Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Afghanistan: the winnable war worth winning

The discourse surrounding the concept of a no-fly-zone in Libya has dominated our airwaves, our print and has been put firmly, and quite literally, on the map by David Cameron and William Hague.  Yet, while its significance must not be down-played, the discourse runs the risk of clouding our focus on another military intervention in existence: Afghanistan.  Time to refocus.
Slating the war in Afghanistan has become as popular as the phenomenon of micro-blogging.  Indeed, to hijack and renovate a metaphor once used by historian, Basil Liddell Hart, if the “anti-imperialist”* mindset is the mother of all disparagement vis-à-vis liberal intervention and, by extension, the war in Afghanistan, then social media such as twitter has been its most recent midwife. 
The pattern generally goes as follows: successes are reported from the field and assume the role of the lure on the track as scores of micro-bloggers come tearing out of the traps like a band of excitable greyhounds.  “Crusaders”, “imperialists”, “cultural suppressors” - some of the more popular phrases bandied about.  There are, of course, disapproving voices in government, academia and the professional media regarding Afghanistan; social media is not alone.  But social media gives us an insight into the mind set of the ordinary man on the street; it’s his outlet of choice; it tells us where he stands.  Right now it’s helping to show us that the man on the street is, more often than not, standing with his back turned against the war.  In a telling statistic, just across the pond, nearly two-thirds of Americans no longer see any value in this corner of Central Asia. 
Accordingly, Petraeus’ recent musings regarding an upturn in fortunes in Afghanistan will no doubt be subject to ridicule, disbelief and, in some instances, plain ignorance by scores of disgruntled micro-bloggers amongst others.  But he’s not often wrong. 
The Taliban are indeed on the back-foot.  NATO forces have fought bravely to reclaim critical areas such as districts west of Kandahar city and areas of Helmand Province; areas which, in 2008, were responsible for some 80 percent of global poppy supply, a colossal 7,700 metric tons, fuelling a mutually beneficial (and at times direct) relationship between drug traffickers and the Taliban.  These forces have performed commendably in this role as security enforcers, but it is, of course, patently apparent that NATO neither can nor wishes to fill this security vacuum forever.  Successful counterinsurgency dictates that indigenous forces must take on this mantle in the long term and, today, there is light at the end of this particular tunnel.  The US, for example, remains on course to be able to begin draw-downs in July, shifting the emphasis from foreign intervention to Afghan self-security.  The UK looks to be on a similar track.  Meanwhile, Afghan forces are becoming progressively more able to take on this role, growing both in size and capability.  There are currently over 300,000 Afghan forces, a figure which is hoped to increase to some 378,000 so as to further fortify the country against violent extremists long after NATO forces have returned to their respective shores.  What these gains roughly equate to is a security campaign that is being won; slowly, often painfully, but it is being won.  
Yet, winning in Afghanistan is more than a question of security.  To win this war, we must recognise the nexus between security, development and governance and bring it to fruition.  This is not only possible, but within sight.  In light of this, Petraeus is correct, once again, in highlighting the importance of funding to the State Department and USAID.  These government agencies, as with their British counterparts, the FCO and DFID, must now take on an increasingly important role, using the improved security environment as breathing space to better integrate development and governance into the classic three-pronged counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.  This will take time; this will take effort; and this will take money, but it will be worth the expenditure in all three regards given that it is our only route to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Understanding this is paramount and we should be at pains in our efforts to promote this reality.  This is a winnable war worth winning.  The value is there, not only for the Afghan people, not only for the sake of regional or international security, but for the credibility of the West too.  If we throw in the towel, we seal the West’s fate as the civilization that can be deterred through violent means.  Doing so will create one winner - not the man on the street who calls for an end to the war, but the extremist who fights on the other side.  Not much of an option, is it?

*Disclaimer: the “anti-imperialist” mindset does not necessarily dictate that interventionists are indeed imperialists!

by Dane Vallejo

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