International actors in Afghanistan have long been torn between negative trends, bleak assessments, ambitious strategies and ritualistic reports of hopeful developments. Their publics at home are uneasy about the lack of clarity on why their forces are in Afghanistan and what exactly they are achieving. Well-informed diplomats and policymakers are often very pessimistic in private, having seen the limitations of intervention from up-close, even though they cannot repeat their views in public. It is clear that international forces cannot stay indefinitely and that the current level of spending is unsustainable, but there are serious misgivings as to what might happen once they leave.
The strategy that is designed to deal with these misgivings is called enteqal, which is the Dari word for ‘transition’. It is the current over-riding policy in Afghanistan and boils down to a concerted effort to strengthen the Afghan government and its security forces through training and capacity building in order to prepare them for the phased hand-over of responsibilities. The hand-over is to start in spring 2011 in the relatively secure areas and is supposed to culminate in a full hand-over in 2014.
In theory it makes sense, but the last nine years have taught us that we have neither the tools, nor the influence to meaningfully reform, capacity-build or train. Although we can accelerate the churning out of recruits, it is doubtful that we will be able to reverse the factionalisation and criminalisation of the police and other government institutions. Not enough thought has gone into what will remain once the numbers have been achieved and the narrative of success has been completed. At the moment the focus is clearly on the honourable retreat for the internationals.
The enteqal policies are flanked by a massive ISAF ‘kill and capture’ campaign that aggressively targets mid-level commanders and that has replaced earlier talk of ‘winning hearts and minds’, as well as the establishment of auxiliary military forces – sowing the seeds for future conflict and abuse of power. Although ISAF still formally acknowledges that ultimately the only way to defeat the insurgency is to improve the performance and reputation of the Afghan government, its leadership seems to have lost confidence that this will happen any time soon.
The military have also significantly ramped up their media and communication strategy, in an attempt to shape the narrative and perceptions of the transition process. Much of the current reporting on Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency, particularly in the major news outlets, is based on briefings by military officers or ‘unnamed officials’. The coming years are probably, more than anything else, going to be a battle for perceptions – focused on international audiences and aimed at bringing the troops home.
The Afghan population threatens to be left behind with a factionalised political arena, a well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are above the law, an insurgency that is likely to resurge, and a fragile government propped up by foreign funding and a limited military presence. Not despite our best efforts, but quite possibly because of them.
This article was originally posted here at the Global Herald website as a precursor to the Davos 2011 Open Forum panel discussion ‘Has the West Failed in Afghanistan’, which took place on 27 January 2011 in Davos.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020