The Taliban’s portentous advance on Sangin, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, and the hasty, improvised British and American response have aroused a broad range of emotions. Anger and sadness on the part of relatives of the more than 100 British soldiers who died in an ultimately vain attempt to pacify the area. Bitterness among former army officers who say Westminster failed to set clear goals and adequately support their mission. Bemusement, bordering on hopelessness, among policy-makers at a loss over what can or should be done to rescue Afghanistan from itself.
The tragedy is that these critical outpourings are largely justified. In Afghanistan, there never was a convincing, coherent, workable long-term plan. The 2001 invasion was initially a US-led effort to catch or kill the al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Its aim widened to embrace regime change, targeting the Taliban regime. Then, when the Talibs were toppled, it shifted again, to nation building. Thereafter, the US and Britain, increasingly distracted by Iraq, tended to make things up as they went along.
By 2006, the Taliban were back and the neglected Afghan project was in trouble. John Reid, the then defence secretary, oversaw the additional deployment of thousands of British troops to Helmand. Visiting the province in April that year, Reid said the mission primarily concerned reconstruction. Although it was possible British soldiers could become involved in fighting, it would only be in self-defence, Reid said. “Of course, our mission is not counter-terrorism… We are in the south to help and protect the Afghan people construct their own democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction.”
Doubtless Reid spoke in good faith. But the effect of his public statements and of other Labour ministers at the time, including Tony Blair, was deeply misleading. Within months, British soldiers were sucked into a bloody, thankless conflict from which the armed forces emerged, eight (not three) years later, with their reputation and self-esteem much dented. The dream of nation building was despoiled amid the shrapnel of a thousand IEDs, the screams of the injured – both military and civilian – and the lack of a consistent, well-funded and thought-through policy. As the troops left, 68% of Britons said their efforts were “not worthwhile”.
Despite repeated assurances, it is now plain, post-withdrawal, that the Afghan army and police, expensively retrained and re-equipped by Nato, are not yet, and may never be, up to the task of defending Afghanistan’s security and stability. They nearly lost Kunduz in the north earlier this year. Large rural areas are again under insurgent control. Now symbolic Helmand totters on the brink. Courageous though they be, British and US special forces cannot stem this tide indefinitely.
What is to be done? First, it is time to let go of the discredited idea that western military intervention, at current or expanded levels, can cure Afghanistan’s chronic insecurity. More or better guns are not the answer. In any case, public opinion would rightly refuse to tolerate another escalation.
Second, cultivate a modern mindset. The future projection of Afghanistan as a unitary nation state on the 19th-century European model looks hopelessly inappropriate. It ignores the country’s deep ethnic, geographical and cultural fissures, not to mention the artificiality of the colonial era border known as the Durand Line, which deliberately divided the Pashtun areas straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan. If lasting peace is to be secured, it may be that devolved, federal arrangements offer the best hope of resolving Afghanistan’s problems.
Last, surrender the lead role in forging an Afghan political and security settlement to the regional states most directly concerned, namely Pakistan and India. Islamabad is already promoting a peace process involving the Taliban and other parties that may resume next month. But Pakistan, with its own Taliban problem and a history of unhelpful alliances, can only do so much. What is needed is a bolder, more imaginative initiative from the region’s leading power.
Under its prime minister, Narendra Modi, India has reached out to the Afghan government, helping with institution building and supplying military helicopters. The two countries have signed a strategic partnership agreement. Modi visited Afghanistan and Pakistan last week. Now this proud nationalist has a golden chance to show that where the old western powers failed, the “new India” can succeed.