What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Afghanistan on the Amsterdam Forum

MStFB Afghanistan update
Radio Netherlands' weekly discussion program Amsterdam Forum recently organised a debate with the following premise (a bit mind-boggling in a negative sense): "It seems this is a fight (the fight against the Taliban - P.M.) the West cannot win by force. So, should it struggle on, as it is in Iraq, or change tack? Is it time, as some suggest, to negotiate with the Taliban? What is the best way to bring peace and stability to the country?". In preparation for the July 15 show they even had a text up on the Radio Netherlands site that included a remark on how supposedly it was the Taliban's era that brought the only bright patch of stability in Afghanistan's dark history in the last decades. Well, I can do two things right now in an emotional reaction to that, and I'll do both, just to run the point home. First, here's a link to a very, very relevant post by C on Afghanistanica. Read it. Secondly, now that you have read it you'll easily see what I mean when I'm saying, focusing on Dutch audiences, that for Hazaras, for example, the Taliban era brought the sort of stability that awaited Bosniaks in Srebrenica you-know-when. (I'm making the point that with premises as false as the one just mentioned one cannot get to correct conclusions.)
To start off the discussion in the July 15 show, Amsterdam Forum's moderator Sarah Johnson turned first of all to Afghan MP Malalai Joya, who was as ready as ever to say that the current situation is worse than it was under the Taliban. Having heard her loud and clear, I'm still not sure, though, that she meant there should be negotiations with people related to the Taliban movement so that more of them (yes, already there are some) could in the end be included in the Afghan government (meant by me now as government down to the provincial level), beside her favourite warlords.
Anyway, Ahmed Rashid and Farah Karimi were fortunately there to patiently answer questions from then on, and explain things that apparently do need to be explained, such as 1) no, the insurgents can't defeat coalition forces militarily; 2) no, doing a suicide bombing in the middle of a crowded square is not a sophisticated operation really.
So much for the emotional part of this blogpost, and now I'll move on to providing here a a more or less accurate transcript of a short part of the discussion that is relevant to my Uruzgan Series (one current focus of this site), before some additional remarks to finish off. Do check out the entire discussion by the way (40 minutes long) - use the link I've already included above, or this other, direct one.
Farah Karimi: "I mean the reconstruction and everything which has something to do with development, it's not actually the primary responsibility of the military forces. They are not there, and I am really against that, creating such expectation that military presence could bring reconstruction. Reconstruction and development, this is something that is the responsibility of the Afghan government and of course the United Nations agencies, aid agencies, and NGOs, and the other actually specialised organisations and agencies. And the problem is that because of the failing of creating a secure environment, these development activities cannot take place."
Sarah Johnson (moderator): "But for example the Dutch troops that are there in Uruzgan went over as supposedly part of the reconstruction effort, but they are finding that they are having to take on and fight the Taliban."
FK: "That was actually the reason why I was against this going by the Dutch to the southern part of Afghanistan. I think that the southern part of Afghanistan, Uruzgan, Helmand, and Kandahar, they were not ready to be taken over by the NATO forces. And that's maybe the reason, you know, that we are confused here about the role of the military. The militaries are not there to build up schools - that's the responsibility of the Ministry of Education! And the agencies of the United Nations, to help the Ministry of Education. And creating the sphere, creating the expectation that the military can do it, it's a really-really wrong thing."
SJ: "So, Mr. Rashid, do you think that this indicates a policy failure in Afghanistan, a serious policy failure until now?"
Ahmed Rashid: "No, I think it's been a policy failure because it just hasn't got the attention. I think there are far too few troops in Afghanistan, and that's the first problem. NATO is extremely overstretched - they have not enough helicopters, they've not enough troops. Secondly, there is a big division between those countries who are on the front line and willing to fight, and those countries who see their role as peace-keeping. And peace-making rather than, you know, being willing to fight. The Dutch have a sort of in-the-middle position, but I think the Dutch force that went into Uruzgan really went under false pretenses. The Dutch were told by the Americans that in Uruzgan it's going to be peace-keeping, whereas Uruzgan is one of the main centres of the Taliban, and we've seen, in this recent battle last month (the battle around the town of Chora - P.M.), that Dutch forces were battling up to five hundred Taliban at one point."
SJ: "So are you critical of the mission the Dutch troops went in with then? Do you think there should be more fighting?"
AR: "There should be fighting, I think. I think first of all the Dutch have misinformed probably their own public that there's a peace-keeping role, when they are sitting right in the heartland of Taliban territory. And I think they should be fighting. They should be on the offensive against the Taliban. It's people who've come from Uruzgan who say it's three quarters of Uruzgan controlled by the Taliban. The Dutch are controlling small... the towns where they are based, and a few miles outside, and that's it. Well, you know, that's really not good enough, I mean there's no point in having twelve hundred, fifteen hundred Dutch soldiers there if they are not able to actually control the province and win over the people and drive out the Taliban. Not all of that can be done militarily, but a lot of that initially has to be done in a military fashion."
Having listened to the discussion I think one of the points where Karimi's and Rashid's perspectives turn out to be different is regarding their expectations on whether an increase of the current number of NATO troops is possible/necessary or not. Rashid wants to be critical and wants to tell how things could really be done, whereas Karimi is a human rights activist and will simply not force this can-be-done optimism on herself when that would mean calling for more fighting in fact. So one of them is a bit pretendedly optimistic, and the other is rather deceivingly passive, for want of better words coming to my mind.
Nevertheless they do agree that Afghanistan is lacking the attention it should receive. The main problems, one may conclude with a deliberately Afghanistan-centered, and to a degree narrow-sighted perspective, are that Iraq eats up a lot of money and soldiers, especially from the part of the U.S. (even the better military brains, one has to add), and that Pakistan can't be pressured too much, and definitely isn't pressured very much by the U.S., to do more than just hand over some wanted militants every now and then (so all that's wrong in the south of Afghanistan is of course not all the Netherlands' fault, to say the least, just in case you weren't sure if I may have been making that point up till now). And yet another problematic issue, says Rashid later on, is that despite Europe's actually having the chance to take the initiative in Afghanistan (e.g. by actually providing more soldiers there as we speak, I would add), European countries are playing just a passive role in assistance to the U.S.
Obvious counterarguments regarding the latter point can be that that passivity is currently, in the short run at least, less costly to European countries, and there's less responsibility for them in this setup. And their militaries are also in a rather sorry state, especially relative to the U.S. military, for the kind of operations that any would-be coalition leaders would need to undertake, and the scale on which, and the intensity with which, those would need to be undertaken, in Afghanistan.
Anyway, Ahmed Rashid, too, for his part, made a case for the European approach to change on this occasion again, and I'm just noting this as relevant on my blog.


Bob said...

Radio Netherlands is just like a majority of the media in the Netherlands ruled by left wing defeatest people. Questionning everything the West does an supporting barbaric people in other countries simply because they have this silly notion that all cultures are equal. They are naieve and think everything can be solved by acting like a bunch of spineless weaklings.

The discussion shows the lack of interest and knowledge these people have. It was stated numerous times prior to sending troops to Uruzgan that it would be a very dangerous mission and that there would be fighting and casualties. Nearly all the left wing parties, the press and thus the people who listen to them now scream that it was a strict peacekeeping/reconstruction mission while it was never presented as such by the cabinet.

That there is a shortage of troops is pretty obvious. But the shortage is mainly the Afghan police and army, the former is mostly corrupt and the latter is in such short supply in Uruzgan that places that have been cleared from taliban by Dutch troops need a constant Dutch presence because there is nobody to take over. And with 1500 troops of which maybe half are actual combat troops you can't control an entire province.

Péter MARTON said...

I have to agree. So much that I'll criticise myself now for not mentioning one of the most important points Karimi was making. More should be done to improve and better staff the ANA and the ANP, and that would take off some of the burden from NATO as well (not to mention that that is the only way to a really autonomously functioning Afghanistan in the long run). A shortage of Afghan forces, both police and army, is actually one of the factors affecting the Dutch strategy as well. That's also why I can imagine that the killing not so long ago of Mullah Ahmed Akhunzada in Tarin Kowt must have been a setback, given his influence among all those former militia people in the area.
As to Radio Netherlands, well, I don't want to take a tough stance on them, but certainly it is frustrating to see the way domestic political and media discourse evolves in many European countries. Have I managed to put this diplomatically? Perhaps I shouldn't have.