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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”