The discussions on Afghanistan have alternated between 'surge' and withdrawal. But the West should consider a middle path, writes Julian Lewis.
‘We will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people,’ said President Obama in Afghanistan on 1 May; but it is not yet clear what Western forces will remain. This is a crucial consideration – albeit one which a president seeking re-election is unlikely to emphasise.
The British government’s assessment of the Afghan scene is decidedly optimistic. According to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, the surge in ISAF troops and the ‘increasing number and quality’ of Afghan forces have led to major social and economic progress in Helmand Province, and the security situation is ‘unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006’.
There is only one flaw in the current strategy – the belief that, however effective our efforts have been, ISAF really intends to quit. This signals to the Taliban that they will ultimately win, removes their incentive to negotiate a deal, and puts at risk the aims and objectives of our intervention. These are twofold: to prevent Afghanistan being used again as a base for terrorism, and to help neighbouring Pakistan to ensure that its nuclear weapons are kept out of the hands of extremists.
It is fashionable to declare that ‘there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan – there has to be a political solution’ and that we must match our ‘military surge’ with something called a ‘political surge’. Certainly, if the US and UK do withdraw from combat operations according to a pre-announced timetable, the Afghan government will be forced towards a compromise. The Taliban, by contrast, will not. Either they will wait for ISAF to go before renewing their efforts, or they will intensify their attacks in the run-up to the December 2014 exit date, to create the impression that ISAF has been driven out.
Back in 2010, Western strategy was committed to war ‘down among the people’, fighting irregular forces at grass-roots level by conventional counter-insurgency methods. Yet, within weeks of the UK change of government, the British approach had shifted almost 180 degrees. An unrealistic commitment to an open-ended campaign was replaced by an unrealistic commitment to a four-year transition to total Afghan control. The trend has been similar, though not so stark, in the United States.
Until plans are clearly resolved, Western strategy will lack coherence. The choice should not be limited to one between continued counter-insurgency and the total cessation of military activity. There is an intermediate option of containment – by the continued use of one or more strategic bases. This is not a question of building ‘permanent’ bases in Afghanistan. With the full authority of the United Nations, NATO long ago established several, together with the means of supplying them. If ISAF believes that the Afghan National Army can maintain its government in power, then the next stage should be a phased withdrawal of troops into the best protected of these bases. The time will have come for the exercise of power in specialised and selective ways, rather than blanket coverage. This, it seems, is what the Americans are considering.
Redeploying into strategic bases will put the viability of the Afghan government to the test. The longer it survives, the greater will be the reductions in the number of such bases and the size of the deployments within them. Withdrawal into the selected bases will remove the constant irritant of a uniformed foreign presence, thus reducing Western casualties on the one hand and the motivation of Afghans to join the insurgency on the other.
ISAF will also be demonstrating its lack of ambition to micro-manage Afghan society, but it will still have the power to inflict carefully chosen military sanctions in response to any sign of a renewed Al-Qaeda presence in the country connived at by the Taliban.
Western policy should not be characterised by an all-or-nothing approach. The threat from international terrorism is unpredictable and it needs to be counteracted by flexible means. According to Philip Hammond, when asked about American intentions to retain a strategic base, this ‘has been widely reported as a US objective’. The Obama–Karzai agreement falls some way short of confirming this. Yet, only when the Taliban know not to expect total victory, will any political settlement become remotely conceivable.
Julian Lewis MP is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London. His paper, International Terrorism – the Case for Containment, was recently published in the US Department of Defense journal Joint Force Quarterly.