February 2, 2012 8:25 pm

No winners in Afghanistan’s war

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Political failure risks leaving stew of lawlessness

Hillary Clinton once promised that 2011 would be the year of a “diplomatic surge” in Afghanistan. Robust civilian effort would go hand in hand with the military campaign in a bid to restore security and stability in a ravaged country. Today this promise rings hollow as the US and its Nato ally France prepare to accelerate their withdrawal from combat operations, stepping up the pressure on Afghanistan’s ill-prepared security forces well ahead of the planned handover in 2014. Little has been achieved to ensure stability in a country still stewing in corruption and lawlessness.

The problem is that the west’s policy towards Afghanistan has not worked. It has largely been dictated by the military and intelligence communities. Despite lower-level diplomatic activity, there has been little effort to use that military pressure as a means of achieving a political settlement, as in Bosnia for example. This is in part due to the sharp deterioration of US relations with Pakistan, which continues to support Taliban insurgents as a countermeasure to Indian influence in Afghanistan. A US military report was leaked this week that details the help given by Pakistan’s intelligence services to Taliban attacks. It yet again highlights the urgency of working to shift the attitude of Pakistan’s generals, without whom there can never be a sustainable political settlement. This may mean that the west has to consider a less placatory stance towards India. But there will be no stability in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s involvement.

In the meantime, the US and French announcement risks encouraging hardcore Taliban, who now see international forces rushing for the exit. True they have been sorely weakened, and there are signs that some may be ready to negotiate. President Barack Obama’s solution to leave troops there, just not in combat roles, until 2014 is also something of an insurance policy if Afghanistan descends into chaos.

But the timing of the US and French withdrawals from combat is less than ideal. It is no coincidence that the retreat comes as presidential elections loom in both countries. In France, the death of four French soldiers last week has made the war a hot campaign issue, while in the US Mr Obama has been under heavy pressure for more troop cuts.

Political considerations are finally taking centre stage in the conflict. The tragedy is that they have little to do with stability in Afghanistan.

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