In Afghanistan the west suffered from institutional failure. Let’s learn from it
Tuesday 28 October 2014
As the final British troops leave Afghanistan they do so with several hundred military personnel still in post supporting the Afghan National Army. They must now continue the fight against rural insurgency and terrorism the best way they can. It is easy to be pessimistic when a clear-cut victory failed to materialise, and not just for our brigade of troops but for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) mission of more than 100,000 troops too. It is also possible to be positive. Afghanistan remains a decentralised and rural society so there is ample data across this rich and varied land to support either a conclusion of failure or one of tentative success.
Notwithstanding my own view that it was incredibly naive of Isaf to entertain the idea that a nation state built up in Kabul could within 10 years extend its writ over the whole country, overall the troops who served there deserve our unflinching credit and admiration (which does include me and, yes, the irony of such a self-serving statement does not escape me). But we know from our own counter-insurgency doctrine that for the security forces (the west) to win, they must defeat the insurgents (those who are loosely classified into three distinct groups: the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hekmatyar’s Hizbi-Islami), and for the insurgents to win all they need do is survive. This is what has happened.
Visit to Helmand Province Afghanistan by a delegation of Senior British Muslims 2-22 August 2010. Afzal Amin with a delegation of British Muslims who were visiting Helmand province in Afghanistan, where he was posted with the British army. Photograph: Sgt Martin Downs (RAF)/Isaf
Numerous reports show active insurgent presence and resurgence in many regions. So if there has been failure, whose is it? It certainly is not the failure of the military who have served despite many political, equipment and planning failures.
What we have witnessed in Afghanistan, and Iraq too, is a failure of Nato institutions that were not fit for the task of counter-insurgency. Nato, like too many elements of the western strategic-level structures, remains more suited to the cold war than current military interventions requiring stabilisation, policing and counter-terrorism.
This is because the personality type (in psychological terms) favoured across Nato in terms of recruitment, training, promotion and retention is the linear-thinking process-focused maintainer of the status quo, which was ideal for holding back the Soviets while keeping our force readiness at optimum levels. We didn’t want mavericks and non-conformists so we didn’t have them. But for the wicked problems that were Iraq and Afghanistan, mavericks were precisely what we needed, the problem-solvers and the independent thinkers. Recognising our own limitations is both wise and necessary. We must learn from the institutional failure to gain victory in Afghanistan if we are to have any hope that the escalating crises in Iraq and Syria are to be resolved any time soon.
As for Afghanistan itself, the ancient fault-line of Pashtu-speaking peoples versus Dari speaking ones remains unresolved, the border areas to the south and east remain unconfirmed by both Kabul and Islamabad, and the millions of disenfranchised, dispossessed Afghans who still need support remain easy prey for the miscreant forces of non-state actors engaged in insurgency and terrorism.
All in all, the future would look bleak were it not for the mythical ability of the Afghans to strike the right deals, pursue a path of least resistance and to ensure that the plethora of stakeholders each get something they seek and so refrain from further organised violence. There could be cause for hope and we in the west must be ready to see those whom we were previously fighting sharing in the power distribution as a future settlement is hewn from the sinews of a nation that has spent decades in war.