Looking for Afghanistan?s ?Anbar moment?

The U.S and Europe are casting about for Afghanistan’s “Anbar moment”. But the warring tribes to be united first are the international ones

After six years of warfare and a massive aid effort, Afghanistan’s reconstruction teeters on the brink. The U.S administration and its close allies are casting about for an “Anbar moment”, a decisive juncture which, like in Iraq, can signal a turn of fortunes.

Historical narratives of warfare are replete with such moments, perhaps the most famous of which is Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg when he rallied a war-weary nation with century-lasting oratory.

But like the “Anbar moment”, real change in Afghanistan will not come down to a single event or a change of loyalties among one of the country’s many tribes. No doubt, a decisive shift is necessary, but it must come from elsewhere and must, if it is to make a difference, lead to sustained change.

What, then, is the moment?

Easy: Spring 2008. The place: Bucharest.

“What”, I can hear you say. Surely the problem lies in Afghanistan’s tribal areas, or in the mountainous, dust-covered capital rather than in “Mitteleuropa”.

Let me explain what I mean. The biggest problem facing Afghanistan’s reconstruction remains the disjointed nature of the international effort. We are, in part, the pugnacious tribes that have to unite. In the words of Paddy Ashdown, former High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina: “Our partners in the Afghan government are baffled by the stream of contradictory instructions and the absence of an international partner with a clear view of what must be done”.

The disarray has existed from the outset of the mission in 2001, when the U.S-led coalition ousted the Taliban. For the U.S, the mission was a clear response to the attacks of 9/11. For a few European countries – like Denmark and the Netherlands – the link to national security was stronger and led to their support for both the U.S-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and ISAF. In some European chanceries support for the UN-backed mission in Afghanistan was seen as an easy way to restore transatlantic links after fall-outs over the 2003 U.S-led Iraq War.

For most, however, the Afghan mission fitted perfectly the profile for a risk-free peace-building mission; the repressive and misogynist Taliban regime would be replaced by a democratic government that would build hospitals and allow European soldiers to escort smiling school girls to their classrooms – pictures of which would be beamed back to a satisfied European public. In Germany, for example, the word krieg – war – was studiously avoided in the public debate. 

Underlying this support was a belief in “liberal peace-building”; freed from the constraints of the Cold War, the West could – and should – promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law, gender equality, sustainable development and private sector reform, civil society associations, and transitional justice. The idea belonged to a genre of planned social change, much like the modernization programmes undertaken in Afghanistan in the 1920s and 1970s  and by the international community in the Balkans and East Timor in the 1990s.

Yet despite this broad-based ambition, planning for large-scale reconstruction, only began months after the military operation had already started.  Having criticized his predecessor’s nation-building efforts during the 2000 presidential election, when it came to post-war planning, President George W. Bush favored a limited mission, with a circumscribed UN mandate and a “light military foot-print”. The military campaign relied on air power, and alliances with Northern Alliance war-lords who had formed part of the anti-Soviet resistance.  In the main, civil-military cooperation focused on avoiding bombing aid convoys.

In the end, a mix of U.S and European viewpoints emerged in the Bonn Agreements of December 2001, negotiated under the chairmanship of UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi and with the support of now-EU Special Representative Fransec Vendrell. These saw the creation of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to provide civilian and political support to the nascent Afghan authorities and sanctioned the U.S-led military efforts.

For four years, the Afghan mission was successful. A progressive constitution was adopted, Presidential and parliamentary elections were held, major militia were dismantled, non-opium GDP grew at 8 percent – an impressive rate for a developing country – and reconstruction was brought to all corners of the country. Since 2001, 3500 schools were built in and the number of pupils has increased more than fivefold to some six million – a third of whom were girls.

When, in 2004, diplomats met in Berlin to renew their commitment to rebuild Afghanistan, the Afghan government had met most of the deadlines and benchmarks required of it under the Bonn Agreement. To focus efforts, a “lead nation” concept was approved, which saw the G8 countries parceling out the responsibility for various reconstruction programmes among them.

But despite the progress, in 2005 the U.S-led intervention began to falter. Originally in favour of the effort by wide margins, European publics are now divided about the mission. Despite effort to shore up the international effort, principally through the “Afghanistan Compact” agreed in 2006 – a five year commitment by the international community and the Afghanistan government to achieve a number of targets – problems remain.

Afghanistan can now be divided into three parts: the more stable north, where a cautious ISAF and powerful Northern Alliance warlords have developed a modus vivendi; the capital Kabul – complete with London-level rents, French restaurants, and bustling night-clubs for diplomats, but pot-holed, litter-filled streets for its denizens – where diplomats and Afghan officials are building the state; and thirdly, the insurgency-racked, and poppy-covered south and east where the U.S, UK, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands are battling a resurgent Taliban.

The latest incident, involving the expulsion of EU and UN diplomats, charged by the Afghan government of illicitly negotiating with the Taliban, underscores the international community’s manifold and uncoordinated strategies.

With a plethora of strategies, the international community needs a reconciliation of its own. The need to unite around a clear, prioritized two-year “campaign” plan, worked out with the Afghan government. Moreover, the embasies and agencies working in Kabul need leadership that cuts across military, political and development lines, as well as institutional boundaries. Leadership that, realistically, only the UN can provide.

Even though orthodoxy holds that unity of command will never be possible given the legal and political constraints on interjecting civilian into the military chain of commands, unity of purpose has not proven sufficient in dealing with the challenges confronted by the international community in Afghanistan. Like the U.S CORDs programme in Viet Nam, which, at President Lyndon Johnson’s insistence, united military and civilian operations (too late, as it turned out), the international missions in Afghanistan need to be united.

With the imminent departure of the current UN envoy, Tom Koenigs, the UN Secretary-General has a unique opportunity to make the UN the central player in the Afghan mission by appointing a replacement who can unite the international community.

This is where Bucharest comes in. In April 2008, NATO will gather for its annual summit. NATO’s Afghan mission will be a key topic for discussion as will the over-all reconstruction effort. Everyone who is anyone in Afghanistan will be there. If the international community can agree amongst themselves, and with the Afghan government, to support a two-year plan, the implementation of which will be lead by a new UN envoy, then this could become Afghanistan “Anbar moment”.

Like the  original Iraq experience, success wil depend on what happens afterwards. In Afghanistan’s case, this means the lead-up to the 2009 elections. In this period, the international community will need to be held together, and the Afghan government will need to make a number of tough and unwelcome decisions. One discernible – and publishable – event will not be enough. But without an international “Anbar moment” like one I have described, success will surely remain elusive.  

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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