French deaths highlight NATO’s other challenge

French combat deaths underscore the challenge in Afghanistan and the need for a new politically-accented and regionally-focused strategy

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

France today has suffered the greatest number of causalities in military combat since clashes in Bouake, Ivory Coast in 2004. In fierce fighting 30 miles east of Kabul, 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 wounded.

The death toll underscores how that after seven years of warfare – a whole two years more than World War II – and billions of dollars spent on reconstruction, Afghanistan’s stability hangs by a thin thread. And underneath this modern-day Sword of Damocles sits not only Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but the Western alliance.

Few expect the 50,000 NATO troops to be defeated in the coming months; President Karzai’s government is unlikely to collapse and the casualties of the 40-odd-nation international coalition are manageably low enough. The Taliban has failed to broaden into a mass movement.

But the fact that the Taliban are far from beaten is now widely acknowledged. And, as a report from NGOs working in the country recently showed, the security situation has deteriorated steadily since 2007. Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S defense chief, recently testified to Congress that suicide bombings were up 27% in 2007 over 2006. But they are up 600% over 2005. In 2007 alone, there were 8000 conflict-related deaths – 1500 of them civilian, 40 of which were relief workers, with another 89 abducted.

Why is this happening? The Taliban have grown because of the Coalition’s mistakes, the slow rate of social and economic progress, the government’s corruption as well as a belief among ordinary Afghans that the black-turbaned insurgents may have greater staying power than the West. Using the lawless North West Pakistan to plan, prepare and re-supply their forces, the Taliban are enjoy a considerable advantage whilst the country’s history of foreign interference, ordinary people’s distrust of foreigners and the grassroots strength of Islam, further plays in the insurgents’ favor.

Power, meanwhile, is held not by President Hamid Karzai’s government, but by local military commanders, who have differing degrees of loyalty to the central government and whose ability to control subordinates is often limited. Where the central government can make a difference, its actions have often been slow and open to charges of corruption. Ordinary Afghans’ trust in the government – and President Karzai personally – has been dwindling.

As General David Petraeus takes the helm at Central Command, expanding his responsibility to include the war in Afghanistan, many observers are wondering whether the strategy he implemented in Iraq will have similar success in fighting the Taliban and remnants of al Qaeda. Something certainly needs to change. But what? Every analyst has a different view. Ask the military, and they say more troops are needed. Ask the NGOs and they want fewer troops. Both cannot be right.

The usual European critique of the West’s effort in Afghanistan is to identify a lack of overall strategic coherence, and an over-emphasis, especially by the US and especially in the south, on the military conflict with the Taliban. But since 2007, the U.S has adapted and moved towards a more balanced development and security strategy – a so-called ‘comprehensive approach’. And the appointment of Kai Eide as the UN envoy was meant to add greater coherence to the international community’s efforts.

The truth is that the international community can achieve far less than what is currently thinks and needs to be far more realistic and far more rigorous in its prioritization. When Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks, it is clear that Britain is fighting several wars at once, including: a war against the Taliban, a war against drugs, a war against want; and a war against the country’s conservative society.

But the international community cannot fight all these wars at the same time. It cannot “liberate” women for a generation or so, because trying to do so will play into the insurgents’ hands. It cannot pauperize the country’s farmers as part of a war on drugs if it wants to rely on their support in the fight against the Taliban. And it cannot lift Afghanistan out of poverty – at least not in the foreseeable future. So it needs to focus.

First, whoever wins the Afghan presidential elections, it will be key to help a new president bring about a new political settlement – including through the political integration of former insurgents. This will require a deliberate re-launch of our engagement process. The current “café-style” process of reconciliation – where the international community seeks to reconcile with whoever walks into the café and appoint ex-insurgents to posts in the unitary, centralized administration so they can benefit from corruption – does not work.

In its place, a broader settlement is required. But negotiations must lead to the strengthening of institutions, not just the cooptation of individuals by enabling them to benefit from corruption. The prospect of greater devolution within the country, especially the south and south-east, could help to encourage mid-level insurgent to cross sides while strengthening the institutional role of the National Assembly will also be key. The National Assembly has proposed a number of initiatives (including subordinating the Coalition to a bilateral agreement), which the U.S and Europe should examine.

Second, any stability achieved in Afghanistan will remain unacceptably fragile as long as neighbors such as Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran treat the country as a pawn in their own power plays and refuse to accept that stable governance in Afghanistan is in their own long-term interests. It will not be possible to stop the border regions in Pakistan from functioning as a hinterland for the Taliban insurgency overnight or without tackling the causes of Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” – i.e. fears of India. Nor will it be possible to address the drugs trade without Iran’s cooperation.

The vacuum created by the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf and the struggle between Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, will not make matters easier in the short-term. And a regional peace process will be slow and difficult – but it will better than nothing, and it could conceivably gain some momentum.

To help kick-start a regional peace process, the EU should appoint a Regional Envoy, ask the U.S to do the same and jointly establish a Contact Group, including with the UN. In preparation for discussions with a new U.S president on the regional issues, the EU should appoint a Wise Men’s committee, along the lines of the U.S. Baker-Hamilton commission, chaired by a prominent European, to develop a new EU approach to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran.

The committee should examine the carrots and stick that could be offered regional players, including the scope for a UN-led assistance programme to Pakistan, kicked-off by a UN-led donor’s conference and with implementation overseen by a high-level assistance envoy, like the role James Wolfensohn played in rebuilding the Palestinian economy.

To start off a regional dialogue, the “Peace Jirga” inaugurated last year between Pakistan and Afghanistan needs to be revamped and given the new Pakistani government’s imprimatur. Then a Track II process should be set-up, which would allow Pakistani and Afghan academics and former officials to develop a concept for confidence-building measures (CBMs), which could aim to lessen anxiety and suspicion by making the parties’ behavior more predictable. The same needs to happen on the Pakistani-Indian side. Using the regional economic cooperation conferences that have taken place since 2005, the next conference could have an unofficial side-event focused on presenting the CBMS to policy-makers.

It will be a long road to a durable peace in Afghanistan and for mutual trust to build between Kabul, Islamabad and Delhi. But with leadership from a new U.S. administration, support from Europe through the appointment of two “tandem” regional envoys, a clear regional strategy, a new prioritization in Afghanistan, and beefed-up reconstruction efforts in Pakistan, a reconfigured strategy could become successful. The French casualties will take coalition deaths to 854 since the U.S. invasion in 2001. But to minimize further loss of life, a new politically-accented and regionally-focused strategy will be required.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow