How to End the War in Afghanistan: David Miliband in New York Review of Books

How to End the War in Afghanistan
By David Miliband, New York Review of Books, April 1, 2010

Neither the UK nor the US started the war in Afghanistan. In the 1990s that country’s Taliban government provided a safe haven and support for al-Qaeda. In return Osama bin Laden provided the Taliban with money and fighters. Afghanistan became the incubator for the September 11 attacks. The international intervention in response to those attacks had widespread support around the world. But we never meant for our militaries to be there forever. Eight years later, with al-Qaeda pushed into Pakistan, it is not enough to explain to people why the war started. We need to set out how it will be ended—how to preserve what has been achieved and protect South Asia from a contagion that would affect us all.

The route to progress depends on recognizing the centrality of politics to issues of war and peace. Violence of the most murderous, indiscriminate, and terrible kind started this Afghan war; politics will bring it to an end. A political settlement for Afghanistan must have two dimensions. First, a new and more inclusive internal political arrangement in which enough Afghan citizens have a stake, and the central government has enough power and legitimacy to protect the country from threats within and without. And second, on which the first depends, a new external settlement that commits Afghanistan’s neighbors to respect its sovereign integrity and that carries enough force and support to ensure that they abide by that commitment.

Britain fought three wars in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1919. Each time it was defending its power base—and economic stake—in British India. And each time it suffered military reverses as it sought to establish order. Yet on every occasion, once that lesson had been learned the hard and bloody way, Britain’s imperial strategists sought—and secured—a saner and more sustainable objective: a self-governing, self-policing, but heavily subsidized Afghanistan, whose tribes balanced each other and that posed no threat to the safety of British India.

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