Jul 17, 2009
What Friends Are All About
The war in Afghanistan
Keeping Your Nerve
July 18, 2009
It has been a bloody month in Afghanistan but America’s allies, especially Britain, should not lose heart
Afghanistan is said to be the graveyard of empires. The British army came to grief there in the 19th century, the Soviet one in the 20th. Such was Afghans’ reputation for ferocity that Rudyard Kipling told those left wounded on Afghanistan’s plains: “Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.” These days British soldiers are again dying in Afghanistan, along with Americans, Canadians and many others. The Taliban are resurgent. Each fighting season is bloodier than the last.
President Barack Obama is deploying an extra 20,000 troops there this year. But some allies are already on their way out. The Netherlands will withdraw fighting forces next year, followed by Canada in 2011. Now the public in Britain, which has the second-largest contingent in Afghanistan, is agonising over the country’s role in the war after a dreadful month in Helmand.
After eight years of disheartening warfare, it is tempting to see NATO’s mission as a repeat of past misadventures in the Hindu Kush. The Soviets lost even though they had more troops than NATO has today, a more powerful Afghan army and were supported by a cadre of motivated Afghan communists. But such comparisons are wrong. Unlike the anti-Soviet mujahideen, who were backed by America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Taliban have no superpower sponsor. In the 1980s Soviet aircraft were shot down with American-made Stinger missiles; today NATO has mastery of the skies. The Taliban are a Pushtun faction, not a national movement; their insurgency is largely limited to the southern half of the country.
Afghans may feel anger over the death of civilians killed by foreign forces, frustration at the chaos and insecurity, and dismay at the corruption of President Hamid Karzai’s government. But opinion polls say that most want Western troops to stay; they remember the misery of the civil war and the oppression of Taliban rule too well. They want the West to do a better job of securing the country.
The price of friendship
For America Afghanistan is a war of necessity; it is from there that Osama bin Laden ordered the attacks of September 11th 2001. For many European allies, though, it is less vital—a war of solidarity with America, a war of choice. Such operations quickly turn unpopular when they go badly, and governments tend to inflate their aims. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, talks of promoting “an emerging democracy”.
Critics say the effort is misconceived: the real danger is in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s leaders are now hiding. But helping Pakistan fight Islamic militants will only be harder if the Taliban and al-Qaeda can claim victory in Afghanistan. Others say the West is being over-ambitious. It can never hope to create a stable democracy in Afghanistan; all it needs is a small contingent to protect Kabul, and some special forces and bombers to deal with any returning al-Qaeda fighters. But such a minimalist approach is what allowed the Taliban to regroup.
The cost to NATO countries is immediately apparent: tens of billions of dollars and the lives of more than 1,200 soldiers. The cost of leaving is harder to measure but is probably larger: the return of the Taliban to power; an Afghan civil war; the utter destabilisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan; the restoration of al-Qaeda’s Afghan haven; the emboldening of every jihadist in the world; and the weakening of the West’s friends.
America will naturally take on most of the task in Afghanistan. But allies are vital. They share the burden, they confer political legitimacy and their joint commitment makes it harder for too many to drop out. Yet some are expending a disproportionate amount of blood. Britain is among them, but it is not alone. As a share of their population Canada, Denmark and Estonia have suffered more military fatalities.
Friends and allies
Britain’s ambition to be a global “force for good” comes at a cost. As America’s best friend, with privileged access to intelligence, it feels compelled to take part in America’s wars. As the most capable militarily of NATO’s European members (together with France), it helps to rally others. But fighting in Afghanistan is not just about prestige. With its large population of Pakistani origin, it has much at stake in helping to maintain the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan. London has been attacked by al-Qaeda more recently than New York.
So what should Britain do? To begin with, the government must act with conviction, rather than wish the problem away. It cannot be at war with a peacetime mind-set. As a share of the budget, defence spending has shrunk since 2001. The defence ministry is a parking place for weak ministers or a stepping-stone for strong ones. Priority should be given to manning fully the army’s ranks, and probably expanding them. More must be done to provide helicopters, transport aircraft, drones and better-protected vehicles. This would wreck budgets and upset the navy and air force. So be it. Losing a war is even more demoralising than losing ships or jets. The government should have announced a Strategic Defence Review a long time ago, not delayed it until after the election.
At the very least Mr Brown should agree to the army’s request for a permanent uplift of 2,000 troops for Helmand. Western forces are never going to garrison the whole province, let alone Afghanistan. But what they hold must be held securely. And above all, they must train and expand the Afghan army and police so they can gradually take over. That will not be cheap, but it is the best way to bring home Western troops.
In many ways, the push to pacify Afghanistan is only just starting, now that the war in Iraq is ending. America’s Marines launched a big operation in Helmand on July 2nd. Afghanistan’s presidential elections take place next month. It will not be clear until the autumn, and probably not until late next year, whether Mr Obama’s “surge” has worked.
This is not the time to lose heart. Security must be improved, economic activity encouraged, government strengthened and insurgents offered inducements to defect. But for those things to happen, the Taliban must see that the Afghan government and its foreign friends are winning, not losing.