This evening I will be debating whether the West has failed in Afghanistan. Earlier this week I was asked to comment on Dutch plans to send a police mission to Kunduz. A week ago I spent two days brainstorming on what a sustainable transition in Afghanistan could look like (transition being code for phased exit). It all ultimately boils down to this: Does the US-led coalition – and their Afghan partners – have what it takes in terms of tools, understanding, determination and political will? Do they care what they leave behind for the Afghans or are they mainly interested in crafting a story and getting out? Will doing more and doubling-down help or will it end up making things worse?
The current focus does not bode well. It is mainly about battering the insurgency into surrender or hiding; on saturating Afghan government structures with money, training programs and technical assistance so they may look like they are functioning by 2014; on churning out police and army recruits in a race against the clock to reach the intended numbers; on consolidating the position of irregular armed groups so that bases, cities and highways can still be protected when all else fails; and on meanwhile feeding the media a continuous stream of tit-bits suggesting ‘progress, momentum and game changers’.
I am not in Afghanistan at the moment, but I receive regular phone calls from friends – about night raids (can you find out where this person is being held? why did they have to shoot the young boys too? they blew up the door, messed up the whole house and shot at the car…); about bombardments (five days ago eleven from one family killed in this village… a week ago nine from one family in that village… when the ISAF soldiers are shot at, they respond by bombing and killing anyone who happens to be around); about government misbehaviour (our tribe does not travel to the district or provincial centre anymore, we will be arrested and accused of being insurgents – the governor is a good man, but if we complain to him the police chief and district governor will find out and punish us, would it not be easier to just replace them with good people?).
It has been said many times before, but the gap between rhetoric and what people experience is mind-boggling and ultimately leaves you feeling speechless. How often do you want to keep pointing out that media reporting is being manipulated; that the gap between what policymakers believe privately and what they propagate in public is so vast that it must hurt their brains (not to mention their conscience); that the definitions of success are being defined by what can be achieved and measured, rather than by what could be relevant.
How often can you hear yourself say ‘but this is not true’ or ‘that will not work’ or ‘we’ve seen this before’, before getting tired of the sound of your voice and of the futility of the discussion. What do you do with this recurring sense of déjà vu and the knowledge that policy is ultimately not informed by analysis. And how long can you remain polite to the suggestion that it is only useful to speak critically if you can provide a neatly packaged alternative. After all, many of Afghanistan’s problems are larger and more entangled than strategy can unpick, particularly after nine years of intervention. Most of them require patience and thoughtfulness, rather than tight deadlines and pressures to spend ridiculous amounts of money – but that of course does not bring us closer to an alternative strategy.
Not enough thought has gone into what will remain once the numbers have been achieved, the narrative of success has been completed and the focus of the world has moved on. This is not only the responsibility of policymakers; the analysts have a lot of catching up to do as well. But for now the Afghan population threatens to be left with a factionalised political arena, a well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are by now well above the law, an insurgency that is likely to resurge, and a fragile government propped up by foreign funding and a limited but continued international military presence. This will not be despite our best efforts, but quite possibly precisely because of them. We still have time, we should still have energy, and we have a few mistakes that we need to not make.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020