The changes in the US administration after Obama’s election brought a short and rather refreshing burst of frankness on how bleak the situation in Afghanistan was. At the time I mistook this for honesty and a tolerance for complexity, but it turned out to have been a somewhat sophisticated version of ‘slam the predecessor.’ This public realism has long been replaced by a constant stream of inconclusive but upbeat public assessments and a slow but unmistakable move towards an increasingly narrow focus on US interests in the region.
The narrative that developed in the aftermath of the Bush administration was that the US had ‘dropped the ball in Afghanistan’ when it redirected attention and resources to Iraq, that this mistake could be rectified by massive injections of military might and money, and that the new administration by definition would do a better job than the one before. As a result, important lessons were not learnt. Massive programs were planned, funded and implemented, as if nothing had ever been done before and as if intentions and assumptions were all that was required to make them work. To this day massive amounts of money continue to be spent on what in essence are conceptual ideas and political narratives.(*) And as the insurgency outgrew the label of ‘Taleban remnants’, the US and its NATO allies stumbled along the path of an ever expanding military engagement, with some civilian trimmings, in an ongoing search for momentum, progress and game changers, while following a script that seemed to have worked in Iraq.
It is in this context that the US administration is finalising its December review. The importance of the review has been systematically played down, as it is nobody’s intention to revise the current strategy: it is the only one the US has and its default outcome is success. So it should come as no surprise that the review will indicate that the military strategy is showing promising signs of irreversible success and that although there are still grave challenges in the field of governance and corruption, these can be circumvented by greater reliance on sub-national engagement and traditional structures.(**)
The contours of the de facto US strategy are meanwhile becoming increasingly clear: bomb and raid the Taleban into submission until they no longer pose a threat to the weak Afghan government; support the ANSF and several layers of auxiliary forces so they can protect the most crucial supply lines and population centres; get the Afghan government to agree to a limited but long-standing and independently-operating US military presence; if necessary, go along with some form of nominal reconciliation or power-sharing process – provided that it poses no serious threat to continued US military operations in the region; and continue to struggle with the corruption, duplicity and unpopularity of some of the US’ main local counterparts, without seriously taking responsibility for the US’ own role in their entrenchment.
Unfortunately, for the US but so much more for the Afghans, there are some deep contradictions that work against the chances of success for even this transition strategy that is more limited and considerably more cynical than usually publicly acknowledged.
The main problem is the assumption underlying the narrow focus on US interests, namely that the Afghan population and Afghan government will happily go along with this – or, if not, that they can be easily pressured into submission. But it will only strengthen those dynamics that have eaten at the Afghan support for the international presence in the first place: an increased reliance on night raids and irregular local forces, an ever more pragmatic approach to the glaring problems in the fields of justice, governance and anti-corruption (despite knowing better and, thanks to Wikileaks, having been found out as knowing better), the continued implicit disregard for people’s hopes, lives and dignity, and a continued expectation that Afghans will respond with won-over hearts and minds.
All of this is likely to dangerously stretch the patience of the population – a population already increasingly suspicious over US intentions, exasperated over its inability to guarantee a minimum of future stability, and upset over how bleak the future looks.(***)
The recurring run-ins with President Karzai, usually over what he considers unacceptable violations of Afghan sovereignty, also provide forewarnings of the arguments to come. The US and its allies do need to realise that they are no longer seen as bringers of stability and prosperity and that the initial gratitude for resources spent and sacrifices made has worn dangerously thin. In the current situation the US administration needs to re-earn the right to stay on, or else find itself in a continuous struggle with a suspicious host government and an increasingly hostile, although not always necessarily insurgent, local population.
It is a difficult balancing act. There is no doubt that the US and its allies need to re-evaluate their objectives and that they need to scale down their expectations to match their abilities. Almost a decade of exaggerated faith in what foreign intervention can achieve has left all parties bruised and disillusioned. But dressing up a transition process in manipulated metrics and then staying on while reverting to what will be perceived as a bare-boned disregard of the government and the local population unless they play along, is unlikely to end well.
(*) There have been important initiatives under the Obama administration, for instance with regard to investigating and cleaning up contracting practices, but they have not fundamentally affected how money is spent and how success is assessed.
(**) There will probably be some comments thrown in to the effect that the US cannot be expected to change what are in essence unchanging national traits, such as corruption and weak government – which are infuriating cop-outs, but that is probably best left for another blog. (See for instancePetraeus’ recent ABC interview: “Well, there’s no question that corruption has been, for however long this country has probably been in existence, been part of the– literally the culture“).
(***) There is for some reason a tendency to treat this as a perception problem that can be addressed by targeted messaging, but it is clear that no amount of strategic communications will have an effect unless it are accompanied by real changes on the ground (such as greater population security, increased checks on impunity and marginalization, substantive reconciliation opportunities for insurgent commanders, a government that is considered worth the support of its people).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020