Getting out of the Afghan quagmire

It is time for the West to stop dreaming and adopt more pragmatic goals in Afghanistan

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Nobody calls a summit knowing it will achieve nothing. World leaders, even
if they anticipate little by way of concrete action from an event, hope that
the glow of the media and being seen with their counterparts will increase their
standing. But sometimes summits do the opposite. They are hyped to such a
degree, or so badly mistimed, that their failure boomerangs back to hit the
organisers. The Danish leader, Lars Løkke Rasmussen is finding this after the Copenhagen failure. And
it will be what faces British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after this week’s London conference on Afghanistan.

When I helped prepare a similar event in London
in 2006, there was a real sense that post-Taliban Afghanistan was moving from the era
of liberation towards a period of development. Elections had been held,
parliament constituted, the Taliban defeated and the Kabul government was thought to be hitting a
halting, but stable, stride. It made sense to bestow upon President Karzai
renewed international legitimacy and to set out a new agenda both for him and
his foreign helpmates.

None of this is true today. Afghanistan
is not progressing from any particular phase to another; rather, it is
regressing. Fraudulent elections have discredited the democratic process.
Though Karzai pledges to address corruption, the presence of notorious warlords
in his cabinet raises concerns about his government’s ability to provide the
kind of effective, fair and impartial governance needed to rebuild the public’s

The international community’s efforts in Afghanistan have also done the
country no favours. The UN, NATO and the EU now have their own strategies, each
one with a different emphasis. And it not likely to get any better, as popular
support for continued engagement in the Afghan mission diminishes across key
Western nations. The Japanese government just pulled its navy out of the
international coalition. Its sailors will soon be followed by Dutch and
Canadian soldiers. With the storm over the deadly air strike near Kunduz still
tearing at Chancellor Merkel’s government, who knows how long the Germans will

This is no time to abandon Afghanistan.
But nor is it time to dream up a new set of aims, a range of internationally
enforced timelines, and a promise of more aid. Most of this would not not be
achieved; all of it would be forgotten before the event was over.

If it is to achieve anything more than fill out the evening news, the
gathering must have only one aim: to help Hamid Karzai begin reaching out to
insurgents and fence-sitters, drawing them into a negotiation that can drain
the insurgency of all but the religiously-committed warriors. Fortunately,
after years of hesitation, the US
seems to have swung behind exactly this policy.

In such a process, the Kabul
government must put almost everyone on the table: the formal power of the
state, the language of the constitution, even the social rights that have been
secured in name, but are rarely respected and instead help the insurgency
recruit foot-soldiers. Part of this will involve giving incentives, like money,
jobs and security guarantees, to foot-soldiers in a way that the Kabul government has
pretended to do in the past, but never seen through. But it will have to go
even further now.

Everyone hoped the shock therapy of invasion would help moderates entrench a
new way of life in Afghanistan,
which would be more democratic, more humane and less likely to harbour
international terrorists. But after almost a decade of trying, this
internationally sponsored project must be called to a halt – it cannot be done,
at least not in the next 50 years. The most likely scenario if matters
continue, even after President Obama’s surge, is a precipitous withdrawal of
international forces and the return of a revanchist Taliban and their al Qaeda

Far better, therefore, to focus on making the country reasonably stable,
even if this means that parts of it will be run in ways and by people who NATO
has – until recently – fought. Far better to look at new ways of running the
state, for example by decentralising power to a semi-autonomous southern
region. Far better to cancel programmes that are culturally alien to Afghans
and in so doing make it clear that the world does not wish to “westernise” the
country, but make it stable.

A progressive, rights-respecting democracy is in the West’s interest – and
should be a long-term goal. But a stable, quasi-democracy, which, like Saudi Arabia, practices the Sharia law, and like
shares power with former combatants, is far better than an internationally
created polity which by its nature provokes resistance and precipitates its own

As former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has argued, the
Taliban do not threaten the West. But the dreamy, under-resourced and therefore
unrealistic visions that many in the international community still harbour, do
undermine our ability to achieve the West’s strategic aims.

If is to avoid being a waste of time or even worse, join Munich,
Yalta and now Copenhagen
as a by-word for diplomatic failure, the London
conference must be less about international pledges of aid and soldiers, and
more about creating space for a political accommodation between the Kabul government and the
Taliban insurgency.

This piece was first published in E!Sharp

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ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow