MILIBAND ON THE AFGHANISTAN SITUATION: A COMMENT
"It is vital that we start by understanding the nature of the enemy – the insurgency we face. It is easy to brand the insurgency under a single label: ‘The Taliban’. The reality is more complex. And it requires our countries to work with Pakistan as well as Afghanistan....
In Afghanistan the southern insurgency is led by members of the former Taliban government. It has the largest number of fighters and the most hierarchical and well organised leadership under Mullah Omar. It is these people against whom British and American forces have been conducting major operations in the last few weeks....
The nature of the insurgency gives it some advantages and it’s important to be clear about them. The different groups can feed off and support each other - providing suicide bombers, training or equipment. The autonomy of local commanders makes their groups resilient, even when their superiors are killed or captured. And strong bonds of local and tribal loyalty make it easier for them to rally people against outsiders.
But as well as these advantages, it’s important to recognise their disadvantages too. The insurgents’ vulnerabilities are very clear.
The insurgency is a wide but shallow coalition of convenience: an amalgam of groups with different motivations and power centres. So they are divided.
The Taliban are the largest element of the insurgency but, because they exploit predominantly Pashtun communities and sentiment, their support base is limited to the Pashtun districts of the south and east, and to the Pashtun pockets in the north and west....
That shield today comes in military form from a partnership of international and Afghan forces. Over time, the military shield is going to have to be provided increasingly by Afghan combat troops.
But the shield must also be delivered by a clear political strategy, because strategic progress relies on undermining the insurgency through local politics. Three political challenges – that address the causes, not just the symptoms of the insurgency – will shape the future of Afghanistan.
First, a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation. That means in the long term an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, which draws away conservative Pashtun nationalists - separating those who want Islamic rule locally from those committed to violent jihad globally - and gives them a sufficient role in local politics that they leave the path of confrontation with their government.
Second, a political strategy for the wider population, through reassurance about their future. NATO needs to show the Afghan people that we will not abandon them to Taliban retribution; that our forces will stay until Afghan communities can protect themselves, but no longer than we are needed. And, as we transfer responsibility to Afghans and withdraw our troops from combat, the international community will continue to help Afghanistan – one of the poorest countries of earth - with aid and training.
Both of these tasks, the first two political challenges, depend on credible, clean local government at provincial and district level that works with the grain of tribal Afghan society....
That a meaningful package of incentives and sanctions can be developed to support reconciliation and reintegration. It is only with political will that genuine progress will be made in rooting out corrupt and incompetent Ministers at all levels of government; and that district by district, province by province, the Afghan Security Forces take on responsibility for security. And it is only with political will that the Afghan Government will succeed in deepening their cooperation with the Pakistani Authorities....
That is why my argument today has been about the centrality of politics. People like quoting Clausewitz that warfare is the continuation of politics by other means. But in Afghanistan, we need politics to become the continuation of warfare by other means.
We will not force the Taliban to surrender just through the force of arms and overwhelming might. Nor will we convert them to our point of view through force of argument and ideological conviction. But by challenging the insurgency, by dividing the different groups, by convincing the Afghans that we will not desert them to Taliban retribution, and by building legitimate governance especially at the local level with the grain of Afghan society, the Afghan government, with our support, can prevail".
British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary of State, David Miliband, 27 July 2009, in www.fco.gov.uk
"The aim of war should be the what its very concept implies - to defeat the enemy".
Karl von Clausewitz, On War 1832.
British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband's speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on Monday has garnered a lot of attention. Rightly so (see: "UK urges fresh effort to split Taliban," 28 July 2009, in www.ft.com). The issues that he raises have been discussed previously and indeed in this online journal and elsewhere. What he proposes to do is on the surface part and parcel of classical counterinsurgency strategy as first formulated by Field-Marshal Sir Gerald Templer in Malaysia in the 1950's. Aka: endeavor to peel off, as much of the opposition as possible, and, concentrate militarily on the rest. However this type of strategy works best when the 'core' opposition is a small or smaller national or religious grouping. `A la the Chinese in Malaysia or the Sunni in Iraq. The situation in Afghanistan is quite different: the insurgency centers on the Pashtuns who are the largest (40%) national grouping in the country. And, historically speaking the most important. It is all well and good as Miliband says (correctly) that:
"Afghanistan needs a political strategy to dismantle the insurgency’s power base. Afghans need effective governors and district leaders and local governance that works with the grain of tribal structures and history. An inclusive political settlement must bring in conservative Pashtuns and separate them from the hard line Taliban, who must be pursued relentlessly".
David Miliband, "How to help the Afghans defeat the insurgency," 26 July 2009, in www.ft.com
The key issue is that unless and until there is a change on the battlefield itself, in which NATO forces have clearly turned the tide, there is little prospect for the success of Miliband's political strategy. Indeed, it could very well be the case that the Taliban, their supporters and neutral Afghans themselves, will see this tactic as simply a means of arranging for a 'political solution', in which to allow for an early exit for NATO forces. Consequently, the end-result will be negative rather than positive in terms of endeavoring to push on for a military victory. Unfortunately, right now, the key is to contribute more men and material and grind down, in attrition warfare the Taliban. More unfortunately still, the example of Malaysia shows that this policy will take upwards of five or more years to succeed. Nothing else at this point however will work. To pretend otherwise is merely a pretence and a preparation for a policy of 'scuttle'. But, as Clausewitz once said: "Like everything else in life, a military operation takes time".