Elizabeth Pond Blog

Losing Afghanistan

Who lost Afghanistan? President George W. Bush, by hubris? Gen. David Petraeus, by his faith in counterinsurgency doctrine? Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose clan skimmed off fortunes from the 90 percent of the Afghan budget funded by the West? Warlord brigands and drug mafias? Pakistani manipulators of jihadis?

According to Ahmed Rashid and US Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the answer is perhaps all of the above. Rashid, a Pakistani, is dean of all journalists who ever covered Afghanistan. Eikenberry was an ambassador to Kabul after an earlier tour as commander of the NATO-led forces there.

To be sure, neither Rashid, addressing a rapt audience at the Berlin Literary Festival, nor Eikenberry, writing in the current Foreign Affairs, ever concedes that Afghanistan is “lost.” But the pessimism of both seeps through the pores of their rhetoric as they anticipate the withdrawal of Western combat troops from Afghanistan next year.

“The media are constantly writing about the transition from Western forces to the Afghan army,” begins Rashid, and chides his guild for its fixation on this military issue. “We should ask [instead], will there be a transition from war to non-war? A peaceful political transition? That is the critical transition.”

Rashid’s assessment is not reassuring.  American commandos were greeted with smiles and joyful kite-flying as they helped the Afghan Northern Alliance liberate Kabul from repressive Taliban rulers and Al Qaeda militants in the wake of 9/11, he notes. But Washington squandered its good will thereafter. It failed to find the right local partners to convert military security into fair governance. It overextended itself by launching another foreign land war and redeployed GIs from the Afghan to the Iraqi theater prematurely. As American troops were thinned out in Afghanistan, the Taliban seeped back from sanctuaries in Pakistan. Afghan villagers once again had little choice but to resort to regional militias for protection.

In the last four or five years the popular euphoria has evaporated. What remains is the traditional gap between city and countryside, along with familiar widening resentment of foreigners who were originally called in to bolster allied Afghan factions but eventually distorted local power relations with their alien wealth.

Eikenberry concurs in this thumbnail history. Formally, his critique addresses only the two-year “surge” of American forces in Afghanistan that ended last December after tactical success but ultimate strategic failure. Yet by implication, Eikenberry turns his narrow reckoning with his never-named nemesis, Gen. David Petraeus—the political high-flyer who recycled counterinsurgency (COIN) theory from the Vietnam War—into a broader deconstruction of America’s whole military-oriented approach in the Hindu Kush. “COIN failed in Afghanistan,” he declares.

In essence, Eikenberry’s words are a more polite rendering of outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ outburst in telling West Point cadets that any future defence secretary should “have his head examined” if he again sent “a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa.”

There were “three crucial assumptions” in COIN theory, Eikenberry writes. The NATO-led intervention forces should  (a) protect local populations long enough to produce (b) an accountable government, by (c) devising a joint plan with the host-country government to effect such a transformation. All three assumptions proved to be unfeasible, in part because of the hubris of expecting the “typical 21-year-old marine [who] is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law” to “do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal elder.”

Rashid, who notes in answering a question from the floor that he has read Eikenberry’s article, seconds the diplomat-general’s sentiment. He formulates his own trio of crucial steps that must be taken in Afghanistan to ward off a reversion to the two decades of civil war that preceded Western intervention. The war-distorted Afghan economy should be shifted “to create indigenous local economy which could offer young people employment.” A regional agreement should be reached that would give the country’s powerful neighbours a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. And there should be serious negotiations with those elements of the Taliban who might still be willing to reach a ceasefire.

Rashid holds out some hope that civil war can be averted. “Afghanistan isn’t a basket case,” he declares. It has good agriculture and a rich store of minerals. It still has a chance, however slim, to produce a legitimate government in next year’s presidential election.

And, he adds, “I have a great belief in the Afghans’ capacity to overcome enormous obstacles…. Everybody has a share of the blame [for what has gone wrong]….But I still believe, if the negotiating states stay engaged in a meaningful way”—and the West continues to fund health, education, and other social programs in the country that it has already supported with $5 billion—”Afghanistan could get on an even keel.”

If so—a very big if in both Ahmed Rashid and Karl Eikenberry’s judgment—no one will have lost Afghanistan.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author.

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