Rethinking Afghanistan

Andrew Noakes

Image © The US Army

This year’s upcoming Bonn Conference will mark a decisive shift from international engagement in Afghanistan to a policy focusing on withdrawal and, it is hoped, peace with the Taliban. The reason for the change is obvious: the West is tired of war. Public support for the NATO campaign in member states is rapidly declining; by 2010, only 37 percent of the British public and 40 percent of Americans supported the presence of their military forces in the country. The elite consensus in the West, which has hitherto been in favour of international engagement, has also become increasingly fragile. In Britain, it is likely that Liberal Democrat support for the war is conditional on withdrawal and pursuit of a peace deal. Meanwhile, according to leaked US diplomatic cables, the European Union president, Herman Van Rompuy, recently summed up the feelings of European elites by telling a US ambassador that ‘no one believes in Afghanistan any more’.

In the lead up to Bonn, it is quite clear – not least to the Taliban – that NATO countries are falling over themselves to get out of Afghanistan. We might be inclined to welcome this news, but a few words of caution are necessary. The first thing to point out is that the Taliban do not have the support of anywhere near the majority of Afghans. A recent survey by the Asia Foundation revealed that only 29 percent of the Afghan population have some level of sympathy with armed anti-government groups. Meanwhile, 73 percent of Afghans (an approval rating Western leaders could only dream of) are satisfied with the performance of the national government. For many who have been assuming that NATO forces are simply propping up an unpopular regime against a popular insurgency, this may come as a surprise.

The second thing to bear in mind is that we are not fighting in Afghanistan in order to defeat international terrorism, although this is the line that we are often fed by Western governments. It is simply not true. We could quite easily prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, or at least disrupt their activities sufficiently, by limiting our involvement to airstrikes and Special Forces operations, while backing anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan financially and logistically. Equally, Al-Qaeda has bases in dozens of other places around the world, including in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and we are not conducting major military operations in any of them.

So what are we doing in Afghanistan? The answer is simple: we are trying to prevent a devastating, unrestrained, and probably genocidal civil war, accompanied by state failure. Throughout the 1990s, Afghanistan was gripped by a civil war that was still ongoing when the US took the decision to remove the Taliban from power in Kabul in 2001. If NATO were to withdraw tomorrow, it is likely that history would repeat itself, with the Pashtun Taliban, backed by Pakistan, trying to establish brutal dominion over the entire country, ruthlessly repressing and massacring ethnic minorities, as they did with genocidal vigour in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. For the minorities concerned, this likelihood makes post-NATO Afghanistan a zero-sum game. They will have to fight viciously for control in order to protect themselves, making a highly destructive internal conflict inevitable.

The last thing to consider is that a peace deal with the Taliban will be difficult to achieve. Why should they negotiate if they know that the international community will disengage from Afghanistan in 2014? It would be better for them to wait and see if they can defeat the Afghan government militarily after the NATO withdrawal, rather than agreeing now to share power with their enemies. The fact that the Taliban (it is suspected) recently killed the Afghan government’s most senior peace negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani, tells us something about their intent. Even if a peace deal is struck, there is no guarantee that it will hold once NATO pulls out. Past experience in Vietnam should serve as a cautionary tale in this regard. It took only two years for North Vietnamese tanks to roll into Saigon following President Nixon’s announcement of ‘peace with honour’ in 1973.

All of this leaves us with an unpalatable truth: that our exit strategy lacks credibility, and could lead to the nightmare scenario of unending civil war. This would be a colossal human tragedy; it would also represent an unforgiveable failure on the part of the international community. Those of us who are on the left should think carefully before we support an approach that could produce this outcome.

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