In the midst of years of downhill trends and mounting complexities and a growing realisation of how intertwined we have all become in Afghanistan’s main problems, you can still find enclaves of optimism – at military headquarters, diplomatic gatherings, UN leadership levels. They are inhabited by people with a stubborn, but seemingly authentic belief that we are continuously on the verge of turning a corner.
The most recent centerpieces for optimism include the faith in the transformative power of theAfghan Local Police (ALP) or Village Stability Operations (VSO); the belief that the Taleban have been weakened beyond repair and that some kind of Afghan government-led settlement is imminent; and the somewhat worn-out insistence that military operations around Kandahar – ‘the spiritual heartland of the insurgency’ – will domino the whole country towards greater stability.
It is a different world, with a different time zone. In these enclaves everything is always new. Every engagement is seen as progress, every local commitment as an irreversible step forward. There are no taints of history or ambiguity, no weight of past failures. No ebb and flow, no mixed results. No time to ponder what happens if the expected momentum does not materialize.
You have to respect the dedication and earnestness, the intelligence and urgency to learn (mainly among the military, less so among the civilian policymakers and diplomats), but there is no breaking through the stubborn insistence that there has to be something that works, that this cannot be a problem – a whole subset of problems – that we collectively do not know how to deal with.
So the language of military progress is filled with imminence – words like ‘about to’, ‘close to’, ‘ready to’, ‘in a position to’ – and with momentum. In fact, the whole military strategy is built on the premises of momentum: the idea that one thing will lead to another, so that the problems that now seem insurmountable will somehow take care of themselves.
It’s optimism against the odds, as illustrated in a recent statement by US Defence Secretary Gates while visiting Kandahar: “Are we headed in the right direction? Do we have enough evidence of progress that tells us that we are in fact on the right track? […] Based on what I’ve seen here today, I’m hopeful that we will be in that position.”
Call me a cynic, but being hopeful that – at some point in the unknown future – you will be in a position to have enough evidence to believe you are on the right track, can hardly be called an upbeat assessment.
And the gathering of such evidence tends to be problematic too. Take for instance the report of a recent meeting where UN SRSG Stefan De Mistura explains his belief that the Taliban have concluded they cannot win militarily. He “thinks that by July 2011 […] the reconciliation process will have been completed, leading to a peace settlement.” The only basis for this conclusion seems to be the belief that the Taleban will follow the logic and assumptions on which the international counter-insurgency strategies are based. And the hope that it will fit the matching timelines.
Sometimes the optimism is taken to the extreme. Recently a group of international think tankers visited Kabul on a NATO-hosted trip. They were briefed for over a week on the many faces of progress and imminent success, and as they were getting ready to leave they were finally advised to write up their respective reports quickly. Things were moving fast and their information may become irrelevant rather soon.
Afghanistan deserves dedication and earnestness, and all the hope and optimism we can muster. But it also deserves realism, as well as assurances that we are not just weaving a narrative and spinning a story.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020