Afghanistan: lessons in foreign and security policy

Afghanistan: lessons in foreign and security policy

Afghanistan: lessons in foreign and security policy

As members of the UK Armed Forces prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, Endeavour Public Affairs will be publishing a series of exclusive articles reflecting on the last 12 years of UK involvement in Afghanistan.  Our first article is written by Baroness Neville-Jones, who concludes that the risk in Western policy now is that having overreached in Afghanistan we will not in future intervene soon or far enough.

Baroness Neville-Jones is the former Chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee and former Minister of State for Security and Terrorism.

At the turn of the Millennium, western media  reported extensively on the behaviour of the Taleban in Afghanistan –  their deeply reactionary version of fundamentalist Islam; their scorched earth policy and massacres of opponents and, in particular, their brutal treatment of women.

The planting in the Western mind of the impression of a regime which violated the most basic human rights, as well as helping export the terrorism of their Al Qaeda lodgers powerfully influenced the wholesale approach to Afghanistan taken by coalition governments in the wake of 9/11.  Without questioning how far to get involved or how long the task might take, in addition to the military pursuit of Al Qaeda, they set upon a course of deep social and political reform.  Now, as Western troops leave, Afghanistan is in the midst of an incomplete and unstable social revolution, an unevenly developed economy, and an uncertain – to say the least – security situation, the roots of which lie in unreconciled tribal antagonisms.

The optimism with which the reform agenda in Afghanistan was embarked upon was much influenced by the then recent experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, where – largely Western – governments regarded their efforts to remake society and exercise the heady “responsibility to protect” as a right and successful one.  As their major contribution to the collective effort, the Germans had offered the Petersberg castle on the Rhine for peace building summits and given major support to the reform agenda.  What could be more natural than to do so again in relation to Afghanistan?  Scale, distance and vastly differing social conditions from Europe did not daunt the participants.

But the steep Bonn agenda of a Western parliamentary system; a government centralised in Kabul in a society used to localised tribal hierarchies; a total revolution in the position of women through education and social welfare; and wide ranging security sector reform – new police and new army – quite apart from economic development, all implied the existence of a major Western presence in Afghanistan over many years, and the provision of sufficient security by Western forces for an extensive period to enable such revolutionary change to take place in safety for donors and Afghans.   In Bosnia, in a country the fraction of the size of Afghanistan and with a much less demanding reform agenda, no less than 32,000 NATO led troops had remained in the country following the Dayton Accords.  But what happened in Afghanistan?

The initial military campaign severely disrupted Al Qaeda and largely drove it and the Taleban out of Afghanistan.  It did not, however, either destroy or establish control over the sanctuaries afforded both in Pakistan (true to this day).  Stabilisation of Afghanistan was thus highly vulnerable to attack and yet ISAF troop levels numbered only 5,000 initially and grew only very slowly thereafter.

This was fatal.  The lack of either effective security against Taleban penetration of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border or any sustained attempt at reconciliation with them meant that they were able to regroup and identify themselves with Pashtun nationalism during a crucial period of the reform agenda.  By the time the United States re-engaged after the Iraq war in 2006 with an active counterinsurgency policy, the Taleban were back in business in the South with their own protection racket style of security on offer to local populations.  There has been much argument about the merits of the COIN tactics used by the United States but in reality it was almost certainly too late for Western forces to be able to re-establish their credentials as monopoly security providers – irrespective of the methods used.

It is one of the truths of big policy initiatives that the early decisions are fateful and that subsequent decisions are limited in their importance and impact by the framework already laid down.  If the initial approach is wrong, even huge amounts of course correction are liable to be inadequate to get back on track.

So with Afghanistan, there were at least two problems.  First the two parts of policy, military and civilian, were not linked together in a single operational strategy – an indispensable prerequisite for success.   If Bosnia initially had too large a stabilisation force, Afghanistan had vastly too small a one to supply security for the ambitious reform agenda.  Absent the will to provide this, it is at least arguable that a less ambitious approach from the outset to the civilian agenda, with a much greater reliance placed on traditional Afghan political structures to deliver some reform, and a few strong figures being given the resources to stay onside, would have been just as good for Western security and resulted in an Afghanistan that faced a less fraught future than is today the case.

The risk in Western policy now is that having overreached in Afghanistan we will not in future intervene soon enough or far enough.

Published: Tuesday 28 January 2014

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone


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