A virulent insurgency rages in Southern Afghanistan. British and other international troops are being lost on a regular basis. Cries come for the insurgents to ‘mimic the glorious jihad in Iraq’. The UK Secretary of State Defence admits that the Government is surprised by the strength of the insurgency. Is Afghanistan lost then? Should NATO pull out? The answer is no and the government should hardly be surprised about the supposed strength of the insurgency. A recent event makes clear why.
A few days ago four Canadian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. The attack killed and wounded a number of children. At the time of the attack the soldiers were handing out gifts to the kids. While a tragic event in every respect, it illustrates why after five years of many undelivered promises the Afghan people still broadly support NATO forces and why NATO must stay the course in Afghanistan.
Counterinsurgency warfare is first and foremost about winning hearts and minds. Winning hearts and minds means mobilizing popular support for your narrative. The Afghan people are not stupid; they can see who is responsible for blowing up children without regard. Granted, US errors in bombing and heavy handedness have earned them a semi-deserved reputation as sometimes brutish, but the NATO forces so far are not plagued by this label. Popular support in Afghanistan favours Western assistance.
The supposed strength of the Taliban though should not be overrated. Neither should the popularity of the Taliban. They often have to pay fighters up to four times the wage of the Afghan National Army salary to get them to fight. Other poor souls are pressed into fighting. Furthermore the time is ripe for attacks. First, the fighting season is ending and the insurgents will use the last remaining good weather to push NATO. They know that maintaining political will in 26 different countries is tough and they are testing the Alliance. Second, it is nearly creed in counterinsurgency theory that as the situation gets better there will be a spike in attacks. This is because the overall environment has become largely hostile to the insurgents cause. They are losing the narrative. This tendency, coupled with the fact that the Western strategy chose to centralize power and security in Kabul and the North, means it will be tough going for NATO in the much neglected South. But the South is only one quarter of the picture.
The rest of the country is broadly speaking secure and the catalogue of success is good. A totalitarian government has been toppled. A president and legislature have been democratically elected. Most of the country enjoys peace and security. More does need to be done. Reconstruction has at times been slow or non-existent. Aid pledges have not been delivered. The Afghan government is rampant with corruption, especially at the local level. The nexus of criminals, drug lords and Taliban insurgents in the South must be carefully unravelled and it is a task beyond the reach of military force alone. NATO has been left holding the responsibility for the reconstruction of the country, which ideally should be responsibility of the International Community, not just NATO. There are plenty of challenges to tackle, but no comparison should be drawn between Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is on its way to a better future, Iraq certainly is not.
The Afghan people know that the US and NATO are there to support the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This is why comparisons to the British expeditions in the 1800s and the Soviet invasion in the 1980s are facile ones. Neither of those conflicts was about Afghanistan. Today the focus is on helping Afghanistan.
No one in NATO wants to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland. What the West does want to do is leave a democratically elected government in power that is strong enough to manage the security situation as NATO slowly draws down forces and develop Afghan solutions to Afghan problems. NATO is never going to kill all the terrorists. There will be no clear victory or defeat resulting in the deception of the leadership. There will most likely be sporadic violence for some time after the main insurgency is defeated. The end result will be more along the lines of the Northern Ireland conflict than WWII. NATO troops will be in Afghanistan for a long time, but they will not be fighting under such strenuous conditions forever if they can successfully break the insurgency. General Richards and his men have six months to clear, hold and build in the South, keeping the country on a track headed away from its 23 year history of violence and civil war. Now is not the time for self doubt.
Dr. Michael Williams, Head of the Transatlantic Programme
The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.