Putting Afghanistan in context

The fragility of our strategy for exiting the Afghan war has been exposed by WikiLeaks.

The underbelly of the Afghan war has been exposed by the war logs recently released through WikiLeaks. Not so long ago, Afghanistan was seen as the "good war", in comparison to the far more controversial adventure in Iraq. Now, light has been shone into the shadows of Nato's conduct in a war that is struggling to find direction.

A reassessment of our presence in Afghanistan must go back to basics to understand the continued failure to settle on an exit strategy from the country.

First, we should be clear in our understanding of conditions in Afghanistan prior to the 2001 invasion. Over a million civilians had died during the ten years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1989. The next 11 years witnessed a fluctuating civil war. US-led Nato forces picked a winner by providing huge amounts of firepower to drive the Northern Alliance in to Kabul (though they were beaten to it by John Simpson).

The Taliban's senior leadership, aided by a two-faced Pakistani strategy and military incompetence on the part of the US (as typified by "Operation Anaconda"), were able to flee into the Pakistani tribal areas in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.

Over the following years, the imported exile Hamid Karzai failed to unite the country behind a top-down central government. Meanwhile, warlords who had switched sides during the invasion cemented their control over various fiefdoms, showing little interest in surrendering power to Kabul.

That the "new Afghanistan" was largely rotten at its core was ignored by an administration in Washington that quickly shifted its focus to invading Iraq, stalling efforts to transform the region. With the return of the realists to US politics came implementation of the "surge", which revived the narrative of success in Iraq, despite that country remaining deeply fractured and suffering a violent political inertia.

High-risk strategy

In Afghanistan, the failure of the Karzai government allowed the Taliban to return. Barack Obama doubled down on reviving the war in Afghanistan, speeding up the withdrawal from Iraq while bolstering Afghan troop numbers under the leadership of General Staley McChrystal.

A new counter-insurgency strategy (Coin) looked to buy off the "accidental guerrillas" in Pashtun areas by incorporating them into an army that the Afghan state cannot sustainably afford, and whose ethnic and tribal loyalties are constantly contested. The critical flaw is with the legitimacy of this effort. In Afghanistan, we should be very clear that we are training an Afghan army to kill Afghans in order to protect Afghans. Incidents such as the killing of three British soldiers by an Afghan soldier they were training are simply tragic reminders of the short-term problems inherent in such a strategy.

Repellent as we may find them, the Taliban appear to have a more coherent ideology than Karzai's government. As the Coin expert David Kilcullen has written, "most Afghans historically had little interaction with the central state". Their anti-occupation rhetoric falls on the ears of a population all too aware of Nato's disregard for their lives, as now exposed by the WikiLeaks documents. How can we say that we are in Afghanistan to protect Afghans, when we don't allow them the basic dignity of an independently verified body count?

The mission in Afghanistan relied on a high-risk strategy which predicted that democracy would bestow legitimacy on a foreign military occupation. And yet, today, the US finds itself fighting the longest war in its history; the most recent two months have been the deadliest since the initial invasion. Unless we realise how we got to where we are today, any future policy is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

James Denselow is a writer on political and security issues affecting the Middle East, and is based at King's College London.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.