Guardian: No Nation-Building in Afghanistan!

The Guardian has come out against the current conduct of the war in Afghanistan:

The empty rhetoric has to stop. State-building from the ramp of a Chinook is a fantasy, a folie de grandeur. The war against militants will not be won by expanding the battle-space. The resolution to this “good war” will not come from Kabul alone, but will be dependent on every neighbouring country with a stake in the conflict. The directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence made a telling point to the New York Times yesterday when it warned that a push by US marines in southern Afghanistan would force militants into Baluchistan. We have to stop thinking of Helmand as the frontline in a war that ends on the streets of London or Manhattan, and start thinking of what the growing conflagration is doing to Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. There are no good options after eight years of warfare, only least worst ones. We should stop pouring more oil on to this fire and start thinking of realistic outcomes. And we should be doing this now.

Hat tip: Steve Hynd

The Guardian is the first British newspaper to come out in opposition to current policies, a reversal of editorial position for the newspaper.

Steve Hynd also draws our attention to this alternative proposal from Rory Stewart, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard:

The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer — perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance — not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

Stewart is an authority on Afghan culture and society and has lived there and traveled extensively throughout the region, frequently on foot.

Stewart’s view sounds remarkably similar to my own. Counter-terrorism activities, including preventing Al Qaeda and the Taliban from resuming their control over Afghanistan, are consistent with our interests. A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is not consistent with our interests. Counter-insurgency which requires the possibly unachievable objective of creating a coherent nation state in Afghanistan capable of preventing Al Qaeda and the Taliban from reasserting control over the country, the course on which we are now embarked, is not within our interests because it is probably outside our grasp. The more modest counter-terrorism activities can be accomplished with a signficantly smaller commitment of troops and other resources.

At the very least our policies with respect to Afghanistan deserve serious review. Such a review must go beyond campaign promises and sound bites and hold American interests as the yardstick against which our policies should be measured rather than Republican or Democratic interests or their effect on the next election campaign.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Furhead says:

    … our policies should be measured rather than Republican or Democratic interests or their effect on the next election campaign.

    I take it that you’re an optimist, Dave? 🙂

  2. Brett says:

    If I recall correctly, a very large proportion of the Afghan population, particularly in the south near Kandahar, is located in or around a couple of cities (like Kandahar in the south, and Kabul in the North). If you wanted to cut troop numbers, you could focus on strengthening the government in these areas to the point where they could push the Taliban out of these areas, and then slowly encroach on the countryside.

    Unlike others, I don’t outright dismiss the idea of an Afghan state – for all the talk about how Afghanistan is inherently some kind of chaotic area dominated by tribalism, it’s worth noting that it had a decently centralized government during the Communist Period (one which actually outlasted the Soviet Union’s retreat, until the other mujahideen and ISS-funded Taliban displaced it). Before that, it was reasonably stable under the monarchy. The chaos is mostly a recent event, due to the power vaccuum left in the collapse of the soviet-backed communist regime due to infighting among the mujahideen.

    Moreover, the Taliban are hardly implacable. It’s worth remembering that until the US missed their surrender and left 2,000 Taliban POWs to be massacred by one of the warlords back in 2001-2002, there was actually a point when Mullah Omar and his forces were willing to surrender. Had we not been so clueless at that point and dependent on the warlords, the whole situation might be different.

    As is, we’re stuck.

  3. Triumph says:

    The Guardian is the first British newspaper to come out in opposition to current policies, a reversal of editorial position for the newspaper.

    The Guaridan is so liberal that it makes the National Review seem like the ACLU newsletter.

    The only thing that is clear is that Obama has screwed the entire war up by placating terrorists and weakening our military.

    I would expect nothing less from an Indonesian-born draft dodger.

  4. steve says:

    The geography, population distribution and the culture mitigate against a successful COIN operation. I am leaning more heavily towards a counter-terrorism type approach rather than COIN. At this point, I am not sure we really have enough credibility left to successfully conduct a COIN operation.

    I am hazy on our legal rights to remain in country. If we decide that we want to stay there at 20k troop levels, and Karzai decides he does not want us there unless we are dumping lots of money into the country, would we not be obligated to leave?


  5. Steve Hynd says:

    Triumph, the Guardian has backed the war in Afghanistan for 8 years, because it was a left-leaning Labour-supporting newspaper and backed the Labour government’s still-current policy. Don’t assume that UK politics on the war is a duplicate of that in the US.

    The conservative Daily Mail has editorialised that hard questions must be asked about Britain’s continued involvement in Afghanistan without quite going as far as the Guardian and calling for withdrawal. The conservative Times has re-printed Rory Stewart’s op-ed.

    And it was the Conservative Party who first said the UK should get out of Iraq, back when Labour’s Tony Blair was still saying Britain should stay the course.

    Regards, Steve @ Newshoggers

    PS, thanks for the link, Dave 🙂