The Afghan misadventure

In early 2010, I accepted an invitation to join the head of the RAF and several other senior British military officers on a lightning visit to Afghanistan. Over two days, our VIP group received more than a dozen briefings in Kabul, Kandahar and Camp Bastion, the desert strip now handling more planes than Luton airport.

The verdict on the war effort was cautiously positive. Under the fresh leadership of US General Stanley McChrystal, Nato had recaptured the initiative against a resurgent Taliban; the “clear, hold and build” strategy of combining military gains with civil reconstruction was taking root in the violent southern province of Helmand. Encouraged, we asked a top Nato officer to define success in terms of the mission. The tongue-in-cheek response was instructive: “When Afghanistan becomes like any other normal third-world basket case.”

These words came back to me while reading Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles’ account of his time as British ambassador in Kabul and as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cowper-Coles, who served in these posts between 2007 and 2010, is a diplomat who speaks truth to power. Cables from Kabul describes in deliciously indiscreet prose his journey from wary loyalist to hardened sceptic about the Afghan venture. While his views may have been tinged by the disappointment of being passed over for one of the Foreign Office’s plum posts, his concluding judgments about poor policy, process and execution are devastating and worth quoting in full.

“The enterprise has proved to be a model of how not to go about such things, breaking all the rules of grand strategy: getting in without having any idea of how to get out; almost wilful misdiagnosis of the challenges; changing objectives, and no coherent or consistent plan; mission creep on an heroic scale; disunity of political and military command, also on an heroic scale; diversion of attention and resources [to Iraq] at a critical stage in the adventure; poor choice of local allies, who rapidly became more of a problem than a solution; unwillingness to co-opt the neighbours into the project, and thus address the mission-critical problem of external sanctuary and support; military advice, long on institutional self-interest, but woefully short on serious objective analysis of the problems of pacifying a broken country with largely non-existent institutions of government and security; weak political leadership, notably in subjecting to proper scrutiny militarily heavy approaches, and in explaining to the increasingly, and now decisively, sceptical domestic press and public the benefits of expending so much treasure and blood.”

The history of Afghanistan is littered with examples of misguided foreign interventions, from the massacre of British imperial forces at Maiwand in 1880 to the Soviet invasion and retreat a century later. The west’s latest foray into the Afghan morass began in 2001 as a punitive US-led mission to destroy the al-Qaeda network responsible for the September 11 attacks and topple the Taliban regime that harboured Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group. It has since morphed into an altogether more ambitious venture: to establish a client state with a semblance of democracy in a hostile region with no tradition of strong independent institutions or basic human rights.

Cowper-Coles excels in highlighting the muddled thinking that has bedevilled western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan ever since it served as a buffer state between British India and Imperial Russia. He argues persuasively that the war against the Taliban is unwinnable because it is at heart a Pashtun insurgency that enjoys broad support in the south of the country as well as covert sponsorship in neighbouring Pakistan. The best hope is that military pressure will create the conditions for a political settlement. Yet despite the courage shown by British forces, of which more later, a political solution to the conflict remains as elusive as ever.

The author has a keen eye for detail, capturing the frenetic atmosphere in Kabul where canapés and suicide bombers are part of normal diplomatic life. He has little time for “the post-conflict stabilisation industry” of officials, aid workers and private security contractors, many of whom have been transplanted from Baghdad and Basra to Kabul and remain addicted to the high allowances, generous leave and high adrenalin of working in a danger zone. Nor is he seduced by special forces, the lean bearded men who exist on one meal pack a day and can kill with their bare hands. He quotes a British woman diplomat on the amorous Australian contingent: “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”

The overall impression is a whirl of often pointless meetings, endless VIP visits – apologies, Sir Sherard – and scant time to cultivate local sources. The frustration becomes palpable when Cowper-Coles is promoted to envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (by then dubbed “AfPak”), mirroring the appointment of Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s veteran diplomatic troubleshooter who died last year. His portrait of Holbrooke as a brilliant if incorrigible show-boater is deft, if slightly unfair. Whatever his irrepressible, thuggish manner (and his three mobile phones), Holbrooke was a man of principle unafraid of taking unpopular positions. His was an impossible task.

For those seeking to understand the origins of the west’s modern entanglement in Afghanistan, Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan offers deeper historical context. He covers the period after the Soviet invasion, when the US combined with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency to finance, arm and train the Mujahideen resistance movement. A US Foreign Service officer of 30 years standing, Tomsen served as special envoy to Afghanistan charged with bringing together the main actors into a shadow government ready to assume power once the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul was toppled. He was close to all the main actors, including the then youthful Hamid Karzai, later elected Afghan president.

Tomsen recounts blood-curdling tales of corruption, double-dealing and murderous violence among the warring clans, each enjoying powerful foreign sponsors in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the 1980s, the Mujahideen were often miscast in Washington as freedom fighters in the mould of the American revolutionary forces who defeated the British. The reality was that the US engaged in a deadly embrace with warlords, many of whom were radical Islamists such as bin Laden.

The story of how the Reagan administration allowed itself to be manipulated by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the cause of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan is still best told in Steve Coll’s gripping Ghost Wars (2004). But Tomsen brings us up to date, focusing presciently on the fast-deteriorating relationship between Washington and Islamabad. He argues plausibly that the US has been hoodwinked by Pakistan, which has long used Afghanistan as a means of creating “strategic depth” against India and fomenting jihad against the west. He documents ISI support and protection for terrorist groups, many of which have found sanctuary in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the north. His call for a reassessment of US policy is especially relevant in the wake of the killing in May of bin Laden, who was traced to a safe house in Abbottabad, a major Pakistani army base. Scarcely anyone in Washington these days believes the ISI – or sections within the ISI – was unaware of bin Laden’s presence.

Tomsen’s second proposition is that the west’s approach to Afghanistan has been flawed from the outset. He does not go as far as some commentators in arguing that the US should have delayed the 2001 invasion to allow the Taliban to deal with the al-Qaeda in their midst. But he thinks that the heavy US military intervention has been counterproductive. Americanisation, he says, creates dependency and resentment among a proud if ethnically riven population. That has certainly been true of Karzai, an increasingly disillusioned figure. Tomsen shares Cowper-Coles’ view that western policy has been too controlled by the military and intelligence community, whose interests are often driven by short-term tactical gains rather than pursuing a long-term strategy for stabilising and then exiting the country.

The counter-argument is that under President Barack Obama such a strategy has finally taken shape. But the Afghan “surge”, with its emphasis on building up the Afghan army, protecting and winning the trust of the local population, and establishing proper governance in the provinces while bloodying the Taliban, still does not amount to a coherent long-term plan. This strategy is, after all, the stuff of Roman legions. Western patience – not to mention western budgets – will not stretch that far. By 2012, thousands of US troops will be returning home. Spending $120bn a year to stabilise Afghanistan is simply too heavy a burden to bear for a hobbled, inward-looking superpower.

The impression of a well-intentioned if futile venture is hard to dispel when reading Dead Men Risen, Toby Harnden’s account of the Welsh Guards’ campaign in Helmand. The author – a veteran Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent – offers a window on modern warfare, giving voice to young soldiers who are thrilled yet often traumatised by their experience on the front line. His portrait of the conflict is a sober reminder of how the Blair government badly underestimated the scale of the challenge in 2006 when it announced it was sending reinforcements to Afghanistan.

The word from Whitehall at the time was that the Helmand campaign would not amount to much. In fact, southern Afghanistan has been the theatre for the fiercest fighting British forces have encountered since the Korean war. The Taliban proved resourceful opponents, deploying deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDS) that have contributed to a British death toll standing at 377 troops, including officers, at the time of writing. Judging from the experience of the Welsh Guards, the effort was undermined at the outset by faulty intelligence and under-resourced units.

Harnden, echoing Cowper-Cowles, suggests that the British army was keen to deploy more units to Afghanistan after the humiliating retreat from Basra in Iraq the previous year. The implication is that the army was obliged, in military jargon, “to use it or lose it”. General Sir Richard Dannatt, commanding officer of the British army at the time, robustly denies this. Yet as a recent House of Commons select committee report shows, senior officers rapidly realised that they were under-equipped and under-prepared for the campaign, to the point where the general himself warned in an interview that the army risked being “broken” over the dual deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At times, Harnden’s account is deeply depressing. While US forces gad about on helicopters, British grunts (and officers) are trapped in hell-holes, often outgunned and unable to evacuate the wounded. Despite the pride and professionalism of the ground troops, the impression is one of a post-imperial power struggling to keep pace with the Americans. The reader’s frustration grows as the military gains prove temporary and the absence of a coherent political strategy becomes obvious.

So what are the lessons to be drawn from this sorry affair? First, the west needs to set a higher bar for military intervention, especially when a punitive mission turns into a semi-permanent occupation. Second, the Nato alliance, if it is to continue to act with the US out of its traditional European theatre, must revisit the terms of engagement for its members. The current emphasis on unanimity dictates that all must in theory bless action but in practice numerous “caveats” allow countries to opt out of the hard stuff. (The Libya campaign is the latest example of Nato as tethered goat.)

Third, the west, principally the US and Britain, must restore the original goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Inevitably that will mean an exit strategy that falls short of turning Afghanistan into a quasi-democratic client state. Finally, the west must confront the most serious long-term risk it faces in the region: an imploding Pakistan that threatens to slide into a radical Islamist nuclear-armed state exporting jihad to the rest of the world.

These precepts were visibly absent when President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan a little less than a decade ago. His act, while understandable in the aftermath of 9/11, grossly underestimated the cost and scale of the challenge. Nearly 10 years on, what looked like a clear-cut military victory over the Taliban has turned out to be another Afghan misadventure.

Lionel Barber is editor of the Financial Times

Cables From Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign, by Sherard Cowper-Coles, Harper Press, RRP£25, 352 pages

The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts and the Failures of Great Powers, by Peter Tomsen, PublicAffairs, RRP£25, 912 pages

Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, by Toby Harnden, Quercus, RRP£18.99, 640 pages

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