A way out of the Afghan quagmire

October 30, 2009 04:47 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:47 pm IST

The blood spilt daily means Afghanistan is rarely out of the headlines. Fresh attacks, presumed to be by Taliban militants, in Kabul and Peshawar, only increase the pressure on the U.S. and Nato to settle on a new strategy. The proposed options range from a troop surge of 45,000, to a cut and run policy, with numerous prescriptions in between. But there is an alternative approach. It calls for replacement of western forces with an international Muslim peacekeeping force under U.N. control, a focus on training and equipping the Afghan army and police, a new political setup through an intra-Afghan dialogue, and seeking a regional understanding involving Afghanistan and its neighbours as well as other regional and world powers.

Western forces’ foremost problem in Afghanistan - and the reason why a troop surge is untenable - is that they have become part of the problem, so cannot be part of a solution. General Stanley McChrystal’s efforts to change the behaviour of those forces, and their image among Afghans, are commendable. However, as facts on the ground show, it is almost impossible to avoid civilian casualties and rein in soldiers during such fraught operations. Even if troops’ behaviour was to change, however, it would remove only one element of the Afghans’ resentment and would not change their overarching perception. How can he erase Afghans’ historical memory of foreign invasions? How can McChrystal counter the Taliban propaganda that the western “infidel” troops are in Afghanistan because of their animosity to Islam? How can he put an end to conspiracy theories prevalent among non-Taliban Afghans that the US and its allies have let Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar go free and are secretly supporting the Taliban to provide an excuse to stay in the region?

Focus on training and equipping the Afghan army and police is a must. However, we should remember that the soldiers and policemen are also Afghans, sharing other Afghans’ historical memory and concerns. They join the security branches because they need to earn a living. They lack the motivation and the high morale necessary to wage a war against the Taliban, though. This hurdle will remain as long as US and Nato forces are in the country. Withdrawal of those forces without the necessary planning, however, will certainly lead to a quick collapse of the government in Kabul. A cut and run policy would be morally repugnant and politically irresponsible, leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of its warlords. Making it a battleground for the ambitions of its neighbours and regional powers would not only contribute to further misery of the Afghan people, it would destabilise the entire region.

Middle option

Some have advocated a “real and strong middle option” - calling for a small increase to the current level of western troops and a push to “divide and rent the Taliban”, while supporting the warlords and tribal leaders to defend themselves. This option in fact combines the worst of both worlds. It will not lead to peace and stability and will mean the indefinite presence of foreign forces. It is doubtful, moreover, that many insurgents would choose to be “rented”. Even if they did, for how long would the rent last? What happens when the rent is not paid?

It is not a middle way that needs pursuing, but a different way. Replacement of western forces with Muslim troops under UN leadership will prevent chaos and warlordism and provide an opportunity for the training of Afghan forces. It will also open up the way for negotiations with the insurgents, who have refused any talks until the withdrawal of the US and Nato is at least on the agenda. Western decision-makers must start taking this approach seriously - it could be their only path out of the quagmire. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

(Note: Najibullah Lafraie was Afghan Foreign Minister from 1992-1996 and now teaches at the University of Otago, New Zealand.)

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