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What shall we do in Afghanistan?

What shall we do in Afghanistan? We were doing so well. Now reports speak of NATO soldiers under constant attack.

The following account from a British officer defending a village position in the region is a good illustration of the conditions:

"An all night long a fierce struggle had raged from house to house and in the alleys of this mud labyrinth.  The assailants knew every inch of the ground perfectly.  They were fighting in their own kitchens and parlours.  The defenders simply hung on where they could, in almost total darkness, without the slightest knowledge of ground or buildings."

That soldier was Winston Churchill, writing of his experiences in the region with the Malakand Field Force in 1897 in his autobiography “My Early Life”.  Over 100 years later, in many senses the broad picture has little changed.  The region remains one of the most beautiful in the world.  It is also one of the harshest environments.  It has seen many foreign armies come and go. 

The Taliban were overturned after the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001.  Loya Jirgas agreed the formation of a transitional government and democratic elections, and a government was formed.  Billions of pounds in aid were promised and NGOs moved back into the country to help with relief efforts.  International troops arrived to keep order and train a new Afghan army while US forces continued their search for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives.

Something has changed.  Now the accounts we hear from Afghanistan are of NATO troops defending remote positions under intense fire.  British soldiers in the Helmand Province have had a particularly tough time.  There to extend the authority of the elected government while the Afghan Army destroys the poppy crop, British soldiers have found themselves under constant attack in conditions many have described as the most intense they have experienced.

The catalyst for the trouble beginning now is the move by NATO to control a greater extent of the country, recently extended further.  Soldiers have a mixed mission: they are there to win hearts and minds while defeating the Taliban, far away from the “butcher and bolt” policy of past British Empire missions.  This has coincided with greater confidence by the Taliban and expansion of the poppy crop from which it draws its income.  It is a myth that there is always a clear distinction between Taliban forces and local inhabitants.  A Pashtun villager might appear as farmer, as a ‘Taliban’ member, or even perhaps a policeman, depending upon the occasion, as recent war reporting has shown.  From his point of view today, foreign soldiers threaten the poppy crop on which his livelihood depends.  Churchill himself believed that it was when armies showed intentions of staying that the trouble really began.  In fact, foreign troops have never stayed to see things through so aligning with them probably does not seem a particularly long term option.

Should NATO therefore withdraw and cut its losses?  That would not be a sustainable policy, for it was the abandonment of Afghanistan that provided safe haven for Al Qaeda and led to the wave of extremist Islamic terrorism.  Another suggestion much touted is that it would be safer to simply buy up the poppy harvest rather than appear to oppose it.  This ignores the economic consequences.  Since demand for heroin in the West is relatively inelastic, buying up the supply would raise the price, drawing in more land in Afghanistan and elsewhere for the production of opium.

Something is required however and that is clear political direction.  This is lacking.  NATO countries have committed to the region and they should provide the personnel and equipment to do the job.  A lesson from post war Iraq is that insufficient numbers on the ground leads quickly to an erosion of authority which is difficult to restore.  Instead, once again we risk increasing troop numbers incrementally as the international community proves reluctant to communicate its aims or get stuck in to the extent required.  The international community needs to be more politically engaged and to deliver on its reconstruction promises.  We cannot rely on the armed forces to do the politics for us; that is not their job.  We owe it to them, to the people of Afghanistan, and also to ourselves, to ensure our military forces are operating within a robust political strategy that resonates with the people of that country.

This article previously appeared in Tribune magazine.
Stephen Beer, Friday 2 October 2006.

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