Wind of change in Afghanistan

The annual report for 2010 of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a leading establishment think-tank, raises the prospect of a shift in western policy in Afghanistan. By Paul Rogers, cross-posted from

The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) is one of the world’s leading security think-tanks with a high status in defence circles in western Europe and north America. Its two main annual publications, The Military Balance (an assessment of military capabilities and defence economics worldwide, published in February) and Strategic Survey (a review of global security, published in September) are studied and taken seriously by governments and opinion-formers. The IISS is very much a mainstream organisation, heavily engaged with the defence and security establishment. As such it carries considerable weight.

On 24 May 2004, only fourteen months after the start of the Iraq war, the IISS’s Strategic Survey 2003-04 caused some consternation among the Tony Blair government in arguing that: “…the substantially exposed US military deployment in Iraq represents al-Qaida with perhaps its most ‘iconic’ target outside US territory...Galvanised by Iraq, if compromised by Afghanistan, al-Qaida remains a viable and effective ‘network of networks’”.

This interpretation was not greatly different from analyses by more radical if less establishment sources, some of them presented in earlier columns in this series (see "Iraq in a wider war", 5 May 2004); but the prestige of the IISS meant that it carried greater weight.

This year’s document - Strategic Survey 2010: The Annual Review of World Affairs - is published only weeks before the Afghan war enters its tenth year, has once again caused flurries in government circles.  Its assessment of the state of the conflict in Afghanistan is blunt (see Richard Norton-Taylor, “Al-Qaida and Taliban threat is exaggerated, says security thinktank”, Guardian, 7 September 2010).

The IISS comments: “The Afghan campaign has involved not just mission creep but mission multiplication”; and that “..for western states to be pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan will not be in the service of their wider political and security interests".

At the core of its analysis is the view that: “It is not clear that it should be axiomatically obvious that an Afghanistan freed of an international combat presence in the south would be an automatic magnet for al-Qaeda’s concentrated reconstruction. Al-Qaeda leadership, such as it is, may be quite content to stay where it is, while Taliban leaders who remained in Afghanistan might think twice of the advantages to them of inviting al-Qaeda back after the experience of the last decade.”

To repeat, this kind of assessment is shared elsewhere by more radical analysts; the significance here is the status of IISS in and around the corridors of power. It does not advocate withdrawal of all military forces as the answer, but does point in the direction of a very considerable drawdown as part of substantial changes in overall policy.

The stalled path

Several recent columns in this series have presented the argument that a major rethink on the western security posture in Afghanistan is going to have to come, sooner or later (see "Afghanistan: the fatal error" [24 June 2010], and "The AfPak war via WikiLeaks" [29 July 2010]). Does the fact that the IISS is adding its influence to the call make such a rethink more likely? On its own, it may make little difference, but alongside two recent developments in Afghanistan it may be that a momentum is growing towards that point.

The first is the fact that Afghan government corruption and maladministration is plumbing new depths. Two current examples make the point:

* the forced retiral (effectively sacking) of the deputy attorney-general, Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, with effect from 29 August 2010; this follows his attempt to prosecute senior members of the government, in one of the very few serious recent attempts to stem corruption

*the increasing evidence of illicit accumulation of wealth by figures very close to Afghan's presidemnt, Hamid Karzai (see Andrew Higgins, "Karazi's brother made nearly $1 million on Dubai deal funded by troubled Kabul bank", Washington Post, 8 September 2010).

Afghanistan is now listed as number 179 out of 180 countries for corruption by Transparency International (Somalia is at 180).

The second development is less obvious but may be even more serious. A key aspect of coalition policy in Afghanistan is to reintegrate Taliban paramilitaries by providing them with jobs and other incentives if they lay down their arms. In parallel with increased foreign forces and extensive military campaigns in the Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, reintegration is an essential part of Isaf’s work if it is to succeed.

What is becoming clear is that the policy is in serious trouble, with very few paramilitaries coming forward in March-August 2010 (see Rod Nordland, “Lacking Money and Leadership, Push for Taliban Defectors Stalls", New York Times, 6 September 2010). In the period from September 2006 to February 2010, the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Commission reports that 9,000 Taliban offered to change sides. That may be something of an exaggeration, but in any event since April 2010 barely a hundred have switched. There has been generous funding for the programme, with around $100 million from the United States and $150 million from several other countries including Germany, Britain and Japan; but the majority of it is simply not being spent because of numerous problems in organising reintegration facilities and encouraging paramilitaries to take part.

When General Stanley McChrystal took military command in Afghanistan on 10 June 2009, he argued for a programme to “offer eligible insurgents reasonable incentives to stop fighting and return to normalcy”. The defence secretary Robert Gates argued similarly in congressional hearings; and reintegration remains a key part of the policy of McChrystal’s own replacement, General David Petraeus (see "Afghanistan: the impossible choice", 1 July 2010).

The next step

The blunt truth is that it is scarcely happening - and that this calls into question any notion that real progress in curbing Taliban influence is being made. The indications even from high-level United States military commanders in Afghanistan seem to confirm this (see Julian E Barnes & Matthew Rosenberg, "Petraeus Expects Sustained Violence", Wall Street Journal, 8 September 2010).

The core reality is that at heart, reintegration is not about patrolling, fighting, using drones, air-strikes or artillery. It is not really about direct military action of any sort. What it is about is conducting civil operations that, if they are proved to work, can actually be represented as at last making progress towards stability.

That such reintegration is not working is an important detail in itself. It is also revealing of Nato/Isaf's overall Afghan predicament, and reinforcement for the more general critical analysis produced by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. In public, there is no change in western policy. In private, the situation may be different. The implication of the latter would be that at some time before March 2011 clear signs of a radical reassessment of western military policy in Afghanistan will at last emerge. If that happens, then IISS will have played a small but significant role.