A European option in Afghanistan

What to do in Afghanistan? It’s essentially impossible that there will ever be enough international troops available to mount a huge counter-insurgency effort to crush the Taliban; renewed big-scale civil war doesn’t bear thinking about. And at the moment, much of the international effort there is counterproductive and fairly immoral. Don’t ask me; ask hugely influential counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, who makes the obvious point that air strikes into the Hindu Kush probably aren’t helping win the support of the people.

Surely, what we need is a solution under which a reasonable Afghan government would be left in place, the intrusion of foreign forces, their road convoys, fortified camps, heavy weapons, and inflationary spending removed, and as many pieces of the diverse coalition of forces that make up the Taliban reconciled? Perhaps there is one; but first, it’s necessary to remove some of our preconceptions. Everyone knows about Afghanistan, right? Soviet invasion, daring resistance, Western secret aid, eventual withdrawal in 1989, mujahedin triumph, and then it all goes horribly wrong.

Well, this is actually quite misleading. The war began before the Soviet intervention, and in a sense even earlier, in the form of the bitter internal troubles inside the Afghan communist movement. More importantly, the mujahedin/future civil warriors/further future Taliban didn’t win in 1989. To considerable surprise, they failed to take even one town from the Afghan government until 1992. Many important mujahedin leaders were willing to be reconciled with the government as long as the Red Army was withdrawn and, of course, the government made it worth their while. The ones who fought on only succeeded because all assistance to the Afghan government was cut off at the end of the Soviet Union – which included things like wheat, diesel fuel, cash, and ammunition.

In fact, the withdrawal was about the best idea the Soviets had in Afghanistan. Having decided to go, they pursued a policy of building up the Afghan government, changing the military strategy to one based on defending the bulk of the population (to stop this happening) and leaving the mountain wilds to the enemy, pouring in aid of all kinds, negotiation with those who were willing, and leaving a strong advisory mission in place. Here is a US Army study of the withdrawal (pdf); I should hope we could avoid providing the Afghan police with their own ballistic missiles. Seriously – the Najibullah government insisted on having its own Scuds, and assigned them to a unit of the secret police. They eventually fired over 300 of the things.

But the principles apply quite well. Turn down the intensity of the war. Don’t state an explicit timetable, to retain bargaining power. Pursue population security. Build up Afghan authorities. Deliver aid and a strong advisory mission. Open all-party talks. And start removing foreign combat forces. Interestingly, polls of Afghan public opinion, for what they are worth, seem to suggest this may be a good idea.

According to the US Army study, the continuing assistance to the Afghan government cost the Soviet Union about $3-4bn annually – obviously those are 1989 dollars, but in the light of the huge cost of maintaining manoeuvre brigades in Afghanistan (twice as much as Iraq), that’s got to be better. The Soviet aid airlift consisted of 15 Il-76 aircraft a day; currently about 15 mixed Il-76 and AN-12 head to Afghanistan from the UAE a day from the private sector. You could call it a civilian surge if you like; you could also call it ending the Afghan war, if you’re a German Christian Democrat. Certainly, you’d have to involve Iran from the word go – after all, they have the only railhead near Afghanistan and plan to build the railway on into the country. It could be the shortest way from Europe.

It’s got to beat more wedding parties, with the twist that the Russians get to play politics with every transit shipment. Speaking of Russians, however, the man we want to hear from is Makhmut Gareev, who led the Soviet advisors after 1989. Call it the European option.

11 thoughts on “A European option in Afghanistan

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  2. Speaking as, no, nix that.

    Alex, most of the time I really like your blog. I find them insightful. I learn things. I get new ideas. I change my opinions.

    But too many times your snark … or whatever it is … just confuses your argument.

    This is one of those times. I can guess what it is you’re trying to argue here. I’m 90 percent sure that my guess is right. I’m confused as to why I have to guess at all.

    Am I too American? I get this feeling all the time here, and it perturbs me.

  3. I don’t know if you’re too American, Noel, but well, frankly, on my part, I don’t get where you’re coming from in this issue.

    My impression is that Alex seems to be basically saying that getting out of Afghanistan is a good idea, and recommendable. If you ask me, he’s absolutely right, and it’s not a parochial opinion.

    I know that you have your own experiences from Central Asia. So have some of the rest of us. And I don’t mean to irritate you, but frankly, in light of your views on Iraq, your stated declaration of support for the Afghan quagmire baffles me to no end, and I don’t think that you’ve ever really elaborated it satisfactorily.


    J. J.

  4. I’m not using any snark. Seriously, I’ve been reading up on the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent support for the Afghan government, and I think a policy on those lines is the best option available.

  5. Alex: Here’s where I get confused as to the argument. In the paragraph beginning with “In fact, the withdrawal was about the best idea the Soviets had in Afghanistan,” you appear to be making the implicit argument seems to be that NATO should leave rapidly, and throw money at the Afghan government left behind.

    The next paragraph, however, states that NATO needs to build up an Afghan state before it leaves. Presumably that will take some time. This appears to contradict the implicit argument of the previous paragraph.

    But then the final sentence of the second paragraph calls for starting to withdraw NATO combat forces immediately. That matches the implicit argument of the previous paragraph, but not was stated earlier in the second paragraph.

    At that point, I got lost as to what exactly you were arguing.

    In addition, there’s a deeper source of confusion, which is that by 1987 the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was significantly more developed than the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Its state institutions were far stronger, and the central government had far more control over said institutions.

    Now, I could be convinced that throwing money at the current government might be able to stabilize it and increase its capacity to carry out state functions, but your post didn’t explain to me why I should believe that.

    I could also be convinced that a “decent interval” strategy makes sense (e.g., buying some time before Kabul’s inevitable collapse), but you didn’t seem to be arguing for that either.

    I dunno. I’m honestly not always that quick on the uptake, especially when reading truncated blog posts. But when an argument confuses somebody, it is by definition confusing. Not wrong, not illogical, just stated in a way that leaves a presumably intelligent reader a little lost. I’m a little lost.

    Jussi: I don’t think I ever suggested that Alex was parochial! I often have trouble understanding British blog posts — there’s something about the style that I have trouble following. (I mentioned this to Charlie Stross on another forum; FWIW, I don’t have this trouble with his posts.) So I can’t negate the possibility that there’s a stylistic problem.

    I still don’t understand Alex’s argument. Nor yours, in fact. Again, a “decent interval” argument is entirely defensible; might even be correct, maybe there is no reason to fear the collapse of the current Afghan state. Alternatively, maybe the Afghan state is currently stabler than it seemed to me when I was there in ’06. But both of those should be conclusions to an argument, rather than assumptions upon which an argument can be based.

    In short, I can be convinced that I am wrong. The problem isn’t that I disagree with Alex’s argument; it’s that he seems to assume his conclusion. Emphasis on /seems/; I am operating from the assumption that there is something that I don’t understand.

    BTW, when is TPTM gonna get that Polish history post? Inquiring minds want to know.

  6. About the guest post – I have to say that I’m sorry about the long delay. I’ve had to spend time working on several articles plus one book, and I’ve had some, hm, unexpected problems with my health. But at least some issues are now permanently taken care of, so I’ll see what I can do.

    But anyway. So, the problem with Alex’s post was simply linguistic?

    Still, I should point out that at least I was not suggesting anything that could be interpreted as a “decent interval”. I’m just basically advocating a withdrawal from Afghanistan, because quite frankly, at this stage, I just can’t see any point in wasting any more time over there.

    YMMV, and as usual, I’m merely speaking on behalf of the interests of the country that I live in, and the people whom I know. The various other members of the EU, the NATO countries and the United States are free to do what they want.

    On my part, I’m not sure about your argument. Assuming that I’m interepreting your remarks on stabilization correctly, I take it that you are concerned about possible destabilization after the withdrawal. Also, I suppose that you consider that the United States and the NATO have some responsibility over this matter?

    That’s OK, of course. “Broke it, bought it”-argument is always valid – but then again, unless I’m mistaken, you do not apply this logic to Iraq. Why so?


    J. J.

  7. I actually don’t think there’s a linguistic (stylistic, actually) problem, but I couldn’t rule it out.

    No, I think Alex’s argument is confused. I don’t think that anyone would contest that success in Afghanistan would mean reaching a point where NATO troops could leave and hand things over to an Afghan government capable of containing the Taliban and other AGMs with nothing more than financial help from the West.

    The problem is that the situation appears to be nowhere near that point. The strategy Alex proposes appears likely to lead to the rapid collapse of what remains of the Afghan state. My confusion, however, is that he does not seem to believe that such collapse is not a problem. Therefore, he must believe that such collapse is not likely. But I don’t understand why.

    The question you raise is whether the U.S. and NATO should care whether Afghanistan collapses. That’s an issue probably better discussed elsewhere, no?

  8. Alex argument isn’t confused but you don’t want to see his proposal.

    In 1989 the Soviet forces LOST the war in Afghanistan.
    The DEFEAT of the Soviets allowed the Afghan Communist to make deals with local groups as they shared the same important interests. Deals that couldn’t be made with the Soviets.
    If the USSR wouldn’t have collapsed that it would even be likely that the Communist Afghan government would have won the war and with it all the Soviet objectives of the Afghan war would be obtained.

    Alex proposal is simple that to win in Afghanistan you need to loose something i think he is correct in. Problem is that winning is in itself one of the objectives next to a stable country, no terrorist* basis and a launching platform to attack the region (Last one is obviously a public secret)

    *except naturally those who attack Iranian and Chinese targets but those are not really terrorists because the definition of a terrorist is somebody who attacks us and they don’t.

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