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A new policy of ‘Double or Quits’ has recently emerged for Afghanistan. Following a surge in troop levels both the US and UK political leadership hope for a rapid improvement in the security situation, but without this calls for a reassessment of priorities will grow louder. There is, however, the opportunity for a ‘third way’, modelled on the British experience in Basra after 2006, where a reduced footprint provided the opportunity for the success of local Iraqi forces.
By Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Professorial Fellow in British Security Policy, RUSI
Beneath the sound and fury of partisan point scoring, a questionable new policy consensus on Afghanistan appears to be emerging. It can be roughly characterised as ‘Double or Quits’.
The UK has been playing ‘catch up’ since its forces first deployed to Helmand three years ago, after it became clear that the Army’s initial assessment of conditions there had been, to put it mildly, rather overoptimistic. Britain now has more than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, a near-trebling of its initial force. In addition, the US is also pouring large and well-equipped forces into the region, launching a major offensive in areas of southern Helmand that had, until recently, been under Taliban control.
As long as we expect young soldiers to risk their lives on our behalf, most citizens believe, their government has a moral duty to do whatever is necessary to support them. But a recent Independent poll also suggests that 64 per cent of the population wants British troops to be withdrawn ‘as quickly as possible’, with just 33 per cent in disagreement. Commanders on the ground are under considerable pressure to deliver real progress, and to do so quickly.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear that the US also has no desire for a ‘long slog’ in Afghanistan; and the Obama administration wants to make significant progress before the mid-term congressional elections. Senior British politicians, from all parties, share this concern. If, a year from now, visible gains have not been made, the momentum for a new approach will be unstoppable.
‘Double or Quits’ appears to have a sound basis in military logic. The UK has bravely held the fort in Helmand for three tough years. But it lacked the forces necessary for a further expansion in its area of operations. Many tactical successes were achieved, only to be followed by withdrawals that allowed the Taliban to retake lost territory. It is hardly surprising that the trust of local residents proved elusive.
The recent influx of well-equipped US forces provides a chance to break this deadlock, striking the Taliban hard in their strongholds and severing their access to poppy revenues. The shock of such a setback might persuade their leaders to consider a reasonable negotiated settlement.
It could work. NATO forces will need to do more to avoid the civilian casualties that have eroded much of the initial public support for foreign forces. But the US does appear to be learning its lesson on this. More needs to be done to deny the use of Pakistan as a safe haven, especially Quetta’s role as the Taliban headquarters. But there are signs of progress, including the recent reinforcement of Helmand’s southern border by Pakistani troops. More needs to be done to build Afghan security forces, and both America and Britain are now giving training and mentoring a high priority, in contrast to the wasted years after 2001.
Yet the current surge could also go badly wrong. As America and Britain deploy more forces across Helmand, they are establishing a string of new outposts, each a potential target for wounding Taliban attacks. The longer that a hurting stalemate persists, the more politically difficult it will be to sustain, especially if efforts to deploy effective Afghan security forces fail to materialise.
A third way?
If the current surge does run out of steam, however, quitting is not the only option. Comparisons are often drawn between NATO’s new approach in Afghanistan and the US ‘surge’ in Iraq in 2007. But Britain's own experience in Iraq may be more relevant. By 2006, it was clear that the UK could not achieve its initial objective of providing sufficient security to allow externally-assisted state building to take place. British forces consequently reduced their footprint, well before strong Iraqi government forces were available to take their place.
Yet the worst case scenario envisaged at the time – a hurried evacuation of the last Basra base, in a re-enactment of the US abandonment of Saigon in 1975 – never took place. When the Iraqi government did retake control, the British Army took a back seat. But it had played an indispensable role in holding the ring in Basra until the Iraqis were ready to do the job themselves.
Basra is not Helmand. But it does show that the most effective role of external military forces can often be a negative one, buying time for local forces to mature rather than seeking to win a decisive battle without strong local support.
If the current Helmand ‘surge’ fails, therefore, ‘double’ or ‘quits’ are not the only options. NATO could reduce its commitment of large infantry forces to vulnerable outposts in the south, and instead adopt an approach that plays to its strengths. The UK could rethink its current Helmand-centric approach, redeploying its resources to support wider country-wide alliance priorities. This could involve giving a higher priority to consolidating the still-fragile economic and political progress in the north of the country, where Taliban influence remains limited. It could use a combination of mentored Afghan units and NATO special forces, with air cover and logistical support, to keep the Taliban off balance in its southern heartlands. As the Government’s own forces gained in strength, it could help those forces to take the battle to the insurgents.
A less ambitious commitment to Afghanistan would not be guaranteed to succeed. It could be seen as a sign of weakness, encouraging the Taliban leadership to believe that one last push could force foreign forces to leave altogether.
Yet it is not sustainable for the primary military effort of the West’s two most capable powers to be indefinitely focused on a handful of remote Afghan provinces. The price of a sustained Western commitment to Afghanistan is that its liability – in blood and treasure - has to be kept to manageable levels.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.