Douglas Hurd, former British Foreign Secretary, has a review in the Spectator of A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the War in Afghanistan by James Fergusson.
The book recounts the brave performance of the British Army and RAF in Afghanistan, under difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, the mission is not going well. Hurd tells us that Fergusson quotes one Captain Leo Docherty:
You don’t win hearts and minds with soldiers; you need engineers, builders, the development people from DFID. We have embedded journalists; they risk their lives to do their jobs. Why can’t we have embedded development individuals? That’s what we need.
Without such a capacity, it is categorically impossible to realize the kind of ambitious “nation building” goals that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair articulated once the current two wars got under way:
The original case for the war in Afghanistan was stronger than anything produced for the invasion of Iraq. We had to dislodge the Taliban government from Kabul because it was providing a base for al-Qa’eda to terrorise the world. But after that good decision was taken, two events distorted the exercise. First we greatly enlarged our objectives. We took upon us the whole burden of Afghanistan, pledging ourselves not just to abolish the terrorist base but to solve all the political, economic and social challenges of an undeveloped country, from women’s rights to the problem of the profitable poppy. This inflation of aims was characteristic of the rhetorical thinking of the Blair government. He treated aspirations and achievable objectives as the same thing.
These nation-building tasks would be hard enough, even if the USA, the UK, and their allies had expended, in advance, the thought, planning, and spending needed to build relevant capabilities. As it is, the USA, UK and others have been trying to extemporize on the fly, and under fire, two nation-building projects. It is a miracle that it has only been as bad as it has been, instead of a pair of outright and unambiguous disasters. This can only be credited to the creativity, courage and spirit of the enlisted personnel and junior and mid-level officers in both Iraq and Afghanistan who have been making bricks without much straw for years now.
Hurd goes on to say:
If it is true that we cannot simply continue as at present, then there seem to be two choices. First, we might be able to reconcentrate on our original objective, that is denying al-Qa’eda a base in Afghanistan. We would leave the rest to the Afghan government. We would confine our own efforts to providing as best we can for our own security against terrorist attack. This return to the original objective is easier to state than to implement.
The alternative is to create our own surge in Afghanistan in the hope of achieving a decisive result. This would mean reorganising NATO’s presence, doing away with the national caveats and establishing a common NATO operational fund as David Cameron has suggested. It would involve embedding development officials and giving local commanders budgets for immediate development projects (such as the American Commanders in Afghanistan actually have) regardless of whether they meet DIFD criteria. It would mean repeated air action against al-Qa’eda in the border provinces of Pakistan with or without the consent of the Pakistan government.
Plan A sounds best to me. I read somewhere recently that Mr. Sarkozy was saying that “we” must make sure that the girls of Afghanistan are educated, and that the women there have various rights which the women of France are accustomed to. That may seem like a noble goal from the comfort of a Parisian conference room, but it is unachievable by means of military force and the other, ancillary assets currently at hand. The Afghan people, particularly the Pashtuns, have their own way of doing things, which I mentioned recently. Telling them what to do with their women is a sure way to make them shoot at you.
I am also currently reading Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947, by Robert Johnson, which is excellent. There is lots of information in there about Afghanistan. The annihilation of the British occupation force in 1842, for example. This website, which I stumbled across, offers this pithy summary:
The First Afghan War provided the clear lesson to the British authorities that while it may be relatively straightforward to invade Afghanistan it is wholly impracticable to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and great expense in treasure and lives.
Johnson’s book teaches, this same, unsurprising, lesson. It is sometimes possible to invade Afghanistan, but it is virtually impossible to occupy it for long. This is particularly true if you are an army of infidels who seems to have designs on the land, gold or women of the Afghans.
There are few geo-strategic “iron laws”. But I can think of two candidates.
• Invading Russia is always a bad idea, unless you are willing and able to act like the Mongols.
• Occupying Afghanistan is similarly always a bad idea, even if you were willing and able to act like the Mongols.
We are, to our credit, not willing or able to act like the Mongols without far, far more provocation than anything the Afghans have ever done to us. We actually do want to help these people, not further ruin their already poor and devastated country, as hard as that may be for foreigners to fathom. One way to help them would be to recognize our own limitations.
No one has ever built a nation in Afghanistan, not even the Afghans. No invader has ended up having a happy time in Afghanistan. Whatever our political and military leaders say they are doing, they ought to be looking for the door. If our exit is preceded by a “surge”, to beat up on the worst of our enemies, scare the survivors, and clear some space for local initiatives by our friends, that may make sense. Sometimes you have to go in hard so you can get out at all. To the extent we stay, it should be done quietly and unobtrusively, through local proxies and allies to the maximum extent possible. Anything other than a low profile is probably not long-term viable.
But trying to remake Afghanistan into anything remotely like a developed-world democracy is unrealistic and can only end in blood, tears and failure. We don’t know how to do it, and we lack the means to do it. Trying to do it under those conditions is foolhardy.
(I say all of the foregoing based on things I have read. I have, for example, never been to Afghanistan. If I am wrong about my facts, analysis or conclusions, I would be interested in hearing so, in the comments, so long as the commenter provides a coherent basis for that opinion.)