seeking clarity

Well, this is pretty repellent. As Jamie Kenny says, how do you define “Taliban”, and who is it whose “unconditional surrender” you want to secure? Further, how are you going to get that battleship to Quetta? He’s also here, again attacking anyone who doesn’t actually want continuous war, and suggesting a major land reform. No pressure, like. Incredibly, I’ve yet to find which wanktank he’s affiliated with.

On the other hand, here’s Dan Hardie, interviewing Tory MP Adam Holloway, who appears to be sane.

When it most recently enjoyed peace, under King Zahir Shah, it was as a loosely-governed assortment of ethnic groups, where the Kabul government made deals with different local leaders. This, says Holloway, is what “everyone who knows Afghanistan well is saying” – and the war can only be limited by making those deals again….

The Indians are certainly funding projects on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and have consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. But they might reply that Pakistan, and above all the ISI, is running a guerrilla war in Indian Kashmir and funding terrorist attacks on Indian cities. There needs to be huge Western pressure on both countries to abandon their proxy wars and reach an understanding, says Holloway. “But I’ve not heard of such an effort.”

Read the whole thing.

Kashmir – it’s the thinking man’s Palestine. More seriously, I think this gets to a crucial point in the debate about Afghanistan. Much of what is said and written about it is a conflict between rival ideal images that don’t necessarily bear much relationship to reality.

For example, “counterinsurgency” is taken to mean a massive, nation-wide effort to implement a population security strategy from the Iranian border to China and incidentally transform Afghan society at all levels. Further, this supposed strategy is identified with Barack Obama, the US Democratic Party, Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. “Taliban” is taken to mean a united, monolithic, Afghan, Islamic movement something like the North Vietnamese Army. “Counterterrorism” is taken to mean some sort of tactical policy of air raids looking for Al-Qa’ida members, and is the only alternative to “counterinsurgency”. And that’s the same thing as Joe Biden and some Republicans and army officers.

“Peace”, for some people, means total disengagement from Afghanistan come what may, and for Matthew Partridge, the same thing as the journalistic shorthand version of “counterinsurgency”. Of course, it’s one of the functions of language to smooth over the complexity of reality so that it’s even possible to debate things; but I can’t help but think that a lot of this approaches zero information content.

An unkind reading of Ahmed Rashid’s view would be something along the lines of “it’s the diplomacy, stupid” – the Taliban movement is essentially just an aspect of Central Asian diplomacy and Pakistani internal politics. Fix the regional politics, and the problem will go away. I suspect he is right in that the Taliban serves the interests of the ISI, and if it didn’t exist, all other things being equal, they would have to create something like it. But I am suspicious of how little agency this view allows the people, and also how little account it takes of their internal political diversity. What evidence is there that the genie will get back in its bottle? To be clear, I don’t think this is a fair reading of Rashid – but I think it’s a dangerous edge-case, especially as it offers a short cut to getting out of Afghanistan.

What do we know? First of all, we know that there is scope for a Taliban movement, or another guerrilla movement founded in (mostly) Durrani Pashtun interests and refugee camps, with Pakistani support and perhaps with a Wahhabi ideology, to operate in much of Afghanistan. Obviously. Secondly, we know that a lot of Afghans won’t accept that and will fight against it. Thirdly, we know that without a settlement of the regional political issues, major powers will take sides – Pakistan backing their friends, Iran backing theirs, Russia and the ‘stans backing theirs. So the potential for a repeat of the civil war is there.

Fourthly, we know that it’s not impossible for there to be peace and a modicum of secular life and economic development in Afghanistan. It happened before, just as war happened before.

On the basis of this, what can we conclude? First of all, let’s forget the vision of an Afghanistan-wide counterinsurgency – not only does nobody actually propose this, it’s not desirable or feasible. Let’s also get rid of the false opposition between that vision and just dropping bombs on “terrorists”/weddings in the wilds. We had a look at that strategy in 2006 – that was, after all, what the CENTCOM elements not controlled by ISAF did in southern Afghanistan, and the result was a semi-Taliban zone, a lot of civilian casualties, and practically no information about what was happening there.

And further, let’s not imagine that education, women’s rights, development, etc are going to be brought about on the battlefield. This was always wildly disingenuous. If these things happen, they’ll happen one bedroom and building site at a time – through development, really. That means above all, the prevention of renewed civil war, a government that isn’t actively hostile to them, and practical international assistance. Those are dependent on a political fix (perhaps starting here), continued aid, and a deterrent to any side in the conflict trying to take Kabul or decisively change the balance of power.

I’d really like to know how many of the people (like Partridge) who want to Stay the Course have any commitment to the boring and unwarry business of aid, which is unlikely to get them on the British American Project. A similar point is made here.

Really, the right parallel probably isn’t Lebanon, as Afghanistan and Pakistan, although as this piece makes clear, there’s a possible read-across. This is sensible; this is interesting if optimistic. Spencer Ackerman points out that one Pakistani incentive for making a deal is not having to fight through North Waziristan.

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