In two scathing op-eds today, the conservative Daily Mail set out a framework for British conservative thinking on the ongoing Afghanistan occupation which is seriously at odds with their American cousins.
Former Mail editor Andrew Alexander gets the ball rolling with an op-ed entitled “Have we done ANY good in Afghanistan?” He reminds us all of the original mission and describes the war as “unwinnable”:
If you have any doubts about the defeat the Nato alliance has really suffered, you have only to recall the purpose of this American-led and American-inspired operation. In the wake of the savage terrorist attack of 9/11 by Al Qaeda — the enemy of the U.S. rather than Britain — the Afghanistan operation was launched with specific aims.
They were: to overthrow the Taliban, eliminate Al Qaeda, kill or capture Osama bin Laden, wipe out the terrorist training camps, destroy the opium trade and provide for an effective and democratic government.
Not one of these has been achieved — except perhaps the removal of the Taliban government in Kabul itself. Otherwise, that movement is now much stronger, having been joined by jihadists from other parts of the Muslim world. The training bases have simply been moved to neighbouring Waziristan, Pakistan’s wild west frontier.
Osama bin Laden and his followers remain at large. The opium trade flourishes even more mightily than before. The government of President Karzai is totally discredited and almost powerless outside the capital, or perhaps even in it.
Worse, Pakistan has been drawn into the conflict and made even less stable than before. Its old hostility to India has been revived through terrorist attacks. And Britain has been placed on almost permanent alert against internal attack. A more comprehensive tale of woe would be hard to imagine.
The echoes of Vietnam remain strong. Washington claimed a series of military victories and held frantic negotiations with the foe for any excuse to leave without too much ignominy. Great faith was supposed to be placed in the South Vietnamese forces the Americans had built up to take over the struggle. The process still culminated in a total defeat for the U.S.
The reality was that the Americans had got themselves into an unwinnable war, as they and we have in Afghanistan, and for much the same reasons. If defeated in battle, the insurgents can fade into the civilian background.
That’s a powerful narrative for the Tories: that Afghanistan is really America’s war and that Labour got Britain involved through a poodleish devotion to Bush’s adventurism rather than through real commitment to Britain’s national interest. It worked well for the themon Iraq, where it was conservatives who opossed the lengthy occupation while Blair’s center-left party supported “staying the course” – an exact turnaround on the US political dynamic. Nor does it particularly matter, in terms of domestic vote winning, that it be true. What matters is that it wins voters to the Conservative banner.
As an aside, I bet by now US Republicans are regretting that it was their guy who started both wars – if not for that, Republican support for ongoing occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan would be as solid as it was for Clinton’s interventionism in the former Yugoslavia, you can guarantee it. Unfortunately for them, they’ve painted themselves into a corner of supporting Obama’s decision to double down in Afghanistan. Thus they find themslves making common cause with neoliberal interventionists who, for domestic political reasons, would have decried what Obama is now doing in Afghanistan if it had still been Bush doing it instead. Ah, the dishonesty of partisan politics.
But back to The Mail. Even more influential than Alexander is Max Hastings, a one-time member of Margaret Thatcher’s inner circle. In his column today he argues that Obama is dithering and that the UK must urge a break from American policy in order to construct a viable exit strategy which doesn’t currently exist.
The most important audience David Miliband hopes to reach with yesterday’s speech is in the White House. Since his inauguration, President Obama has declared his commitment to Afghanistan. But more than six months later, his administration still lacks a plausible plan for salvaging the country.
The British believe that, while foreign troops are essential to deny territory to the Taliban, only politics can produce a lasting settlement. But the Americans have wobbled and dithered about how to handle the Afghans.
They refuse to pressure President Hamid Karzai, as the British are convinced he must be pressured, to bestir his feeble government. They decline to threaten Karzai with sanctions for his regime’s chronic corruption.
There is little coordination between the State Department, U.S. Army and other agencies involved. Confidence has waned in the President’s special representative for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, who waffles rather than acts.
The new U.S. military commander, General Stan McChrystal, will shortly deliver a situation assessment to Washington. This will be bleak. The Taliban now controls about one-third of the country, one-third is disputed, and only one-third is government-controlled.
… But most of McChrystal’s ideas about the way forward seem to focus on incentivising farmers rather than reconciling the Taliban.
The British are convinced that the war can be won only by pursuing a coherent, determined twin-track solution: to fight the Taliban where they insist on fighting, but offer generous incentives to those willing to quit.
‘It’s a scandal that after seven years of insurgency, there is still no route for fighters who want to lay down arms to do so,’ says a Nato policymaker.
‘There should be posters in the streets promising cash to anybody who abandons fighting, stickers on our vehicles giving phone numbers to ring, then jobs for life.’
The Taliban is not a single, integrated ideological movement. It is a loose confederation of regional networks – mafia brotherhoods, if you like – rooted in personal relationships and local power structures. Some fighters are defending the opium trade, some support local warlords, others have grievances against the Kabul government. Many are hired guns doing it for the money.
‘If the Taliban can recruit fighters by paying farmers $10 a day,’ says a British officer, ‘why shouldn’t we pay them $11 to work for us? You can buy a lot of loyalty out there.’ The money is sitting there waiting to be spent – tens of millions of Japanese aid cash – if only the machinery is set in motion.
…Bribery is much cheaper than Hellfire missiles, dead and maimed British and American soldiers.
The challenge is to persuade just enough Afghans, in the Karzai government and around the country, to share power, to do almost anything they choose except offer Al Qaeda sanctuary. The shortage of plausible Afghan politicians and administrators is a bigger impediment to peace than lack of Chinook helicopters.
The main reason Obama isn’t actively pursuing such a bribery strategy, which worked well to tamp down violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, is that General Petraeus doesn’t think it would work, and believes there’s no such thing as a “moderate” Taliban. And in American foreign policy, what Saint David wants, he gets. That’s hardly surprising when he’s astutely worked both the neoconservative and neoliberal interventionist camps into supporting his ascendancy, with a particular success in co-opting the neolib Center for New American Security – which has in turn provided the Obama administration with many of its foreign policy and military strategy heavy hitters. Petraeus and the COINdinistas are focussing on building up the Afghan security forces – at a bill to US taxpayers of at least $80 billion over the next decade – and are being backed by interventionists from both parties. However, as Alexander notes:
Much faith is placed by the alliance in the Afghan army which it is training. But to whom will such an army owe its allegiance? The country is essentially tribal. Various warlords are regularly at odds with each other and they now compete for the opium crops which command such vast sums of money. How long the Afghan national army which we are creating remains national is an open question.
Hastings and Alexander are paving the way for a UK conservative break with Petraeus’ COINdinistas and their thirty year occupation. Hastings ends his piece.
Michael Semple, perhaps the foremost foreign expert on the country, wrote recently of the Kabul regime: ‘Afghans tend to find most state institutions remote, hostile, unreliable and ultimately illegitimate.’
If this remains true, we shall not win. It seems crazy that President Karzai and his followers do not themselves recognise the problem, and respond to it.
Almost everything Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in Brussels yesterday was sensible and true. Unless the Americans bestir themselves quickly, unless reconciliation between the Afghan factions can be begged or bought, the country will dissolve into anarchy.
This will be a shocking blow to Western prestige, the stability of Pakistan – and the real interests of the Afghan people, few of whom want a return of Taliban Islamic tyranny.
The war in Afghanistan is not as futile as many British people today believe. But it has been conducted with a political incompetence that mocks the sacrifice of our soldiers.
We might have just one more chance to get things right. But unless the key players – above all Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai – galvanise themselves, the game will be over and we shall have lost.
The Mail‘s editorial crystallizes the narrative around a simple phrase: “We didn’t know what we were getting into, and as a result we had no plans for getting out.”
At the moment, the UK Conservative party’s foreign policy leaders are staunchly neocon, and seem to have the backing of the party’s head, David Cameron. But there are older and wiser heads, like Hastings and former foreign secretary Malcolm Rikin who would like to see that change. As the race to the next general election begins in earnest, Afghanistan is going to be a wedge issue where the incumbent Labour Party are commited to staying with the US’ course even when they differ on implementation. The Conservative Party, which after all is the party of opposition, are going to be under pressure to break with that, assert British independence from America and call for a withdrawal timetable and exit strategy. Cameron is a shoo-in to be the next Prime Minister and if the Daily Mail’s columnists and other influential Tory voices get their way, that’ll be all she wrote for UK involvement in Obama’s Petraeus-led open-ended COIN colonialism.
Across the other ocean, it’s the liberals who are seeking to make a break with support for US interventionism. AFP reports that the probable next leader in Japan is looking to break the dog-leash too.
Japan’s opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama, seen as the likely next premier, said Wednesday he would early next year end a naval support mission backing US-led forces in Afghanistan, media reported.
“Our basic stance is not to extend it,” the president of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was quoted as saying by Jiji Presswhile he was campaigning for the August 30 vote which his party is widely tipped to win.
This can only hasten the Americanization of the conflict.
Steve Hynd is an expat Scotsman living in the USA who blogs under the pseudonym Cernig. Originally published at Newhoggers under the title “UK Conservative Paper Breaks With Af/Pak ‘Stay The Course’ Consensus.”