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.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit