Barack Obama, the US president, has said that American troops will start to withdraw from Afghanistan in a year from now; eventually Nato forces will leave and at some point dialogue with the Taliban will begin. So Nato is now planning the end-game, aiming to weaken the Taliban before negotiations start by first driving them from Kandahar. But it is far from clear how the end-game will unfold. With concern rising about the low level of Afghan civilian support, the Kandahar operation may not even start before autumn, despite increasing impatience in Nato capitals.
Coalition forces went into Afghanistan in 2001 to attack al-Qaeda, destroy its safe-haven and prevent further terrorist attacks. This is still the stated objective of the Afghan campaign even though al-Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan; its capacity to organise another 9/11 is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent; and its Taliban sponsors have repeatedly said that when they return to power they will neither interfere themselves in the affairs of any other state, nor allow anyone else to do so from Afghan territory. But after nine years of fighting, what will “victory” look like? To quote a senior Russian official, winning in Afghanistan is not like planting a flag on top of the Reichstag. Success will be more a matter of perception than of fact.
Afghan security officials calculate that the Taliban has about 170 key leaders and a further 2,200 regional commanders. The rest of its 30,000-40,000 fighters are foot soldiers who may as readily work in the fields as pick up a gun. Against these numbers, coalition forces stand at around 160,000, coincidentally the number of troops that the Soviet Union deployed in its ill-fated campaign to control Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Afghan army has grown to about 125,000. But despite the disparity in equipment, training and numbers, it is debatable who is winning.
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, is widely seen as the smartest soldier around; but even he has run into difficulties. The Taliban will not be defeated militarily, its supply of new fighters is seemingly inexhaustible and it is not deterred by losses; but while Gen McChrystal knows it will take effective, long-term political action to undermine support for the Taliban, the resources at his disposal are military and his time frame is limited both by the US desire to withdraw from combat and by the ebbing confidence of Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, in Nato’s ability to win the war. Gen McChrystal wants to land a decisive blow against the Taliban before Nato forces pull back, and he has identified Kandahar as a crucial objective because of its symbolic and strategic importance to the Taliban. However Mr Karzai has insisted that before any action, local elders must give their support. He wants the balance of action to shift from the military to the political, and from his allies to the Afghans themselves.
The US and allies also want to see this shift in emphasis so they can claim success and begin to leave, but the Afghan government is far from ready to take the lead. After 30 years of war, Afghanistan has a dearth of good administrators, and not just in the security sector. Afghan officials themselves admit that the Taliban does a better job than the government in providing security, justice and a corruption-free bureaucracy in areas under its control. Driving the Taliban from Kandahar and keeping its fighters out will be hard enough, given that they are indistinguishable from the rest of the population, but without effective Afghan participation and follow-up, any success will be short-lived. If the Kandahar operation is seen to have failed, it will strengthen the hand of the Taliban immensely in any negotiation over power-sharing.
The plan now should be to avoid doing anything that makes it more difficult to absorb the insurgency within a political process, and isolate the hardliners by talking to more moderate Taliban. Military action has driven out al-Qaeda, and the Taliban always loses fire-fights, but its favourite weapon is now the IED (improvised explosive device) and Nato soldiers are losing their lives for too little gain. When the balance has shifted decisively to political action it will be easier for Nato to claim victory and to obscure set-backs. Furthermore, a political process will allow the Afghans to take charge of their country in less time than it will take to get their army and police ready to take over the current military campaign. Mr Karzai’s reconciliation policy will not lead to an early end to the violence, but it may reduce it, and so allow coalition forces to retire into the background. The billions of dollars that have poured into Afghanistan in the last few years may have eradicated al-Qaeda but they have deeply corrupted the country. The Afghans need to recover in their own, complex way.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times (21 June 2010)