FROM the autumn of 2007 to the end of 2008 I was Deputy Commanding General of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, the first to hold that office. Before that I spent two years as the senior coalition officer in US Central Command. I had, therefore, more than three years of close and direct contact with Afghanistan. During those years I travelled to almost every province in Afghanistan and to the neighbouring states of Pakistan, Khyrgyzstan and Khazakstan. I have a very clear idea of exactly what is going on right now in Afghanistan, and as we see the chaotic scenes from Kabul airport, I fear greatly for anyone who worked with the Afghan government or with Nato, for women and for any non-Pashtun ethnic minorities. Biden’s and Johnson’s failures in Afghanistan have put all those lives on the line and, downstream, will destabilise the region and threaten the West.
We need to understand what went wrong, and why. Critics may say that this is being wise after the event; I have said all that I am going to say many times in recent years. We must understand what went wrong so that if ever there is the need, or the will, to intervene again around the world, we might not get it quite so wrong.
The first thing Western leaders need to develop is strategic patience. Raiding simply will not work – they all took the wrong lessons about that from Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Sending a force is not the solution to a problem, it is merely the beginning of the engagement. Looking at one’s watch to frame the withdrawal conditions, while the other side looks at the calendar, merely allows the other side to wait us out and then overturn all that was done. Dictatorships have the advantage over us here – they can take the long view. Although I will be lambasted for saying so, colonialism was also more far-sighted in this way. Colonialism was essentially about expeditionary operations to seize territory followed by a very long counter-insurgency to hold it.
The want of strategic patience in Afghanistan was compounded by the rush to Iraq, taking with it all the resources that might have rapidly built a stable country. This rush repeated the error after the withdrawal of the Russians and allowed the Taliban time and space to regroup and recover in Pakistan. For every soldier, every drone, every dollar in aid, every civilian programme committed to Afghanistan in 2003 and after, there were 1,000 put into Iraq. This was made even worse by the nature of Afghan society. Afghanistan is not and never has been a centrally run state as we would understand it. People go to central government if they need something, otherwise they expect to be left alone. This of course assists an essentially rural insurgency like the Taliban who can operate underneath the radar of central government, creating shadow governance. To develop a functioning and accountable system of government, underpinned by security, which works at national and local level, would have taken decades. We never even tried to effect this.
What is also needed is a co-ordinated strategy with one person in charge. We know this from Templar in Malaya and Harding in Cyprus during the 1950s. In Afghanistan, Nato countries held on to bits of territory, doing their own thing with local government, police reform and development regardless of any overarching campaign plan. No one was in charge: Commander ISAF ran the military operation, but who was in charge of the reconstruction and development effort? No one. In theory it was the UN High Representative, but this poor fellow had no authority over the donors or contributing states, none over the plethora of charities and aid agencies all doing whatever they felt like, and not even any over the UN bodies such as HCR, WFP and so on, who all held their own budgets and reported directly to New York. People spoke to me often about a want of co-ordination on the civil side – the issue was not coordination, but authority. Without authority, resources cannot be shifted to where they are needed, good behaviour cannot be rewarded and bad behaviour punished, national systems and structures cannot be developed. Nor can that essential connection in the messaging – between what we say and what we do – be made and maintained. The result is fragmentation and wasted effort. Worse, without a single campaign, given that nations rotated their personnel at short time intervals, there were twenty different campaigns at any one time, all being reinvented every six months or so.
Until recently, great strides were being made to develop the Afghan Army – but this got off to a very bad start. In Iraq, the Army reform was carried out from the start as a programme: intention plus resources designed not simply to train and equip soldiers, but to create a structure within the country that would do that for itself, in the long term. General Marty Dempsey understood this in a way that few others have done. It was carried out as part of a package of barrack building, equipment purchase, training, education, systems development and operations. In Afghanistan, the early effort focused on training and equipping soldiers and was carried out concurrently by two competing organisations, the US and Nato. A fully joined-up mission came late, too late. The Afghan Army was simply never big enough to sustain operations on its own for an extended period, nor was it equipped with high-end capabilities. It also never harnessed local militias in the way that was successfully applied in Oman and in Sierra Leone to keep boots on the ground.
Nor was police reform ever properly addressed. The police were the routine security presence on the ground but were usually dominated by a single tribe or clan which would then predate on its rivals. If all one does is re-train and re-equip such a force, what is the result? More efficient predators. Afghanistan needed police reform to be led by a body like the Italian carabinieri, to produce a paramilitary police force capable of taking an effective role against militants. It also needed a force that was not locally tied – in which, for example, no officer served in his own province and no constable in his own district. This, along with proper pay, would break the links with local interest and corruption.
Speaking of corruption leads one inevitably to the elephant in the room – the nexus between insurgency, organised criminality and corruption. The three feed off each other, ensuring that there is vested interest in keeping instability going. In Afghanistan this is focused on poppy production and the sums involved are astronomical. Opium finances the Taliban and, through bribery, undermines the official state. Even northern warlords in non-Pashtun provinces would take their cut, smuggling opium north and west and supplying arms in return. Opium has been the war materiel of the Taliban. In previous wars, we have had no qualms about attacking enemy war materiel – from the blockade of Napoleonic France to the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factory. But in counter-insurgency, military force cannot be used against civilians and criminals are civilians, unless there is a cast-iron case for linking them with insurgency. Until and unless the legal framework is altered to allow the destruction of insurgent or terrorist finance, we will face this problem just as we did with diamonds in Sierra Leone, cocaine in South America and tobacco and livestock smuggling in Northern Ireland. The traffickers and refiners must be attacked and the big growers’ crops eradicated. For the small farmer, a proper system of alternative livelihoods which allows food crops to be got to markets and processing plants must take the place of a drug market that comes to them.
Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, if not won outright by one side or the other, are usually resolved through a process of negotiation in which both sides apply force, messaging and other resources in order to shift the position of the other. Eventually, both sides reach a compromise position – how far in one direction or the other depends on how successfully one side or other applies its available resources. This was under way between the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar and the result would probably have been some sort of compromise. But by removing the actuality, or even the threat, of force while this process was under way has simply handed victory to the Taliban.
It is now too late to do anything about Afghanistan – sadly, the will is not there in London or Washington – but at least the latter has the means to act if it chose. The last three British governments have so far emasculated defence that we are not capable of intervening anywhere, even if it were necessary and right. One can hear the laughter from Beijing, Tehran, Moscow, Damascus and Pyongyang. Our enemies know that they can do as they wish. There should be no laughter from Islamabad and if there is, it will soon be drowned out by the noise of chickens coming home to roost. In most of Afghanistan it will be the sound of gunfire that drowns out all else, as the Taliban shoot those who do not conform, sell women into slavery and return the country to its darkest days. Will they give safe haven again to the likes of Al-Quaeda? Probably – but they will take their time and take care until they are sure that the lack of spine in Washington will not once again bring down on their heads the storm that broke after 9/11.