Apart from the standard set of tactical metrics, there is little resembling clear objectives that serve our direct foreign policy or domestic security interests in the current negotiations over Afghanistan post-2014. This is a continuum from the dearth of direction from US-NATO and Coalition Government’s to their Commanders following the end of first phase of the conflict at the end of 2001. While it is not unusual for modern day Governments to repeat the litany of historical mistakes it is unusual for the cycle to occur in such rapid succession.
The policy of nation-building was attempted with little reflection on Afghanistan’s history with previous foreign occupying forces. With the exception of the introduction of Islam that began with the capture of Herat in 642AD, foreign powers have been unable to secure a social contract between a central Government in Kabul and the local village autonomy across the district heartland. Even then it took two–centuries to finally embed Islam within the cultural DNA of Afghanistan. Without establishing an enduring and legitimate political hegemony the remaining US-NATO forces after 2014 risk being left with the next elected Afghan President like a King asleep on an ant-hill.
The withdrawal strategy cannot be based on what could be referred to as the Charlie Wilson complex. That is, where we are filled with guilt to the cries of ‘abandoning Afghanistan’ over deciding not to spend billions more of taxpayer’s money on a hop-scotch of social development programs. It should not be because we want to change the depraved acts of barbarism. That is a cultural and moral war that is beyond Western Government’s international fiduciary duty and perhaps more suited to multi-lateral organisations.
This paper attempts to provide a snap-shot of lessons from previous foreign force withdrawals and offers a number of potential objectives that could form the basis of a decision to maintain a US-NATO presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
A Brief History of Withdrawal
Alexander the Great faced fierce resistance in the Afghan tribal areas where he is said to have commented that Afghanistan is "easy to march into, hard to march out of.” (Robson, 2002) Alexander the Great also launched his own surge with what would have been regarded at the time as superior weaponry and military training, (Pressfield, 2009). Genghis Khan had to apply perhaps the most brutal tactics during his invasion around 1220, which could not be remotely acceptable today, in order to overcome the ferocious and obstinate tribal resistance. The British experienced a disaster as they withdrew at the end of the first Anglo-Afghan War 1839-1842. During their retreat over the mountain passes outside Kabul 4,500 British soldiers and 12,500 civilians died. This colossal humiliation was captured by Elizabeth Butler in her painting depicting Dr William Brydon the sole survivor on horseback, as he reached the British fought in Jalalabad.
During the second Anglo-Afghan War a young British soldier named Winston Churchill set off to prove himself in battle so that he could stand tall at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons when he became a Member of Parliament. In 1898 Churchill wrote of British exploits in Afghanistan that, “Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question, and politically it is a blunder.” Churchill’s battlefield experiences around the North West Frontier are contained in his book The Story of the Malakand Field Force, (Churchill, 1898). Purportedly both General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal studied Churchill’s account of the pitch-battles in which he was involved and also his observations of Britain’s policy application amidst a deep seated tribal-religious, mindset and a chaos of influences.
The Commander of Malakand Field Force at the time, COL. Bindon Blood (1842 – 1940), approached the rebellious tribes with similar tenacity to that applied by the U.S Marine Corp in Helmand. Both employed a systematically, intense, lethal application of force in the hope of forcing the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. While the US Marines, did not apply the ‘scorched-earth’ policy, burning and destroying entire villages, they did implement proactive and aggressive clearing operations that succeed in eliminating an enormous number of Taliban fighters from Helmand Province. Both COL. Blood and the US Marines became the strongest tribe.
Historian William Dalrymple’s stunning account of Afghanistan’s history, The Return of a King provides a far better narrative than I could ever hope to achieve (Dalrymple, 2012). Dalrymple describes the striking parallels between the current war and that of the 1840s. The same tribal rivalries exist and the same battles are being fought in the same places under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities are being garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and they are being attacked from the same hills and high passes. Dalrymple describes how just like the leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar, the Amir of Afghanistan Dost Mohammad Khan in 1835 called for jihad against the outside forces, who had imposed themselves on Afghanistan, starting with the Sikhs who at that time had occupied Peshawar and Kandahar.
In 2010 I spent time working in Ghazni, where the battlespace owners were the Polish Command Task Force White Eagle, and often drove down to FOB Warrior in Gilan District. The FOB contained an old fort which had stood against the great-great-grandfathers of the same people who were constantly sending rockets in our direction. Just like today, the Afghan fighters in Ghazni had been inspired to jihad, at the time by Dost Mohammed. The Ghazis had a propensity for suicidal attacks, guerrilla tactics, debouched treatment of captives and the same habit of melting back into the villages and valleys they came from as soon as defeat was evident. It is difficult to understand how commanders and their political advisors in the current conflict become convinced that districts where they had previously experienced vicious fighting are now permanently transformed. Instead, it is more than likely they were witnessing the time-old-Afghan tactic of blending back into the human terrain, while the leadership may have been killed or fled back to Pakistan. Dealing and double-dealing, where money as much as the barrel of a gun seemed to be used as a weapon to hold alliances together. In Afghanistan I was told there are “good thieves and bad thieves and the bad thieves go to jail or get killed because they don’t steal enough for who they are stealing for.”
It seems that Afghanistan traps foreign powers in the ultimate form of political and military cognitive dissonance, whereby despite contrary evidence, people are biased to think of their choices as correct, especially when they have invested so much. The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization. The tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. The most famous case in the early study of cognitive dissonance was described by Leon Festinger in the book When Prophecy Fails (Festinger, Jan 1956).
Proponents of modern day nation-building in Afghanistan may be surprised to learn that the same issues were discussed in the correspondence of British officials during the First Afghan War as they have been during the current conflict. Questions were asked about whether foreign troops should “promote the interests of humanity” and champion social reform by banning traditions like the stoning of adulterous women? Should they try to reform blasphemy laws and introduce Western political ideas? Or should they just concentrate on ruling the country without rocking the boat? As with many of today’s humanitarian warriors who believe the acceptance of generous development funds and projects by locals equals their support for modernisation, they were sorely mistaken.
From the period of the first Anglo-Afghan War until its final foray into Afghanistan in 1919, Britain’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan oscillated between two contrasting views, ‘masterly inactivity’ and the ‘forward policy’. For thirty years following the disaster of the First Anglo-Afghan War, Britain applied the policy of “masterly inactivity.’ This meant Britain would have nothing to do with the internal affairs of Afghanistan, apart from guarding the border territory with India and maintaining cordial relations with Kabul. Although as Con Coughlin explains in Churchill’s First War, it did involve what was then termed ‘butcher and bolt’. This meant launching one-off punitive attacks to remove Tribal trouble causers, rather than embarking on costly military interventions, (Coughlin, 2013). The Forward Policy came back into fashion with the election of Benjamin Disraeli in 1874 and involved seeking the most strategically advantageous position into Afghanistan and a zero tolerance for any sign of Russian interference. Yet it was the policy of Lord Curzon, Britain’s former Viceroy of India (1899-1905) who implemented a cunning combination of tribal patronage with multiple agreements that as long as the Tribes did not interfere with India, Britain would leave the tribes to conduct their own affairs.
In the current context, following the initial defeat of the Taliban Government at the end of 2001, a similar policy could have been applied. That is, the NATO-US forces could have made one categorical demand, as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or any other terrorist organisation use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests, then we will leave them alone.
The Soviet Retreat
According to Evgeny Malashenko, head of the International Institute for Political Expertise, Afghans perceive the US-NATO withdrawal in same manner as they did the Soviet one – as “defeat” of the enemy. The mindset behind this perception is seen as the result of what many of the fighters feel has been another successful guerilla war campaign against yet another foreign invader and nothing to do with terrorism. Ironically, with their similar complexion, vehicles and accents when the Polish first set up camp in Ghazni the locals thought the Russians had returned. It has been reported that NATO officials have made attempts to engage with the Russian Defense Ministry seeking lessons and analysis from the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (Pakistan Defence, 2013).
At its peak the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) numbered closed to 400,000 towards the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with significant operational capabilities and equipment. This is close to the US-NATO target for ANSF post-2014. While recent reports question the readiness of the ANSF to take complete control, we must ask ourselves if we have an obligation, outside any mutual defence treaty that may be signed, to intervene if a civil war unfolds for control of Afghanistan. A large civil conflict in Afghanistan may not even result in the wholesale control of Afghanistan. The reason we need to ask ourselves this question is because it comes back to the original thrust of this paper around the objectives of the post-2014 strategy. If any serious civil conflict does not risk becoming a harbinger for international terrorist networks, then aren’t we faced with the same conundrum as we find ourselves in with respect to other fragile nations? Perhaps this scenario would require looking at how the French dealt with the recent crisis in Mali as a better comparison or the British “Butcher and Bolt” policy as mentioned earlier.
A recent assessment of the US efforts to develop the ANSF, by the Deputy Inspector General for the US Department of Defence found that to date, the ANA had only been effective in conducting offensive operations of short duration due to logistical shortfalls and limited organic enabler capacity, with heavy reliance on U.S. and Coalition support, (Inspector General Report 2013). That said, following the Soviet withdrawal late President Najibullah persisted for six or seven years before being defeated by the Taliban. Part of the reason for this was described in the January 2013 issue of The Atlantic setting out how 15,000 mujahedin were dealt a serious blow in 1989 by the ANA in a battle near Jalalabad, when they were defeated with 400 scud missiles and Soviet trained advisors. The other historically tried and true strategy in Afghanistan that sustained Najibullah was his effective patronage of warlords and tribal leaders. This is an aspect of doing politics in Afghanistan that many Westerners find hard to stomach; that is doing deals with very bad people. But that is a fact of life and survival in Afghanistan. It was a key component that underpinned TE Lawrence’s success with the Bedouin Arabs in World War I. As with the post-Soviet withdrawal, Najibullah was only able to sustain this strategy while the Soviet Union remain in one piece, following its collapse in 1991, the Najibullah regime quickly fell.
An insightful paper by former World Bank country manager for Afghanistan, William Byrd compares lessons from the Soviet withdrawal (Byrd, 2012). Byrd, noted that total reliance on Afghan security forces after the Soviet withdrawal turned out to be unrealistic: the post- Soviet Afghan army was well equipped and well officered (many officers were trained in the USSR) but was not able to do much more than hold onto the larger cities. The difference between the post-Soviet era and 2014 is that US-NATO may have up to nine bases in Afghanistan that can continue to support ANSF operations. The test will be how far out from the main centres such as Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, US-NATO units will be prepared to lend a hand, should ANSF come under serious attack from the Taliban. If ANSF commanders are not supported in the way they expect when under heavy attacks, in may not be long before the remaining US-NATO troops come under heavy attack as more and more ANSF switch sides. Currently, the ANSF has the security lead over 87 per cent of the Afghan population or 23 of the 34 provinces, (NATO).
Byrd also notes that effective Afghan leadership was very important in the Soviet withdrawal and temporary survival of the post-Soviet Afghan government. In 2014, Afghanistan will hold its first Presidential transfer of power through a national election with the smallest number of international forces in the country since 2001. During the entire period from 1747 to 1978, with one very brief exception in 1929, the country was ruled by Durrani Pashtuns from a tiny number of clans within that broader group. Only three successions involved a smooth transition of power, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Abdur Rahman Khan, and Nadir Shah (1929–33). Every other transition involved, sometimes, long periods of violence.
If the election in 2014 is as much of a shame as the previous election then there is the risk of even further erosion of trust and legitimacy across outlying districts in the Kabul Government. The post-Soviet era culminated in the rise of the Taliban because they offered to save the population from the corruption and debauchery that unfolded. The post-2014 negotiations appear to contain no plan to tackle the cataract of corruption, one of the primary causes of disillusionment among Afghans. There is a critical risk that similar atmospherics could transpire to open the way for a savvier Taliban to exploit weaknesses in the population’s trust in the next Afghan Administration. Given that the Governors are appointed from Kabul, and not elected by the local people, they may not give up their posts so easily with the transition to a new President. The most powerfully armed ANSF Commanders may not be so loyal to a distant corrupt administration as opposed to the local people they serve and could also form a risk to stability the further they are from any US-NATO oversight. At the right price they may also decide to change sides.
In summary, lessons from the Soviet withdrawal tell us that for any gains to remain post-2014 a reasonably stable transition of power needs to occur following the Presidential election. This is on top of the effectiveness of ANSF in areas outside the main centres. The question is how far out from Kabul and Kandahar will the remaining US-NATO forces be prepared to lend a hand? We may also need to accept that any new Afghanistan President will need to implement their own patronage to unsavoury characters and tribal leaders for an Afghan version of stability to prevail. It is unlikely that any progress will be made to restrain corruption, as effectively these two activities of patronage and corruption are diametrically opposed.
Withdrawals Usually Feature Pakistan
A common dynamic faced by nearly all foreign empires in relation to Afghanistan is Pakistan. Once again the future of Afghanistan rests more with Pakistan than almost any other outside influence. During the previous British wars in Afghanistan, subsequent agreements that crafted manufactured stability in Afghanistan were made through the tribal and political leaders in what is now Pakistan. Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were the only countries to formerly recognise the Taliban Government prior to their defeat in 2001.
Not only has Pakistan's support and safe havens for the Taliban stunted efforts to end the insurgency in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to allow itself to be sidelined in negotiating a strategic withdrawal with the Taliban. A 2008 RAND study Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, found that those insurgencies that received support from external states won more than 50 percent of the time, while those with no support won only 17 percent of the time. Insurgents have been successful approximately 43 percent of the time when they enjoyed a sanctuary. Former National Security Advisor and NATO Commander, Jim Jones identified that a "pivotal time" came in 2006, Jones argued, when the Pakistani military decided to "cut a deal" with tribal leaders that allowed the Taliban insurgents to cross freely from Afghanistan if they didn't attack Pakistani forces, Washington Post. There must be diplomatic phrase or term for when a country provides defence funding to another country who then uses a portion of this funding to support your enemy that leads to the death of the original donor country’s soldiers. There is a Pashtun proverb that says, “a man bitten by a snake, will be frightened of even a twisted rope,” this does not seem to fit with US foreign policy and the funding it provides to Pakistan.
In a recent Islamabad Policy Research Institute symposium it was said that Pakistan favours an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process of reconciliation with the Taliban or the Haqqani network which is vital for peace, stability and prosperity of the region, (IPRI 2012). The US-NATO plan for 2014 must in some way seek to align with Pakistan’s own security and stability interests. The current deficit of trust must be overcome to find a fresh pact of security and stability. While they are pathologically obsessed with preventing a Kabul-Delhi alliance, Pakistan has its own cataract of insurgency that could drag us back to fix another geo-political disaster. In a Wall Street Journal article, Pakistani military officials expressed their concerns over the withdrawal of US forces as a new catalyst for violence in their region. Pakistani leaders fear that the end of US military involvement in Afghanistan is spurring on the Pakistani Taliban, Commander of the Pakistan Infantry based in Swat Valley, MAJGEN Ghulam Qamar, believes, "as U.S. forces pull out, there will be a vacuum…a fear of a resurgence of terrorists in Swat."
The Pakistan Army and ISI have long operated in the shadows of Pakistan politics as powerful manipulators of Government. They have undermined or supported, almost every Pakistan President and are alleged to have been behind the down fall of many. Perhaps part of the mistake by Western Governments is to only see Afghanistan through their own interests and not through the interests of Pakistan. Pakistan contains a volatile, cantankerous and diverse Islamic population that is obsessed with cricket. The Pakistan Government must play a careful game when being seen to support US and Western interests. Recall the delicate negotiations required over the Raymond Davis incident. Pakistan could not afford to be seen to be acquiescing to US demands too readily. Similarly, with US drone strikes into Pakistan tribal areas. The Pakistan Government cannot be seen to publicly condone incursions into its territory because it risks further inflaming the radical Islamic groups, even if drone strike eliminate threats to Pakistan’s own internal stability. For example, the newly election Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaign on a promise to end US drone strikes and stop the Pakistan Taliban. Ironically, it was a US drone strike that killed a prominent leader of the Pakistan Taliban, (BBC drone strike kills Pakistan Taliban leader).
Whether Pakistan can close the sanctuaries whenever it chooses with direct effect is debatable. However, the safe passage provided to senior al Qaida leaders at the end of 2001 and the sanctuary provided to the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta and Karachi indicates they could imposed serious restrictions on terrorist groups operating within its borders. Perhaps part of the difficulty with coming to an agreed position on Afghanistan between the US and Pakistan comes from the aversion to fixed boundaries. Western thinking can be linear in nature, that forces process into political solutions. Lord Curzon recognised this when he wrote that, “In Asia…there has always been a strong instinctive aversion to the acceptance of fixed boundaries arising partly from the nomadic habits of the people, partly from the dislike of precise arrangements that is typical of the oriental mind, but more still from the idea that in the vicissitudes of fortune more is to be expected from an unsettled than from a settled frontier,” (Lord Curzon 1909). With utmost respect for the US military and foreign policy officers tasked with tight-rope-walking along the US-Pakistan-Afghanistan chasm, there will not be a durable outcome in region without applying some of Lord Curzon’s thinking to future strategic agreements post-2014.
Conclusion and Potential Objectives
It may be anachronistic to compare the current situation with events in history. We are not retreating in defeat and we will not be withdrawing on horseback and yet we need to depart with a clear set of objectives. Even before the complete withdrawal, the Taliban have shown their ability to disrupt our good work, as when they recently closed 40 schools in Zabul Province, Tolonews. While this may be utterly disappointing, it is questionable as to whether events like this are inextricably linked to one potential foreign policy objective of ensuring Afghanistan does not harbour trans-national terrorists to plan attacks on our shores.
The important aspect of this objective is the focus on foreign terrorist networks and not the Taliban. While Afghans have fought and died with the Taliban, open source data suggests not a single Afghan or member of the Taliban has been implicated in a terrorist attack outside Afghanistan. A West Point Combating Terrorism Centre paper looked at whether the Afghan Taliban had been involved in terrorism outside Afghanistan but could not identify any cases. The closest appeared to be chest-beating threats by Mullah Dadullah (killed in 2007) and his brother Mansour Dadullah. Both were Afghan Taliban leaders who threatened to attack Western interests outside Afghanistan, but never followed through with the threat (CTC Sentinel 2009).
Is the metric of training the ANSF our only objective in continuing the presence of US-NATO forces in Afghanistan? That is of course a means to and end so that the Afghanistan Government can defeat the insurgents on its own. Perhaps the indirect approach of the US forces in the Philippines offers an example of the kind of low-visibility, training operation that could be applied in Afghanistan. Then again, the presence of US forces in the Philippines has acted as a counter-weight to China’s growing military influence and aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. So there is a wider foreign policy objective beyond the diminishing threat of the radical terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, based around the southern parts of the Philippine archipelago, Basilan (OEF-Philippines). There is potential for this secondary foreign policy affect to be relevant in Afghanistan with respect to countering China and Iran. It is no surprise that as the US prepares to exit, China is increasing its presence in Afghanistan.
Conversely, the training of AFNS is actually a secondary objective and the the primary objectives for continuing the presence of US-NATO forces could be one or a combination of the following:
- ensure Afghanistan is not a base for future terrorist action against our foreign and domestic interests.
- consolidate a strategic footprint on the backdoor of Iran
- maintain pressure on Pakistan and the various terrorist groups using the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
- counter the clever influence of China in Afghanistan who haven’t contributed anything to the war but have secured the most lucrative mineral and resource tenements.
If there are no definitive strategic objectives for the continuation of US-NATO forces and further billions in aid to the Afghanistan Government, then the most resourceful course of action could be to adopt the policy position held for 30 years by Britain of ‘masterly inactivity’. It was in fact further perfected by Lord Curzon who established an arrangement whereby individual arrangements were made with Pashtun tribes who were granted autonomy in exchange for their agreement not wage incursions into British territory.
Today that could become one where apart from mutually agreed trade and defence policies, Afghanistan will be left to determine its own future; but any hint of the re-emergence of trans-national terrorist networks will be met with efficient, swift, clinical action. As the short summary of previous withdrawals from Afghanistan attempted to demonstrate, Western political leaders should accept that they are unlikely to alter the course of history when it comes to foreign empires attempting to change Afghanistan.
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