AFGHANISTAN—WHERE TO FROM HERE?

Canberra, 7 September 2012
Why do people resort to violence to ensure that the ruling entity—whether a monarchy, dictatorship, autocracy or some form of democracy—meets their demands? In most cases the cause of such violence lies squarely with the Government—in its ability or ineptitude to redress the grievances, genuine or otherwise, perceived or actual, that the general population; or in some instances, minorities; have tried to bring to the notice of the authorities. By nature most human beings are patient to a certain extent and are willing to give a chance to the people in power to set right the issues and challenges that affect the common people directly. Resort to violence therefore is an extreme step that, more often than not, brings as much suffering on the perpetrators as the victims. Violence against the state normally starts as sporadic incidents that are mostly localised, are instigated by local issues and therefore are focused on local institutions. However, if the issue at hand is not addressed and remediated immediately and the violence fully contained, these random acts can very swiftly gather momentum to create a domino effect, contagiously spreading across the nation. From this point on it is very easy for the violence to become organised as insurgencies that could, in extremis, lead to civil war and bring upon the population all the ravages of a violent conflict. Afghanistan has been vacillating between full-fledged insurgency and sporadic violence from 2001, when the nominally NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ‘defeated’ the Taliban and dismissed them from government.
Even the most vociferous supporters of the US intervention in Afghanistan will have to accept that after nearly 11 years the campaign has been a failure, in that it has not achieved the primary aims that were espoused at the beginning of the campaign. This has to be viewed in the light of the fact that by August 2012, more than 2000 American soldiers and nearly 1000 from other coalition nations had been killed and there is no accurate count of the Afghan casualties—militants and civilians—brought about through coalition operations, suicide bombings or revenge attacks by the Taliban and other non-state groups. The numbers of Afghan casualties are quoted to be anywhere between 27,000 and 40,000 for the period 2001-2011. After the initial combat operations that displaced the Taliban Government, the US implemented the much touted counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that emphasised the building of a strong central administration and ensuring popular support by delivering services and development. This approach at pacifying a restive State will work only if the local population is willing to accept the emerging socio-economic and political situation and is simultaneously willing and able to spurn the elements within them who advocate a violent response. In turn, the majority non-violent population can only act in this fashion if they have assured protection against the more extreme elements. In the Afghanistan context the Taliban is this extreme element and the coalition forces do not have the ability to ensure complete protection of the civilian population from them. Therefore, the COIN strategy was obviously bound to fail. Military enforced state-building—that is what delivering services are—will only work as long as physical military presence is demonstrated and will collapse immediately on the withdrawal of the military. In Afghanistan, there is the added issue of the Government not being able to enforce their writ even within the capital Kabul, let alone in the outlying provinces. The US COIN strategy has not worked, it was never going to. The idealistic concept of converting the Afghan countryside into safe havens, wherein the local population will defend themselves and prosper, was a Utopian vision never worthy of consideration. State-building through the barrel of a foreign gun will not work, irrespective of the culture, religion, economic condition, political system or the military aspects of terrain, weather, local military forces etc. that prevail in the nation/state where it is being attempted. The past decade of effort in Afghanistan only reinforces this fact as never before.
The issue here is to understand the options available to the local government as well as the aid-providing foreign government to curb and contain violent insurgency within the State. How is the violence to be managed and how are the non-state armed groups to be dealt with in order to stabilise the State? The least strenuous option would be to negotiate and reach a tacit agreement not to escalate the violence, in other words give in to the demands of the insurgents to the extent possible. This would amount to containing the insurgency rather than eliminating it, putting in place a sort of ‘live-and-let-live’ philosophy. This semi-stable situation could subsequently be used as the foundation for further negotiations and has the distinct possibility to improve the long term stability prospects, where the violence does not become overwhelming or uncontrollable. This solution will not work in Afghanistan because the Taliban, the insurgent element in this case, has categorically stated that they would not negotiate with the incumbent Government of Hamid Karzai. However, there is a reluctant acceptance in the Taliban ranks that they need to negotiate with the US in order to establish their credentials and be in an advantageous position for the power struggle that is bound to take place on the withdrawal of the Western coalition forces. The issue in Afghanistan is that violence is just beneath the thin surface of negotiation and it is highly likely that the Taliban will lead the nation into violent civil war as soon as the Afghan Security Forces assume responsibility for national security. Therefore, negotiated containment that brings about a graded and gradual reduction of violence is not an option that will bring any sense of stability to Afghanistan.
In order to be effective, containment as a strategy for violence mitigation requires a consistent and robust State structure with sufficient central control across the entire nation. Central control is a prerequisite because the State must have the ability to enforce its writ and control as and when required so that the insurgent elements can be forced into non-action if it becomes necessary to do so in order to diminish the chances of violence escalation. Neither does Afghanistan have such a State structure or law enforcement establishment at the moment nor is it likely to develop these apparatus in the short time available before the foreign forces commence their withdrawal in 2014. In fact, historically very seldom has Afghanistan been centrally ruled—in the manner that central rule is perceived in the Western world—for the past two centuries and more. If there is lingering belief in some quarters that such a situation, the establishment of a strong centrally controlled rule of law, will come to pass in the span of the next two years, then one is inclined to believe that logical thinking has lost advocacy. Afghanistan will not be centrally ruled, at least for the next few decades, its culture, history and ethos will not permit it. The society is now far too fragmented, the mistrust between the different ethnicities have long since developed into open animosity and the Taliban has not lost sight of the fact that they did indeed rule the country from 1996 till they were ousted by the military power of the Western nations. Memories run deep in this ancient land and violence, individual and collective, continues to be fundamental to the psych of the Afghan people. Even this is unlikely to change well into the future.
The current insurgency, and associated violence, is as much against the foreign forces as against the Karzai Government. The goodwill that was evident in 2003 when the Loya Jirga approved a new constitution for the nation has completely evaporated. This is a fundamental loss in a land known for its fractious nature. The loss of general goodwill towards the Government occurred primarily because the Karzai Government has ignored the provisions of the constitution, which provided for a decentralised administration with local mayors and district and village councils to be locally elected thereby creating a participative management process for local affairs. In a misguided attempt to centralise power, the Karzai government has wilfully opted not to adhere to this requirement laid out in the constitution and appointed mayors and councillors who owe allegiance to the central governmental apparatus. The result has been the alienation of the Government from the ordinary people in rural areas and a complete lack of accountability at the local level of government. The surprising part is that for some unfathomable reason the international community, which has spent billions of dollars and the lives of nearly three thousand of its soldiers in assisting the Afghan Government and attempting to reconstruct the State, has remained silent on this open transgression on the part of the Karzai Government. The constitution has been effectively sabotaged as far as representative rule is concerned. Added to this situation is the endemic corruption that riddles the entire government machinery from top to bottom. Citizens have no recourse to peaceful political choice or to explore avenues that would set right the almost impossibly bad conditions and lawlessness that prevail across the country. Under these conditions it is little wonder that insurgency thrives throughout the nation. Accountability of the administration, read elected authorities, at the lowest local level is the first step towards treating the cancer of insurgency. Unless this is ensured all other initiatives will fail, the insurgency will grow and swallow the entire nation—something that is already happening in Afghanistan.  
The most optimistic take on the future of Afghanistan is for a government in Kabul, presumably not headed by Karzai who has too much ‘baggage’ attached to him and is unacceptable as a national leader to a sizeable part of the insurgency, to arrive at a negotiated settlement—a sort of balance—with the Taliban that will prevent further bloodshed and at the same time avert a return to a central Taliban regime. Such a balance can only be achieved with inferred agreements between all the players who are in the quest for power. The remnants of US military power after the withdrawal of the main body in 2014 will be the key to achieving this balance. Compromises will have to be made by all parties and they will also have to be clear-eyed and pragmatic for the deal to succeed in its entirety. Traditionally deals between Afghan groups have tended to be short-lived and alliances have broken up at the whim and fancy of the leadership. At the same time, the compromise that will bring a semblance of stability to the nation post-ISAF cannot be hammered out in an environment of mistrust between the different parties vying for power. This is a contradictory situation, if ever there was one. Afghanistan is a long way from being healed.
The prime villain in creating this state of affairs and plummeting Afghanistan to becoming a failed state is the inept and self-serving Karzai Government, and by supporting this regime in a blind and unstinting fashion, the US becomes the villain’s primary assistant. The Afghans have almost no control over the so-called elections that have taken place in their country periodically. Therefore, they are not partners in their Government, but innocent onlookers and victims of circumstances with no alternative available. In effect they are reeling under a Government that does not respect the constitution, rides roughshod over the will of the people and is corrupt to the core. Why other nations, purportedly wise and mature, would continue to prop up such a Government defies logic. There has to be local elections in the nation; there has to be an understanding that a top-down autocratic approach does not, and will not, work in a country like Afghanistan steeped as it is in tradition—both social and religious. It is now gradually being accepted in Western analysis that the insurgency is as much anti-Karzai as it is Taliban instigated, may be even more anti-Karzai than the other way round. In this instance there is palpable hesitation on the part of this analyst to term the insurgency pro-Taliban.
If there is a legacy that the Western nations—the directors of this failed 12-year intervention—could leave behind, it should be to get rid of the Karzai Government, arrange for local elections at least in parts of the country where their injunction still hold good, and leave the nation in an embryonic state of reinvigoration, capable of growing into a definable State with the ability to fend for itself. If the existing state of affairs continues to prevail at the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014, civil war of an even greater intensity than the current, already increased insurgency will erupt; maybe within weeks of the withdrawal. The cinders have already been assembled and the flint stones are also ready to light the spark. If the available timeframe—a mere 18 months—is not used carefully to divert and douse the oncoming firestorm a single spark will be sufficient to light up the whole of Afghanistan. It will not be possible to contain this conflagration and when it starts to spread outside the confines of Afghanistan the world will wonder what went wrong, since by all official counts the war is being won by the ISAF. At the end of it all, in some not so distant future, the Taliban will be back in power—after all in the larger scheme of things a few billion dollars, creation of a war zone for more than a decade, combined with the lives of few thousand soldiers and a larger, unaccounted number of ‘locals’ is a small price to pay when the Western forces can now withdraw under the guise of a job well done!           
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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