Monday, 13 July 2009

Afghanistan is a war, not a country

Afghanistan is a forgotten country.
We all know where it is but most of us forget what it is. To most people, Afghanistan is a war. A policy point. A problem.
US democratisation initiatives try to remind us that Afghanistan used to be a country, that there is future after the war. The problem is, whatever the future holds post-war, Afghanistan has been at war for so long that there is little left that could be called a country and what is still there, is at war.

Where does this story begin? With the Americans arriving five years ago? With the Taliban taking power? With the Soviets? When was Afghanistan not at war? When was it last just a country? And how does this story end?

For many Westerners the war has lost its newness 'oh yeah, that's still going on, isn't it?' is not an uncommon reaction. Yet with more troops pouring into the country than ever before, there is no end in sight. As Afghanistan heads into elections – in a desperate pretense of normality – 4,000 US marines arrived in Afghanistan's troublesome Helmand province a few days ago. This is the biggest offensive since the war began. Surely there are now enough marines on the ground to completely flood Helmand's poppy fields and kill two birds with one stone: chase the Taliban out of the area and end opium production. Regime change and crop change in one fell swoop.

Guns and money should do it.
Guns will drive out the bad guys.
Money will pay for the roads that will allow consumer crops to be taken to market before they rot, pay the blood bondage that keeps many farmers tied to opium barons and pay cash incentives for the switch from the very profitable poppy to something far less profitable albeit more benign.
Guns will persuade the undecided. And the drug barons. Maybe.
Then when Afghanistan goes back to being a country, ideas of social responsibility, legality, social and agricultural development can be debated.
Trying to discuss those now, while the war is raging seems like a cruel joke. Pretending normality is simply lurking, pretending the war has not obliterated everything that used to be Afghanistan, for better or for worse.

Everything apart from the Taliban, that is.

Marines are now combing villages in areas that were until recently held by insurgents. The latest offensive is reputed to have met with little resistance. But that is not because the insurgents gave up. It is because the insurgents slipped away. Again. And the 'boundaries' moved. Again. And the Taliban retreated across the border to Pakistan, again, because Pakistan failed to up numbers and simply deployed the existing, insufficient garrisons. Again.

Same old then?
Well not exactly. There is some variation. NATO has put more emphasis on protecting the locals rather than killing the bad guys on this occasion. If it works, they'll stick with this model. Keeping them alive, you see, is the first step to convincing them we mean well. Next step – which is what the marines are working on now – is to persuade them we really are there to stay, the Taliban are not coming back and it is safe to vote in the upcoming presidential elections. Only problem? It's been five years that the Americans have been fighting the Taliban and, although still 'there' in large geographical terms, US forces have not always managed to successfully hold onto territory. What is now the domain of the marines tomorrow could be back in the hands of the Taliban. So although the marines are promising secure civic participation now, will they still be around tomorrow? Or will the Taliban be back, killing everyone who voted in the election against their explicit warning?
Do that and I'll kill you, say the Taliban wielding their guns. That's pretty persuasive. The Marines' job is to say 'don't mind them, we'll keep you safe'. But how convincing is that?

Captain Bill Pelletier stressed that there had been no civilian casualties or damage to property, no artillery, aerial bombings or other indirect fire in a long time. Read: things are improving. But is this progress enough for the Afghans to believe the Taliban are not coming back? After 5 years of inconclusive confrontations, what would it take for people to believe? And why would people risk their lives to vote in an election that means nothing, as what passes for their country now is a set of half-baked structures propped up by the US? Why risk your life to be a citizen of a war when the very war isn't even yours?

'Afghanistan' is not a country. It is a bloody conflict, a losing battle, shorthand for all the questions US decision makers forgot to ask before engaging.
'On s'engage, puis on voit' didn't work for Napoleon and it didn't work for Bush. So it makes sense if the Afghans themselves are reluctant to put their lives in the hands of US marines who, as an army should, can always resort to a tactical retreat if the Taliban return and things get ugly. This is a war, after all.
Only for some it's also home. Ravaged, unsafe but still home. Tactical retreat is not an option.

The US may be realising this. They have shifted their strategy, confirms military strategist Anthony Cordesman. They now seek to hold onto territory and build lasting security. Right. And what was the strategy before? Lose territory and wreak havoc?

Naturally that's not what Cordesman means. US forces have proved time and again that they can win battles. They have also proved (time and again) that they cannot hold territory or win over and keep the loyalty of the population. They need to provide security, create economic opportunity, minimize Taliban influence and battle the fear of what the Taliban will do to 'collaborators' were they to come back in order to start 'holding on' to what their guns can win them. Then and only then will 'reconstruction' make sense.

This is not rocket science.
We know this. We've known it for five years. We've been talking about it for five years. They have been talking about it for five years. So they have either been lying about their intention to really do it all this time or we need to face the simple fact that they just can't do it. Maybe it just can't be done. Not this way. Not by these people. Not right now.

Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, begs to differ. 'This is a very specific example of fighting for democracy' he told the Guardian. Really?
Whose democracy? Your democracy ain't there and Afghanistan doesn't have a democracy. And that's not the way to get one either. Democracy requires stable institutions and basic freedoms, it can therefore not exist in wartime. It also necessitates grass roots participation and public engagement so it cannot be offered as a gift by an external party. Especially if said external party is wearing camouflage gear.

We occupy land so people can register for the election in August, say the marines. We protect the civilians, even if it means avoiding confrontation with the Taliban.
In other words we fight the war by not fighting the battles. And we play at citizenship, when the country is dormant.

Don't get me wrong. I'd love for the war to stop right now. For all wars to stop right now for good. But what I love and what I know are at odds on this one and what I know is this: you fight a war to win it. Day to day political activity is subjected to martial law and normal liberties are suspended. When you had those to start off with. If you never had them, introducing them during wartime is not stupid. It is hypocritical, a simple case of being seen to be doing something while everything is failing.

Obama has rightly noted that the military solution alone in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. But what he meant was that the military cannot solve the underlying problems the country had before and as a result of the war. He did not mean a non-military solution will solve the problem that is the war. What he didn't say is that the implication of this is that infrastructure development and social healing cannot take place in war time and cannot be carried out by soldiers. Particularly not foreign soldiers.

And herein lies yet another challenge: alongside the 4,000 marines hitting the ground last week there were only 500 Afghan soldiers – a token force if there ever was one. In this war, the Afghans are on the other side or simply on the sidelines, giving the question 'whose war is this' immense poignancy. And while we are focusing on Helmand, the war is raging in the entire country.
'Afghanistan' is still going on. Five years on.

What are the Americans after, what are they fighting for? Does anyone remember any more? The administration has changed, times have changed and what they set out to fight against, fight for has also changed. Yet the war continues and there's no changing the fact that this is the Americans' war. They need to figure out what it is they are fighting for if they are ever going to end it, let alone win it. Democracy and freedom are not theirs to give and they are not why they are there in the first place. Lofty ideals keep troop morale high but values and bayonets don't mix well together.

Afghanistan is a war and it's the Americans war. They should figure it out. They should end it. Then they should leave.
When the soldiers leave, when peace returns, when democracy and liberty become possible even if they remain elusive; when Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans, then it has a chance of being a country again.
Till then, Afghanistan is no country, it is a war and any talk of reconstruction, democratisation and institution-building is simply trying to mask the fact that the war is still going on and it is going rather badly. For all involved.