Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to increase troop strengths by more than 30,000 could not be described as a surge; if anything, combined with the 18-month deadline for ‘Afghanising’ the military campaign, it in effect implies either the abandonment of the country to its fate over the longer term, or a misleading of public opinion over the complexities involved: believing one could create structures – military or political – in a state as weak as Afghanistan within that time-frame goes beyond optimism. At best, it is a tragic miscalculation; at worst, it is a desperate fib held up to appease electorates already disillusioned by eight years of hubris and insincerity. What will be required in the future will be a kind of leadership that the world has been without for many years, one that goes together with an ability to exact sacrifice and provide much-needed sincerity in a brave new world, and one whose lack in 2001-2008 lies at the root of the problems in Afghanistan today.
Few people now remember that in 2001, when the Taleban were overthrown, the Western military presence was minimal by any standard – rather wisely, much of the actual fighting in these months had been carried out by the forces of the Northern Alliance, aided by targeted aerial bombings and a small group of about 1,500 American special forces. But once that objective had been achieved, hubris quickly took over. Afghanistan was to be transformed, not merely into a viable, but also into a democratic state - and an army of civilian personnel was sent in to teach the Afghans how to govern themselves. Meanwhile, in 2002, Kabul’s plight steadily descended downwards on the list of priorities Western leaders – particularly in Washington – had set themselves in the aftermath of 9-11. Not surprisingly for an administration that was apt to proclaim missions accomplished at the end of their beginning, it was time for more pressing matters: Iraq.
I won’t go into the neo-conservative follies that ‘informed’ the Bush administration’s decision to stumble into Mesopotamia with all the fake pomposity that shock and awe could provide. What is important here and now, in the Afghanistan of 2009, is how Bush and Blair’s mendacity destroyed trust in political leadership when it mattered most (in times of war), how their strategic megalomania caused everyone to get the eye off the ball in Kabul – eventually leading to dramatic mission creep, and how their almost childishly ethnocentric assumption that ‘inside every Afghan/Iraqi there is an American waiting to pop out’ led to seriously underestimating the effort involved in building statehood from scratch in a place with a strong, historically grounded sense of cultural-religious specificity.
War takes leadership, the kind of leadership that is capable of exacting sacrifice and patience from one’s population; and in the era of ‘long wars’ that we live in today, that kind of leadership is called for over longer periods of time. This leadership is not based simply on the ability to ‘talk tough’: talking of a ‘war on terror’ and ‘evil’ might have made Bush seem ‘determined’ and ‘statesmanlike’ to some, in the end, as many have pointed out, it completely misrepresented a long-term and quite indeterminate struggle as a military action with definite starting- and end-points, inevitably leading to disillusionment. In addition, leadership is most certainly not found in the by now all-too transparent spin that underlay the doctored dossiers, designed to deceptively sway international and national public opinion. The images of Colin Powell misleading the UNSC, and of Tony Blair hoodwinking the Commons are now engrained in our collective memories, and will make things far more difficult for any future (or, in fact, present) leaders who’ll have to mobilise electorates in matters of national security that do not involve crying wolf – like Afghanistan, for instance.
War also takes strategic forethought – the strategic forethought that underlies the art of matching limited resources and military capabilities to complex problems that resist simple (and cheap) solutions. To in effect open a second front in Iraq while Afghanistan was not entirely pacified was already based on a fair amount of over-optimistic assumption; that it would then limit the human and material resources that could be assigned to the effort in Afghanistan was an almost-inevitable outcome. It is, naturally, quite useless to speculate now on what would have happened if the West had, from the very start, smothered Afghanistan in aid by spending even one quarter or one eighth of the amounts spent on invading Iraq there, rebuilding many more communities, eradicating much more of the drugs trade, providing much more infrastructure and employment for ordinary Afghans – who are now flocking to the relatively well-paid Taleban. Instead, we can now look in incredulous amazement at the way things actually turned out – the failure rebuild and stabilise Afghanistan on tight resources due to other, ‘more pressing’ commitments. In the era of budget airlines, it might have seemed alluring to attempt easy-State-building and easy-War; the end result were quagmire and mission creep – from 1,500 troops in 2001, to 70,000 in 2009, and counting.
Finally, war takes a certain amount of cultural humility – especially when it is combined with state/nation-building in a place as complicated as Afghanistan. The fetishisation of elections, and the employment of Western-centric models of statehood and good governance were bound to fail in a country with an entirely different and historically deeply rooted political culture, one based on tribal and religious loyalties that could not be realistically redirected towards a central government within the spate of a few years. The assumption that Afghans wanted democracy was fundamentally flawed; in a country where the Taleban, of all people, were initially perceived by many as a blessing after decades of chaos and civil war, it would perhaps have been productive to listen to the hopes and fears of ‘the locals’ instead of assuming their natural propensity for liberal government. One possible outcome would have been the realisation that Afghans, above all, wished for security, and that whether that security was provided by a democratic central government, local, traditional tribal or religious structures or, in fact, Beelzebub himself was immaterial, as long as it was provided. Instead, Western ‘experts’ took their Bosnian and Timorese templates to Kabul, and the end result was Karzai’s 2009 electoral farce.
It is clear that the stabilisation of Afghanistan is an objective of enormous strategic importance. It is situated between one aspiring and one actual nuclear power – the Pak in ‘AfPak’ – with whom its fortunes are tightly bound. Those who assume the Taleban could be persuaded not to give shelter to Al Qaeda in return for a withdrawal engage in wishful thinking; if anything, Pakistan’s hapless experience with appeasement in the SWAT valley would suggest a kind of radical revolutionism within that movement that does not bode well for the chances of such a compromise, most certainly in the event of a Taleban victory. Finally, defeat in the country would be of enormous symbolic importance in the struggle against Al Qaeda (& Co.), providing the network’s propagandists with apparent ‘divine sanction’ in the eyes of its sympathisers and potential adherents – in much the same way as the failure to capture Bin Laden has done in previous years. Leaving the country to its fate will have nasty consequences, possibly worldwide, probably regionally and most certainly for the Afghans themselves.
And so, the Obama administration faces a choice – and it is not simply one between staying the course and leaving. It is also one between providing frank and honest assessments on the one hand, and fudging the truth, on the other. While much of the damage has already been done through the previous years of dishonesty, neglect and overconfidence, it is not too late to learn from the past, reintroducing the elements of leadership, foresight and humility that were formerly so absent. If the Obama administration has – unwisely - decided to leave Afghanistan to its fate by 2011, it should say so openly. If it has decided to stay the course, it should be clear and honest about its objectives, without the fear of expressing the harsh truth that Afghanistan is too unpredictable and complex for deadlines. It should acknowledge the long timeframes and enormous means – human and material - required to achieve these complex and unpredictable objectives. And it should accept the need for thinking outside the Western-centric liberal-democratic box in the quest for stability in Afghanistan, going beyond the traditional models of the Westphalian state if need be. But whatever it does, spineless spin should no longer be an option.