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Out of the Hornet’s Nest: Legacies of the War in Afghanistan

By Andrew Mumford

On Sunday 26th October British combat operations in Afghanistan officially ended, as Camp Bastion, the last British military base in the country was handed over to Afghan forces. It was fittingly symbolic that only an American general spoke at the flag-lowering ceremony. No British voice was heard. This 13 year-old war had proven to be one of the most complex and protracted wars in modern British military history. The lack of fanfare at the return of British combat troops is a sign that a convincing ‘mission accomplished’ in Afghanistan cannot be claimed. In many ways, for the British and their American allies, this was always going to be an unwinnable war.

Even a cursory understanding of Afghan history would reveal an inherent societal suspicion of outsiders, stacking the odds heavily against external interference. As far back as the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great barely made it out of the Konar Valley alive as he faced vicious indigenous opposition to his army’s presence. Subsequently, the armies of kings, empires and superpowers have all launched operations across the great plains and mountains of Afghanistan. All have failed to achieve lasting results in the face of massive resistance. When the British military deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 is was the fourth time in 170 years that British forces had trod Afghan soil in an attempt to alter the shape of Afghan politics. The past did not augur well for contemporary success.

The International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) strategy in Afghanistan, shaped by America’s post-9/11 priorities, contained three broad goals: prevent the return of the Taliban; eradicate Al-Qaeda’s presence there; and build state political and infrastructural capacity. But the confluence of means and ends proved to be elusive as strategic confusion, resource constriction and political distraction beset leaders in London and Washington and trickled down to commanders on the ground.

The situation on the ground in Helmand province, which came to be the crucible in which contemporary Anglo-American counter-insurgency theory and practice played out, exacerbated these problems significantly. Helmand’s complex conflict dynamic, including fierce tribal rivalries locked in competition for influence and resources, was intensified by the presence of foreign fighters (pre-dominantly Pakistani’s of the Quetta Shura Taliban) and the centrality of narcotics production to the local economy.

Ultimately, British and American strategy in Afghanistan did not adapt to, or adequately reflect, the societal schisms that divide the country. Indeed, the ISAF allies’ perception of the conflict was at odds with how many Afghans viewed the war. As the US and UK espoused talk of state-building at the national level, Afghanistan’s tribal society came to perceive the conflict predominantly through a civil war lens, based on a struggle for tribal supremacy. The foreign military powers became a pawn in a bigger game of inter-tribal chess over which Washington and London could exert little control.

The first few years of the Helmand mission for the British military, beginning with Operation Herrick IV in 2006, was beset by a series of other problems affecting the security situation. The military were hamstrung by a murky intelligence picture and an on-going deficiency in troop numbers. Small operational gains were overshadowed by the obvious fractiousness between the Brits and Americans on the ground. In evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee the former ISAF commander and then Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards admitted that ‘at the lower, tactical level’ the working relationship between the US Marines and British forces in Helmand left him ‘worried’. These insurmountable clashes at the tactical level blunted the efficacy of the alliances counter-insurgency campaign. The utter absence of a ‘special relationship’ at work on the ground in Afghanistan would be one of the most distinguishing legacies of the joint deployment to Helmand.

The British never managed to stamp any real influence on grand strategy for the conflict. London was pre-occupied in the immediate post-9/11 moment with standing in absolute solidarity with Washington over the need to remove terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. This morphed into the British taking the role of acquiescent junior partner in the war, which severely limited Britain’s ability to forge a distinct civil-military approach.

But there was a determination in Whitehall to burnish some sort of counter-insurgency legacy in Afghanistan. In July 2011 Prime Minister David Cameron alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced the establishment of a military officer training academy in Kabul. Dubbed ‘Sandhurst in the sand’, the academy would be run by several hundred UK military personnel who will oversee the training of 1,350 officer cadets each year. The ultimate legacy in the security realm clearly lies with the ability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to keep the Taliban at bay. By the time of Cameron’s announcement there were 159,000 troops in the ANA and 125,000 officers in the ranks of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Yet there remain large question marks over retention rates, corruption levels and the extent of Taliban infiltration throughout the Afghan National Security Forces. The ultimate legacy hangs in the balance and may not be fully evident for some time after the 2014 pull-out of all ISAF combat troops.

Other legacies are, however, open to contemporary scrutiny. Foremost among these is the counter-narcotics strategy that Tony Blair was so eager to pursue back in 2006 when he pushed for British troops to take the lead in Helmand province – home to most of Afghanistan’s 90% global market share of opium. A report by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded in November 2013 that Afghan opium production had reached its highest recorded level, witnessing a 36% increase from the year before. With over 200,000 hectares of land now sown with poppy, the potential yield was put at 5,500 tonnes. Most of this poppy, and indeed the scene of the largest increase in harvesting, was Helmand province. Such news casts a long shadow over the push to win the War on Drugs, as well as the War on Terror, in Afghanistan.

There was unwillingness within the highest echelons of the British military and political establishment to face up to the difficulties of prosecuting a complex counter-insurgency war in a country that had never been successfully occupied by outside forces. Senior British officers were chastened by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in July 2011 for ‘moderating the demands of commanders in the field’ when briefing ministers on the Afghan war. This led to a situation whereby the unwarranted optimism of the highest ranks ‘denied the necessary support to carry out the mission from the outset’. The lack of a consistent campaign narrative and chronic equipment shortages were also factors cited by the committee as failings of the British war effort.

But these failings of Whitehall and military top brass could not account for some endemic problems within the Afghan body politic. The broader counter-insurgency effort, with all its emphasis on building links with local leaders and the wider population, was chronically stymied by the inherent role of corruption across all levels of governance in the country. As a consequence the ability of ISAF nations to effectively fund development projects in Afghanistan was heavily compromised.

140,000 men and women of the British Armed Forces served in Afghanistan. 453 of them never came home. The total cost of operations has been put at £19billion. Afghanistan has been an expensive war in blood and treasure for the UK. But when you’re fighting a wily insurgent enemy, intra-coalition political battles and the weight of history the costs were always going to be high.

 Dr Andrew Mumford is Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. He tweets @apmumford. An edited version of this blog piece originally appeared in The Conversation.

The annual IAPS Tomlinson Lecture titled ‘Humanitarian Landscapes: Deep Lessons from Afghanistan’ will be held on Thursday, 20th November 2014.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons 

Published inAfghanistanConflict & SecurityInternational RelationsTerrorism

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