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Afghanistan 2012: better tactics, but still no strategy

As one year ends, and another opens, two pieces of news from Afghanistan catch my eye.

The first is a story in the New York Times of 2 January: that poppy cultivation is dramatically down in the areas of Helmand most intensively policed by NATO, but that that the industry has simply been displaced to other areas, and is likely to resume in central Helmand once NATO leaves.

The other is that, on Friday 30 December, a 19 year old soldier, Private John King of the Yorkshire Regiment, died in a mine explosion in Helmand – the 394th British serviceman to be killed during the ten years of war in Afghanistan.

In their different ways, these two stories go to the core of my concern about the Western military campaign in Afghanistan: that our soldiers are indeed delivering success; but that there is still no serious strategy for ensuring that their achievements are more than just local and temporary suppression of a much deeper disease of disorder and deprivation; and that, without such a strategy, when we cease combat operations just over two years from now, the still-grieving families and friends of the fallen will soon see that their loved ones’ sacrifice was largely in vain.

None of this is new.  None of it surprising.  All of is wholly familiar to any objective observer of Afghanistan.  Most of it is plain common sense.

And yet those responsible for conducting the campaign, in America, in Europe and on the ground, still continue to pretend that another two or three years of Western military manoeuvres in Afghanistan will somehow be enough to make the country stable enough for it to be secured by the newly trained Afghan National Security Forces.  A war which is costing American taxpayers over $120bn a year, and British tax payers getting on for £6bn a year, has become an embarrassment – to be ignored whenever possible, but, when it intrudes, to be treated with the tired old platitudes which have been used to dull discussion for the past five years at least.

What breaks my heart is none of the political or military leaders who, when pressed, proclaim progress is being made, while challenges remain, actually believes his or her own rhetoric.  All of them know that Afghanistan cannot be stabilised without a new political settlement, bringing together all the internal parties to the conflict, as well as the regional powers.  Each is painfully aware that, without engaging Pakistan, and probably India and Iran as well, there can be no real settlement in Afghanistan.  Each sees that, in less than three years from now, the Afghan state, in so far as it exists, won’t have either the resources or the will to stabilise its own territory – unless by then there is a serious peace to keep.   Each understands that Afghanistan’s problems are, at root, political, not military.

And yet we carry on, with the big pretence that somehow the campaign is working, that the present approach will be enough, that military tactics without a serious political strategy will over the next two years deliver a stable Afghanistan, able to secure and govern itself.

As I point out in the new After Word to the paperback edition of my book, Cables from Kabul, to be published next month, we carry on because, in the short term, it is less trouble.  We carry on for the same reason that the Kennedy Administration said publicly that sending small numbers of military advisers to South Vietnam was enough, even when none of those responsible for that “strategy” actually believed in it.

Which brings me back to Private King, and the miserable New Year his family and friends must have had.  Brave young men and women like him should of course be sent to fight and die for their country with the best equipment.  But what saddens me most is that, after a decade of sacrifice in Afghanistan, we are still seeking the strategy for which their sacrifice is being made.

In 2012, the best tribute to the fallen would be for the political and military leaders of the campaign in Afghanistan devising and delivering the kind of strategy that would ensure that young men like Private King had not died in vain.  And here at last there is a glimmer of hope.  The Taleban’s announcement – on 3 January – that they had agreed to open an office in a third country, probably Qatar, to allow dialogue with the Americans to begin, was all the more welcome for having been so long overdue.  It is only a first small step on a very long road. A road that will have to pass through Islamabad, as well as Delhi and Teheran and many other cities.  But it is nevertheless the best news to have come out of Afghanistan in many months.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is an Honorary Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations.  During 2007-9 he served as ambassador to Afghanistan; and from 2009 to 2010 he was special representative of the UK Foreign Secretary to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Published inAfghanistanBritish PoliticsInternational PoliticsInternational Relations

One Comment

  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Couldn’t much the same be said of all our military adventures since at least Suez? The degree of military success has varied wildly, with Suez itself and The Falklands at the extreme poles, but the lack of underlying political strategy has been a constant. The last time we had any was, what, Malaya in the late 1940s?

    Which leads to me to wonder if the top brass really minds (although obviously diplomats do). After all, how else are they going to find out if their latest kit really works in real-world conditions?

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