"When we invade Afghanistan or Iraq, our responsibility does not end with military victory... finishing the fighting is not finishing the job."
In 2003, then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair made this bold statement before a joint session of Congress. Almost 14 years after lofty promises to Afghanistan were made, billions of dollars have been spent and thousands of US and Western military lives have been lost or damaged. Those considerations do not even begin to contemplate the enormous costs borne by the Afghans themselves who have witnessed countless officials, initiatives, and grand statements of intent all come and go. All the while, it is their security and livelihoods that have been trapped in what the New York Times recently described as a 'never-ending war'.
Afghanistan needs fresh thinking to navigate out of this 'stalemate'.
It is now widely accepted that the West is fatigued and exasperated with the seemingly impossible situation in Afghanistan. There have been many books and articles intelligently outlining all of the reasons why. Even the most casual observer of Afghanistan cannot help but notice the deeply entrenched tribal and ethnic dynamics, the endemic and crippling corruption, and the inescapable reality that the insurgency is both deeply woven in to the fabric of a traditional society, and supported by powerful regional interests. Weariness, cynicism and a sense of impotence are now pervading thinking about Afghanistan.
In short, people have run out of ideas and are now devising ways to limit their aims to reframe the problems of Afghanistan.
Yet against this jaded view of Afghanistan, nearly all the significant actors cling to an idea of 'peace' brought about by political settlement. However, it is an ill-defined peace that is not, and has not been, clearly articulated or resourced.
We are now entering a new phase in this 16-year conflict (for the West) that is going to be shaped by the findings and recommendations of the Trump Administration. It is likely that rules of engagement will be loosened and American military power flexed once again in an attempt to bring about the desired effect: to 'degrade' the Taliban and beat them to the negotiating table. This is misguided.
The Taliban, under relentless pressure from the US and her allies during the height of the conflict, were not cowed into suing for peace. The idea that a modest troop increase coupled with an expanded air targeting campaign will bring about a result that 150,000 NATO troops and extensive Special Forces operations couldn't is fanciful. This is an assessment shared by the author Douglas Wissing in a recent contribution to The Hill.
This new strategy, endorsed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a recent Washington Post article, is a revised attempt to try again where similar efforts have failed. It is symptomatic of stale, repetitive, and narrow thinking.
The international community has three options in Afghanistan and it would appear only one is viable.
Firstly, do more of the same - and get the same results.
Keep spending the dollars, keep the military balance tipped barely in favour of a beleaguered Afghan military and prolong the status quo. There appears to be increasingly little appetite for this state of perpetual low intensity war that was described in the New York Times article. Domestic economic pressures, as well as a growing exasperation with the concept of military personnel being deployed in arenas where we no longer 'win' are causing people to question the sense in all this.
The second option would be to cut our losses and withdraw.
This would be undesirable and a public relations disaster after so much effort, money and military sacrifice. The consequences of leaving Afghanistan to be ripped apart by competing regional interests like hyenas fighting over a carcass are difficult to map out, but are almost certainly damaging. They will likely result in a pressing requirement for future intervention in another form.
That leaves the third option. Try something new.
While this article doesn't presume to have all the answers, it is clear that this third option will have to involve broad based political settlements that contribute to some form of peace settlement. There will undoubtedly be unpalatable concessions to be made, likely in politically sensitive areas that may provoke consternation in the liberal democracies of the West.
It is impossible to foresee a workable solution or process that does not involve enemies and rivals talking and compromising. The old cliché that you don't make peace with friends is nowhere more apt than here. This reality will apply to the Afghans, but even more so to the competing regional actors who have become increasingly involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. All are necessary to begin to bring an end to this costly and damaging war.
It is in the interests of few to see this war rumble on and consume the promise and hopes of another generation of Afghans. Where parties are identified who profit from a continuation of this war, all options should remain open to persuade, deter, coerce, or remove them.Peace in Afghanistan should not be a phrase that causes eye rolling out of a sense of cynicism or déjà vu. Peace should be sought in Afghanistan not as something vague, aspirational and unobtainable, but as a defined policy aim within a political process that is supported by a plan involving all the levers of the states involved. Peace should not be viewed as an outcome but as a process that is pursued through policy. As JFK famously remarked,
Efforts in Afghanistan have failed in many areas, the international community is freewheeling, and there is a dearth of fresh thinking. Peace is now the urgent task for Afghanistan.
"peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war - and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task".