Drift will end

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

U.S. Vice-President-elect Joe Biden (right) receives a briefing on the activities of the coalition forces in southern Afghanistan by Major General Mart C. de Kruif, South Commander, Regional Command, International Security Assistance Force, in Kandahar on January 11.-AFP U.S. Vice-President-elect Joe Biden (right) receives a briefing on the activities of the coalition forces in southern Afghanistan by Major General Mart C. de Kruif, South Commander, Regional Command, International Security Assistance Force, in Kandahar on January 11.

U.S. Vice-President-elect Joe Biden (right) receives a briefing on the activities of the coalition forces in southern Afghanistan by Major General Mart C. de Kruif, South Commander, Regional Command, International Security Assistance Force, in Kandahar on January 11.-AFP U.S. Vice-President-elect Joe Biden (right) receives a briefing on the activities of the coalition forces in southern Afghanistan by Major General Mart C. de Kruif, South Commander, Regional Command, International Security Assistance Force, in Kandahar on January 11.

Dont try to put out a fire by throwing on more fire! Dont wash a wound with blood!

Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century

ON January 13, 2009, Senator John Kerry, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, leaned into his microphone and said of the United States war in Afghanistan, I think were on the wrong track. A former presidential candidate who not only served in Vietnam but also became one of that wars most powerful critics, Kerry now cautioned, Unless we rethink [the Afghan policy] very, very carefully, we could raise the stakes, investing Americas reputation in a greater way as well as our treasure, and wind up pursuing a policy that is frankly unachievable.

Sitting before Kerrys committee, Senator Hillary Clinton, who was later confirmed as President Barack Obamas Secretary of State, said, I think that your cautions are extremely well taken. The Afghan policy was not to be taken lightly. It was going to be thoroughly reconsidered. The U.S. does not have a set of discrete goals. This is what has to be clarified. My awareness of the history going back to Alexander the Great, certainly the imperial British military, and Rudyard Kiplings memorable poems about Afghanistan, the Soviet Union which put in more troops than were thinking about putting in I mean, it calls for a large dose of humility about what it is we are trying to accomplish, she said.

No longer the brave statements about getting Bin Laden, of installing a liberal democracy, of freeing women, of ridding the region of the Taliban. Realism is the order of the day. Currently, there are 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with an additional detachment of 8,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops (from 47 countries). During his election campaign, Obama promised to double the U.S. number, and to make Afghanistan the central front on terror. By all indications, the troops will arrive in Kabul by mid-March. What they will do is another question.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of this deployment: It isnt going to make a difference after those troops get here if we havent made progress on the development side and on the government side. A report in The Washington Post (January 13) noted that the expansion of the U.S. forces will buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy. The incoming administration has made it clear that it will not passively continue the drift over the past seven years. It has not yet revealed its own strategy.

In March 2008, the Atlantic Council, a major policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., released a report entitled Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for Urgent Action. The co-author of the report was Major General (retired) James L. Jones, who commanded NATOs European forces from 2003 to 2006. The first line of the report is blunt: Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan.

The Taliban and the NATO-U.S. forces are at a military stalemate, the report admits. An increase in the NATO-U.S. troops will allow them to take the fight against the Taliban to the less populated, largely rural areas. But this is simply not going to end the conflict. The future of Afghanistan is not going to be fought in its countryside but it will be determined by progress or failure in the civil sector.

The NATO-U.S. effort fails in this aspect. The funds for civil development are limited, and even here, to add insult to injury, of every dollar of aid spent on Afghanistan, less than 10 per cent goes directly to Afghans. The NGO (non-governmental organisation) economy is top-heavy, catering to international aid brokers who have inflamed Kabuls housing market. In addition, the Atlantic Council, in a remarkable departure from the George Bush policy, called for a regional approach and regional solutions.

The NATO-U.S. alliance and the Hamid Karzai government need to bring in interested parties and neighbours, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (which includes the Central Asian states, China and Russia), India, Iran and, of course, Pakistan. None of this can be done without a comprehensive reconsideration of U.S.-NATO strategy in Afghanistan.

Shortly after the Atlantic Council made its report, the Bush White House created its own review of Afghan policy. Lt. General Douglas Lute, the White Houses war czar, headed the review, which reported back to Bush in December 2008. Lute laid out three proposals: (1) that aid to Pakistan should be conditional on its commitment to the battle in the border regions of Afghanistan; (2) that the U.S. government must take a regional view, including India, Pakistan and other states into the discussion on insurgency; (3) that the U.S. government must broaden its strategy to emphasise development and governance rather than military power. This was an in-house rebuke of the Bush policy. It went largely unnoticed.

When Barack Obama picked the Atlantic Councils author James Jones to be his National Security Adviser, it became clear that rethinking Afghan policy had to be on the agenda. Drawing from that study and the Lute report, the Obama transition began to review intensively how the Afghan war has been conducted. Obama went on NBCs Meet the Press (December 7, 2008) to underscore his commitment to bringing India, Pakistan and Iran into the discussion with Afghanistan and the U.S.-NATO for the future of the country. In addition, he pointed out that the U.S. had to increase its development work.

Part of the problem, he said, was that the average Afghan farmer hasnt seen any improvement in his life. You know, we havent seen the kinds of infrastructure improvements, we havent seen the security improvements, we havent seen the reduction in narco-trafficking, we havent seen a reliance on rule of law in Afghanistan that would make people feel confident that the central government can, in fact, deliver on its promises. These statements offer a window into what the new strategy would look like.

For several months, Admiral Mullen has complained that the U.S. military cannot do the job alone. It has been reduced to the cities and bases, with occasional forays into the countryside (mainly from the air). The isolation of the U.S.-NATO soldiers, despite the attempt to reach out to ordinary Afghans through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, has come to resemble the Red Armys isolation in the last years before it exited the country. Russias Ambassador to Kabul, Zamir Kabulov, was once the KGBs man there, and now points out that the U.S. has not only copied all the Soviet errors but made some of its own. At least, he said, the Soviets had a modernisation strategy, spending billions in the 1980s on education, womens empowerment and infrastructure. Where, I ask, are the big American projects to match these, he told The New York Times John Burns in October 2008. Ill tell you. There arent any.

Amy Frumin of the Council on Foreign Relations spent a year in Afghanistan as the USAID representative to one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. She acknowledges that the U.S. needs development assistance as well, but the institutions in the U.S. to carry out development assistance are inadequate for this environment and are, therefore, not as useful as they could be. We will need to create a more effective tool to assist the Afghan government in extending its reach throughout the country.

The search for these more effective tools will certainly detain the Obama report, whose interest in making development a priority has enthused not only the policy section but also the military leadership. Frumin points out that good procedures are only part of the solution. We will find that we need to partner with the Afghans in order to create a counter-corruption strategy that works imposing one from outside has not worked and will not work. The Atlantic Councils report is more general about this, saying that the key to success rests on the Afghans. Without Afghan participation in all aspects of development work, the new strategy will also be doomed to failure.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army continues to build military infrastructure across Afghanistan. Military training centres, new airfields, and bases: all these amount to hardware that belies the idea that the military aspect will be whittled down.

The Washington Post (January 13) reports that the U.S. might end up spending an additional $4 billion to build these military outposts, which of course signals a long-term U.S. military commitment at a time when the incoming Obama administrations policy for the Afghan war is unclear. If the new Obama policy is not crystal clear, the new military hardware will begin to drive the strategy on the ground.

It is odd that Hillary Clinton mentioned the name of Rudyard Kipling as she spoke of her awareness of Afghan history. As the Pakistani writer Tariq Ali says, Kipling is frequently evoked to explain Afghanistan, all in the service of a fantasy of the infantile, savage tribes. Kiplings descriptions, he says, are mistakenly read as history.

To speak of Kipling and Alexander and not of Mahmud Tarzi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, of Anahita Ratebzad and Malalai Joya is to indicate a preference for Afghanistans imperial history to its history of reform and freedom. This failure to see the country from Afghan eyes is going to make any review Americo-centric.

The Obama administration will certainly send in more troops, and in April it will possibly reveal its new strategy at the NATO summit in France.

Between now and then, perhaps Hillary Clinton and Obama will digest the lesson of the Atlantic Council, of people such as Amy Frumin, and of a wounded President Hamid Karzai.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment