Stanley's blog

Ongoing Afghan dilemma

I’ve been struggling since Barack Obama entered the White House over what attitude to take towards NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan. One side of me does not believe we can achieve even limited goals; the other side says that we Europeans should support the new president.

The principal objective of the Obama policy is to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, which is inextricably linked. He insists that:

“We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the US, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists,” said Mr Obama. “The safety of people around the world is at stake,” he added.

The trouble is that we have to take the word of our political leaders, who in turn rely largely on their intelligence services, not the most reliable information source in the past. It seems to me that we have no choice but to accept that there is a serious risk of further terrorist attacks in Europe. We can hardly ask for a public enquiry!

Mr Obama says that Afghanistan has been denied the resources it needed for the last three years and has promised to commit more in terms of development projects and training for Afghan forces. There are currently around 38 000 US troops there, to be joined by 17 000 more, together with a further 4 000 to help train the Afghan army and police. The president is looking to build an Afghan army of 134 000 and a police force of 82 000.

NATO heads of state and government, at their recent Strasbourg-Kehl summit meeting, agreed to a significant expansion of the training and support effort for Afghan national security forces, enhanced engagement with neighbouring countries and a more integrated approach to working with the international community and the Afghan government. The leaders reaffirmed that their strategic vision was based on long-term commitment, Afghan leadership, and a fully comprehensive and a regional approach.

To demonstrate this commitment, nine European countries agreed to send up to 5 000, mainly temporary, troops and logistical help ahead of the August presidential elections. Significant additional resources for training and mentoring the Afghan security forces, together with substantial increases in civilian aid, will also be provided.

An integrated strategy

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained before the NATO meeting,

“It is an integrated military-civilian strategy. We are convinced that the most critical underpinning of any success we hope to achieve, along with the people and government of Afghanistan, will be looking at where civilian trainers, aid workers, technical assistance of all kinds can be best utilized.

At last, Washington understands the risk of Pakistan becoming a failed state, despite the billions of dollars of aid received from the US. There can be no successful Afghanistan strategy without an effective Pakistan one. Thus, Afghanistan and Pakistan must be approached with one overall strategy, while recognizing that they are two different countries. The Obama administration well understands that any success in Afghanistan would be undermined if violence spiralled in Pakistan and vice versa.

No time limit has been set, signalling a long-term commitment towards both countries. This open-ended arrangement with no clear exit strategy will worry some, but it might reassure the two countries in question.

Central to that effort will be the vast amount of US aid and development projects in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And a solution?

The trouble is that nothing in the US or NATO plans shows how al-Qaeda and the Taliban can be permanently defeated, opium farming stopped and modern agriculture made to flourish. Let’s assume that all goes well with the Afghan policy. How is the north-west region of Pakistan going to be permanently cleared of its Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters? And how can Pakistan’s writ be made to run throughout the country?

Pakistan needs heavy forces to cope with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but 90% of its soldiers are deployed along the Indian borders. Part of the puzzle is, therefore, how to create sufficient confidence between Pakistan and Indian to allow more soldiers to be moved to north-west Pakistan: this brings the Kashmir dispute onto the table.

If it is unlikely that NATO forces can ensure that Afghanistan will become and remain an Al-Qaeda and Taliban free country, why should we continue this doomed exercise? We seem doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t. Withdrawing from Afghanistan now is not politically possible for Obama, whatever he really feels will be the outcome. And Obama deserves European support for reasons beyond Afghanistan.

Europe’s troop commitment is likely to be raised again in due course by the US president, who said that the agreement at the NATO summit

Was (only) “a strong down payment”.

Despite, or because of, my dichotomy of thought I am relieved at the NATO decision but believe that the Afghanistan problem will not be solved by simply integrating the Pakistan dimension. The entire context needs changing – or rather extending – to include India, Iran and Iraq, in fact the Greater Middle East. And this brings us back to the need to find an Israel-Palestine solution.

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