Reassessing the Afghanistan Crisis
Insofar as it is possible to understand the motives of the attackers (almost all are killed immediately) it seems that only a quarter have any connection to the Taliban. The “police” in question are a hastily formed, poorly trained militia. Ninety-two out of 100 recruits in a Helmand unit I visited last year were unable to write their own name, or recognise numbers up to 10. Their five weeks of training amounted to little more than weapons-firing and basic literacy. Thirty per cent of recruits deserted that year. With up to 10,000 villagers recruited in a month, “vetting” was not a serious option.
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This gap between the language of policy makers and the reality is typical. It is time to be honest about Afghanistan: we face a desperate situation and an intolerable choice.
If the US, Britain and their allies leave Afghanistan, there will be chaos and perhaps civil war. The economy will falter and the Afghan government will probably be unable to command the loyalty or support of its people. The Taliban could significantly strengthen their position in the south and east, and attack other areas. Powerful men, gorged on foreign money, extravagantly armed and connected to the deepest veins of corruption and gangsterism, will flex their muscles. For all these reasons departure will feel – rightly – like a betrayal of Afghans and of the soldiers who have died.
But keeping foreign troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will not secure the country’s future either. Every year since 2004, generals and politicians have acknowledged a disastrous situation, produced a new strategy and demanded new resources. They have tried “ink-spots” and “development zones”; counterinsurgency and nation-building; partnering and mentoring; military surges, civilian surges and reconciliation. Generals and ministers called 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 “decisive” years in Afghanistan. None was. None will be.
We may wonder why politicians and soldiers have insisted for so long that things are improving. We have been isolated from Afghan reality, and obsessed with misleading jargon. But it is not all the west’s fault. Afghanistan is poor, fragmented and traumatised; and blame should also be put on the Afghan government and on neighbours such as Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of brains and hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested over a decade in understanding failure, without overcoming it. The culture and behaviour of foreign troops, diplomats, Afghans, the Kabul government and Pakistan are not likely to change in the next two years. What we have seen is roughly what we will get.
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