After Ashdown, where to for Afghanistan?

Afghanistan’s refusal to accept Paddy Ashdown as United Nations ‘super envoy’ raises questions about the future of that mission, and more generally the difficulty of post-conflict peace-building missions.

By Greg Mills & Dominic Medley

Six years after the fall of the Taliban, the international mission in Afghanistan is beleaguered. Heavy fighting continues in the east and south. Between August 2006 and September 2007, for example, British troops fired off more than four million rounds of ammunition. In Helmand Province alone, they expended four times as many artillery rounds during this period than British forces used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In other words, NATO’s task is getting harder, and the Taliban are an increasing threat to the government of Hamid Karzai, the man who nixed Ashdown’s nomination. Notwithstanding his apparent callousness towards the foreign soldiers that have fought and died for the sake of his rule, Karzai’s pandering to Afghan nationalistic bloody-mindedness is detrimental to long-term Western interests.

There are wider interests and concerns here that must be dealt with for the sake of global security. Afghanistan could be the success hoped for in leading the region in democracy, greater openness and better governance.

Part of this difficulty is because the international effort in the Afghan peacebuilding missions has been characterised by a lack of commitment and co-ordination.

Co-ordinating military and civilian authorities, external and local, government and non-governmental in post-conflict missions is inherently difficult, nowhere more so if there are high levels of insecurity such as in Afghanistan. Put differently, development is tricky when people are trying to kill the developers. Ashdown has proven himself in such business in Bosnia, where he was the High Representative. Afghanistan has lost out by his withdrawal. He would have brought a higher profile to the job and a level of confidence and commitment that Afghanistan seriously needs.

From the start, the Afghan mission was blighted by the Rumsfeldian light troop ‘footprint’, small numbers scattered across a largely impassable country the size of France. This shortage is today compounded by having to fight on two fronts in Iraq as well. No wonder that the US defence secretary Robert Gates recently berated NATO allies for not committing more troops to the hostile south of Afghanistan. The Germans for one have responded that they prefer to keep their nearly 4,000 soldiers in the much safer north.

Any international peacebuilding mission has only a limited time to make a difference before local hospitality wears out. As one young British Royal Marine put it about patrolling in Helmand, ‘every time we go out, I feel they do not want us there. They are waiting to attack us or for us to leave.’ President Karzai will know this as he delicately balances his domestic and international support, preferring to point fingers at others, in Pakistan and elsewhere, to explain his problems.

The fact that Ashdown initially accepted the post showed he believed in Afghanistan. It is time for the donors to lay down some home truths to the Afghan government and remind them how many lives have been lost and money spent on rebuilding what Soviets and then Afghans themselves had destroyed. Kabul also needs to realise that their police, soldiers and civilians, their sons and daughters, are also being killed.

But fundamentally, the international community has to realise that such missions are inherently difficult. There is only a limited window in which to make a positive impression. That means peacebuilding has to think small, set clear achievable priorities over which to ensure co-ordination, and then be willing to step back and allow the local government to take over however imperfectly it manages the task.

Dr Mills, who is a member of the RUSI Council and heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and Medley, a media specialist, served during 2006-07 as advisers to the commander of ISAF based in Kabul.


The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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