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 Many important mujahedin leaders were willing to be reconciled with the government as long as the Red Army was withdrawn and, of course, the government made it worth their while.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.