In public, defeat in Afghanistan is unthinkable for western governments. In private, for many it already seems inevitable -- at least if the western definition of “victory” remains the vastly overblown goals set since the overthrow of the Taliban, within any timeframe that is likely to be acceptable to western electorates.
In recent meetings involving Nato officials I have been struck by the combination of public acknowledgment that, to achieve real and stable progress in Afghanistan, western forces will probably have to remain there for a generation at least, and deep private scepticism that western publics will stay the course for anything like that long. Indeed, most plans have the hopeless aim of producing clear results within three years, for fear that otherwise Canada will not prolong its presence beyond 2011 and the whole Nato effort will begin to unravel.
Similarly, public statements of faith in Afghan democracy are coupled with private expressions of near-despair when it comes to hopes of improving Hamid Karzai’s administration. Many western officials admit privately that any real hopes of creating a democratic Afghanistan are now dead. “If we could get a moderately civilised and effective military dictatorship, we’d be very lucky indeed,” was the grim comment of one senior officer.
Every statement by western leaders such as Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, that this is a struggle for Afghan democracy makes it more difficult to change course. The west has already spent so long talking up Mr Karzai’s democratic credentials that -- absurdly -- we now feel that we cannot overrule him even when he vetoes vitally important western policies.
The first step in rethinking Afghan strategy is to think seriously about the lessons of a recent opinion survey of ordinary Taliban fighters commissioned by the Toronto Globe and Mail. Two results are striking: the widespread lack of any strong expression of allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership; and the reasons given by most for joining the Taliban -- namely, the presence of western troops in Afghanistan. The deaths of relatives or neighbours at the hands of those forces was also stated by many as a motive. This raises the question of whether Afghanistan is not becoming a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the US and Nato breed the very “terrorists” they then track down.
We also should remember why the US invaded Afghanistan with Nato backing in the first place: not to create democracy, or even to overthrow the Taliban, but to kill or capture the leaders of al-Qaeda. Today, killing Osama bin Laden should be made the top priority for western intelligence in the region. This is not because it would have a great direct impact on the global terrorist threat -- it would not, as al-Qaeda and its allies have long since become thoroughly decentralised -- but because such a public success would make it much easier for us to declare victory and go home.
While we should certainly not quit without creating some kind of Afghan settlement, every plan that the west makes should be formulated with eventual and complete withdrawal in mind. We need to start serious negotiations with the Taliban leadership now, not because such talks promise any chance of results by next year’s Afghan elections, or by 2011, but because the great majority of settlements to such conflicts have been achieved only after many years of negotiations.
Any hope either of a settlement, or of containing an Afghan civil war after the west’s withdrawal, also depends critically on Afghanistan’s neighbours. Iran and Pakistan in the first instance, Russia, India and China in the next should be fully involved in all plans for Afghanistan’s future, their vital interests in the country recognised and diplomatic attention devoted to trying to forge a regional consensus. We must avoid actions in Afghanistan that destabilise and alienate those neighbours -- such as the US air strike across the border that has just killed 11 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan will be critical to Afghanistan’s stability long after the west has left the region.
No quick solution to the Afghan conflict exists. The steps that I have recommended would, however, provide an indispensable precondition for even limited progress, which is to stop digging ourselves deeper into our existing hole. Many admit privately that any real hopes of creating a democratic and developed Afghanistan are now dead. “If we could get a moderately civilised and effective military dictatorship, we’d be very lucky indeed,” was the grim comment of one senior officer.