Bill Jamieson: Afghanistan’s ‘triple earthquake’

It has been a long, hard 11 years for our troops in Afghanistan ' one that has exacted a heavy toll. Picture: Getty
It has been a long, hard 11 years for our troops in Afghanistan ' one that has exacted a heavy toll. Picture: Getty
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Many observers fear ‘the nation that is not a state’ will descend into civil war after next year’s hand over, writes Bill Jamieson

What has it all been for? With the Middle East like a powder keg, a gruesome death toll in Syria and calls for western intervention, our continuing military mission in Afghanistan has been all but forgotten. But not, I sense, for long.

Next year will see the hand over to Afghan control and the final withdrawal of our troops. Well, almost all. For such is the continuing chaos in the country and the threat of Taleban advance that earlier this month Defence Secretary Philip Hammond revealed some British troops will serve into 2015 in “non-combat” roles. Whether the Taleban perceive them in that light is, of course, a different matter.

And a hand over to what, exactly? On Tuesday evening in Edinburgh the burgeoning Asia Scotland Institute invited the Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown as guest speaker. Recently returned from Afghanistan, she told of a country racked by graft and corruption, an army barely in control and a populace fearful of an imminent civil war.

She left her audience under no illusions about the growing apprehension in London and Washington as the withdrawal deadline approaches. The country, she warned, faces “a triple earthquake”: a breakdown in military control; a barely functioning legal system reflecting a nation without a competent state; and an economic implosion with money fleeing the country and many Afghan jobs likely to evaporate when the troops leave.

Felbab-Brown’s pessimism is well-evidenced and it is widely shared among the US and UK administrations, which have turned to her for advice. As that withdrawal deadline approaches, there will be a grim reckoning of what this 11-year conflict has achieved.

She argues, in an analysis reminiscent of the late US Congressman Charlie Wilson, that allied efforts in Afghanistan “have put far too little emphasis on good governance, concentrating too much on short-term military goals to the detriment of long-term peace and stability”.

And she adds: “The western tendency to ally with bullies, warlords, smugglers and other shady characters in pursuit of short-term military advantage actually empowers the forces working against good governance and long-term political stability.

“Rampant corruption and mafia rule thus persist, making it impossible for Afghans to believe in the institutional reforms and rule of law that are clearly necessary.”

This, she urges, “must change”. But for her Edinburgh audience, there was a depressing sense that it is too late.

Meanwhile, the cost of this conflict in terms of blood and treasure has been colossal. All told, the coalition death toll has climbed to more than 3,200. A total of 444 British troops have lost their lives – far higher than the Iraq and Falklands conflicts. Some 2,096 have been wounded in action, with 6,724 hospital admissions.

As for the cost to the UK, this has now topped £17 billion with the final figure reckoned at £20bn. The United States counts its expenditure in this, its longest war, in trillions of dollars.

Little wonder that in Washington and London the political appetite for any extension or prolongation of a presence in Afghanistan has vanished. And the financial constraints are unarguable: the treasuries of both chronically indebted countries are bare.

It could be said that the war, launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has had some positive results. It crushed al-Qaeda and despatched Osama bin Laden. The Taleban has been dislodged from Kabul, schools have been built, girls enrolled, Afghan soldiers trained and the government of president Hamid Karzai given every assistance and opportunity to create a functioning administration and legal system. But this is to gloss over deeply worrying realities.

Al-Qaeda has not been crushed but scattered to a host of different countries from which to mount its terrorist activities. In Afghanistan itself, graft and corruption reign supreme. There are no mass popular political parties to counter the violent tribalism endemic across large parts of the country. There is no economy to speak of outside of international aid and the production of illegal drugs. Signs of capital flight are evident.

In short, far from the allied mission having succeeded in state-building, Afghanistan remains a nation without an effective state. As a result, there is every prospect of a power vacuum, into which the Taleban will again rush.

There is no sense that this 11-year war has been fought to a successful outcome or that the hand over will be to a stable government and an established legal system. Indeed, policy attention is now likely to switch to nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the threat to stability is all too real.

What went wrong with the western mission in Afghanistan and what lessons can be learnt? Felbab-Brown’s book just out, Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State Building in Afghanistan, provides vivid, first-hand evidence of the current condition of Afghanistan and her fears for the future. It echoes to some degree Rory Stewart’s stinging critique of utter policy muddle: was a military victory needed to secure stable government? Or stable government needed to secure military aims?

In her talk on Tuesday, Felbab-Brown said that Afghanistan “is a nation but not a state”. Western policy has been largely driven by an ambition to provide the wherewithal for state-building. But was this realistic or practicable, given the centuries-old tribal divisions that militate against this top-down approach? After all, the British suffered a catastrophic defeat in 1839-42 with a broadly similar mission. The army was cut to pieces.

Afghanistan has changed, of course, but not as much as we had hoped. Were this not so, the fears among Afghans of a civil war when allied troops leave would not be so pronounced. A social anthropologist tracing how the underlying system of loyalties and feuds provides a social system in itself may have been helpful. We are too ready to assume that all nations must have big, powerful, centralised governments. Afghanistan has never been like that. And all its 20th century prime ministers came to sticky ends.

Meanwhile, what in practical terms can be done? There is an argument, applicable to Syria as much as Afghanistan, that any future western involvement should be strictly limited to humanitarian aid and the provision of help and advice in education and health.

Encouraging the spread of the internet may help to further educational aims and counter the pull of tribal loyalties. And we need to recognise more than we do the need to continue negotiations with the Taleban. The immediate first step is to tackle the all-pervasive culture of graft and corruption. But there is little sign that this will change soon.

The moral for elsewhere in the Middle East? Know exactly what your limited objectives are and stick with them. We always know less than we think in such engagements.

Even if we simply relearn these eternal truths and the wisdom of humility, this gruesome decade of failed mega-power interventionism may not have been in vain.