FT.com, September 21, 2009

No easy choices left in Afghanistan

The jihadi groups, financed by the narcotics trade and reliant on the ambivalence and fear of the population, could keep this conflict going indefinitely – unless Afghans begin to see progress at last.

Nato forces are losing ground against the insurgency in Afghanistan. Afghans look as though they will continue to be led by a corrupt and warlord-influenced government, of doubtful legitimacy after the flawed and still inconclusive recent elections. As casualties mount and spread, a backlash is building in allied countries against a war their citizens increasingly see as both pointless and doomed.

This is not the most propitious background to the strategic review by General Stanley McChrystal, US commander in Afghanistan, leaked this week to The Washington Post.

She (Malalai Joya) says there is no difference for ordinary Afghans between the Taliban and the equally fundamentalist warlords. "Which groups are labelled 'terrorist' or 'fundamentalist' depends on how useful they are to the goals of the US," she says. "You have two sides who terrorise women, but the anti-American side are 'terrorists' and the pro-American side are 'heroes'." Karzai rules only with the permission of the warlords. He is "a shameless puppet" who will win next month's presidential elections because "he hasn't yet stopped working for his masters, the US and the warlords... At this point in our history, the only people who get to serve as president are those selected by the US government and the mafia that holds power in our country."
The Independent, Jul. 28, 2009

Nonetheless, there is something to work with. Regardless of the raging insurgency and in spite of the inability of Hamid Karzai’s government to provide security or justice, millions of Afghans braved the rockets and blood-curdling threats of the Taliban and turned out to vote. While most focus will be on Gen McChrystal’s request for (still unquantified) extra troops, the core message of his report is that it is the people of Afghanistan who “are the objective”.

It follows that the central task of Nato and government forces is to change the “perception that our resolve is uncertain” which “makes Afghans reluctant to side with us against the insurgents”.

That requires the allies to regain the initiative over the next 12 months and reverse the momentum of the jihadis. The new McChrystal approach has been well-trailed. It is not Taliban corpses that will turn the tide. The jihadi groups, financed by the narcotics trade and reliant on the ambivalence and fear of the population, could keep this conflict going indefinitely – unless Afghans begin to see progress at last.

Afghans want an end to corruption and warlordism. They want security, jobs, schools and clinics, roads and markets, electricity and water. They want responsive government and justice. As Nato clears and holds larger areas, they want to know they will be protected from reprisals if they side with the government. They need persuading the US, UK and their local allies are in for the long haul.

All that means greater emphasis on living among and protecting the population, and much less on the doctrine of force protection – and the promiscuous use of air power to minimise allied casualties, often at the cost of heavy civilian losses.

Gen McChrystal believes this requires extra forces over the coming “likely decisive” year, accompanied by the accelerated build-up of Afghan forces. In the longer term, he redefines success in Afghanistan as “a condition where the insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state”. That is a welcome attempt to realign the vaulting ambitions of the past eight years with the meagre progress. But it is still ambitious.

Barack Obama may have hand-picked Gen McChrystal and given him 21,000 extra troops. But, as Americans turn against the war, the president appears reluctant to commit more forces. There is little evidence to suggest, moreover, the allies can build up indigenous forces as fast as the review wants.

This goes to the heart of the US and Nato’s “resolve”. All sides in the complex Afghan conflict must come to believe the allies are determined to get a grip. That includes, for example, Pakistan’s generals and spies, who will not decisively break their still extensive links with jihadi groups if they fear the allies are going to leave a vacuum in Afghanistan their arch-rival India is already stepping in to fill.

Yet Gen McChrystal deserves a chance to make his new approach work – with some more troops from the US and many more from its allies. This was not a war of choice. The allies, furthermore, have staked Nato’s credibility on the outcome. Above all, they cannot just abandon the Afghan people to a resurgent Taliban without trying to open the way to a future a majority of them would prefer.

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