconciliation in Afghanistan after more than three decades of (civil) war and has not addressed the real threat to regional stability, namely Pakistan. Second, COIN or nation-building has failed to support a government capable of delivering essential services, has discredited the national government as a weak and integral vehicle of Western interests, and ruined the public's appetite for viable forms of support to the Afghan government, such as those that will be stipulated in the partnership agreements to be signed with Afghanistan in the coming period.
In the end, as Gerard Knaus argued in his book Can Intervention Work?, the questions for the future are: Can we intervene in foreign countries and do good? Can we stop wars and genocides and get rid of evil dictators? Can we then build modern, democratic states that thrive in our wake?
The Afghanistan experience provides us with two lessons that need to be taken into account when we answer this question.
The first is that intervention must serve a political solution that goes beyond a narrow international security objective. Intervention should not just addresses horizontal, universal struggles (oppression versus freedom) but should provide a way out of vertical, historical struggles to do with a country's specific ethno-political geography. Secondly, while expanding the political objectives of intervention, policy-makers need to decrease military operational objectives. Intervention can only be successful if it consists of an international presence that would merely be a small if necessary part of a larger national political strategy.
It is this mismatch of political and military operational objectives that has mired NATO's strategy in Afghanistan over the past decade. Both objectives need to be firmly adjusted to one another and in the words of Stewart, once again, be based upon the realisation that "if we can resist the slogan that failure is an option we shall discover — in Egypt, in Syria, in Libya, and anywhere else we go in the world — that if we can often do much less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear."
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.