The west must not resort to expediency in Afghanistan

The US and its allies should take a much harder look at our partners against the Taliban.

Last week, more British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan and the Commons international development select committee has said the UK should reconsider its ambition of building Afghan government institutions in favour of more traditional aid targets.

My involvement in Afghanistan goes back to 2004, when, as a Major in the Paras, I was part of a small team which conducted a reconnaissance mission to southern Afghanistan. The UK was considering moving its military effort from the north to the south, but the question was where? I vividly remember standing on the edge of a remote base in Uruzgan province surrounded by mountains, pouring over a map and discussing options with the team leader. Helmand was a key narcotics hub, the UK had the counter-narcotics lead at the time, and there were no other workable options: the only way was Helmand.

So began a commitment that would take me back to Afghanistan twice in 2005 and then again in 2007, when I commanded a company of Paratroopers and a sizeable Afghan force. We fought and lived alongside our Afghan colleagues. For the most part they were committed and brave – sometimes too brave, with a tendency to charge the enemy without waiting for the formality of an order. But it was always clear that while this partnership was essential, it came with significant and deadly risk.

One aspect of that risk has been thrown into sharp focus, with the rise in so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks and new restrictions on joint ISAF-Afghan operations. The fear is that this could undermine the entire effort to train Afghan forces, and with it our exit strategy. It is a very real concern: but it misses a larger danger.  

If the Afghan troops that I served with are not part of a minimally functioning and legitimate body politic, if the men who ultimately command them are not something more than factional leaders vying for their own self-interest, then all the training in the world won’t help. Even if ISAF was able to create effective Afghan National Security Forces, it will only help to the extent it is part of a broader move to address the underlying political problems – otherwise we are just swapping one set of uniforms for another.   

The fundamental problem is that the ISAF partners have never been able to make enough progress on the underlying strategic goal in Afghanistan; a state with enough legitimacy, integrity and capacity to not provoke major conflict, and to be able to provide reasonable levels of security. That’s not some utopian dream of "nation-building" – it’s a statement of our most basic self-interest.

In theory that’s always been the objective. It is there in General Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency (COIN) manual:"“Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule". But in practice the international actors have never resolved the tension between longer-term, more political concerns and shorter-term pressures.

There are some genuine dilemmas here – but it is also clear that expediency has been the rule far too often. While there has been much talk of the dangers of bad governance, too often we’ve witnessed the re-empowering of discredited commanders who went on to abuse the population. The talk has been about democracy, but the constitution provides few checks to presidential power. We’ve witnessed more worries about elections happening than about their substance as a way to mediate political forces. Vast resource has been committed, but often with more regard for getting money out the door than actual impact.

Generals and politicians alike have stressed the governance aspect of counter-insurgency, but that has largely meant technical measures – building courts and training staff. It is in effect an apolitical political strategy: one with little relevance to the way power is distributed, used, and abused. But politics in that sense has been the most important internal driver of the rise of the insurgency.

That is not a mandate for interference: Afghans are rightly sensitive to issues of sovereignty. But it is legitimate to hold ourselves and our Afghan partners to the commitments we have made, and for the international community to have an interest in an Afghan political process that is as healthy as possible. That includes bringing the Taliban into the tent – however uncomfortable that might be for those who have faced them on the battlefield.

But there is opportunity as well as risk in the current situation. Withdrawal in 2014 will undermine a key Taliban argument, make a settlement easier – and increase pressure on the Afghan government to step up to its responsibilities. Fewer actors should make it easier to have a coherent international policy. The peace process, and elections in 2014, are key challenges, but they provide a context to revisit the political contract among Afghans.

At the same time the temptation of expediency is stronger than ever. The scenario we are drifting towards is a clientalist relationship – one where the US and its allies back whoever can fight the Taliban and deliver the international jihadists, giving up on the supposed luxuries of governance and human rights along the way. This would be a mistake. How long will western publics want to back the Afghan government if it loses all legitimacy? How well will such a government avoid civil war? The clientalist model may be the lowest common denominator strategy, but it is far from the lowest risk.

Some might argue it is the best we can hope for given where we are. The alternative is certainly no guarantee of success – which in any case will be messy, and incomplete. But it is clearly worth trying. There are plausible paths to a much better outcome, for the world and for Afghans, and the actions of the US and its allies can help determine whether they are taken. We cannot work with angels, but we can avoid working with devils – taking a much harder look at our partners in the field and in Kabul, albeit I remember from my time there, that often, difficult judgements have to be made, involving what is morally right against what is politically expedient.

We cannot hope to solve Afghanistan’s political problems ourselves, but we can do everything in our power to encourage Afghans to do so. The Labour Party has warned against a lack of progress on the political settlement for a while but the government has now been quiet for some time. We must be sure the Taliban know they cannot win, and we must press forward with the peace process. Above all we should take a longer view, based on a clear understanding of our interests – and of the costs of expediency.

A US soldier of a team protection squad of a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction team) walks along a road under-constuction near Bagram, about 60 kms from Kabul. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war