Adam Holloway is Conservative MP for Gravesham, a member of the defence select committee and a former soldier who has served in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Last year he wrote this paper for the Centre for Policy Studies on Afghanistan.
"Strategic Failure" is no longer an option in Afghanistan, it remains the likelihood. Despite the brilliance of General McChrystal, the strategy is incomplete.
The recent Operation "Moshtarak" in Helmand is an allegory for so much that has gone wrong with the NATO deployment. The word means "togetherness" in Dari, the langauge of Afghan northern ethnic groups. The people in the south mostly speak Pashto. Dari speakers are outsiders to the deeply traditional people in these southern rural areas, as are the tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers overridingly from northern ethnic groups that range with us across the territory – and what we call the Taleban have mostly just melted back into the population.
It is almost as if the international community has come to resemble a sort of self-licking lollipop – a multi-trillion dollar machine that feeds only on itself. An alien confection that works against, not with, the grain of Afghan society. These old Bush-era mantras remain, and steely eyed killing machines obscure steely realism.
What we call "The Taleban" are in fact hundreds of groups, most of whom are no more than traditional Afghan Muslims, the sons of local farmers. The same was true when I spent time there in the 1980s, but then I travelled with what we called "The Resistance". Then as now, they are united not by Islam, but the presence of foreign troops in their areas, and hatred government external to their local areas. Deadly ideological extremists are the smaller but growing part. Somewhere around 80% of enemy dead die within 20 miles or so of where they live: does that tell you something about who we are really fighting?
When I rather cautiously walked round Helmand’s main town in 2006 there was no insurgency. Last year I again risked it, but I will not do so again. We have built an insurgency against ourselves and the Afghan state, which we can never hope to completely defeat – it is just too late. By focusing on Iraq after the brilliantly executed invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we lost a huge window of local goodwill to develop the country, and our military presence since has only fuelled insurgency. If we get it right, we might now just be able to get back to the sort of conditions that prevailed before the arrival of foreign troops in force in 2006, and thereby take it to a level that might be managed in the long term.
We can only do that by separating the ordinary people and non-ideological fighters from the hard-core Taleban. There are four main components to this. Firstly, the Karzai government has taken the West for a ride. We don't need to somehow replace Karzai (and that would mean real trouble) but we do need to ensure that he is given the good news that unless he gets a tolerably functioning technocratic government in place then he must be replaced by any legal means with some sort of Government of National Unity. What we are doing is a big enough call, the more so if we are propping up crooks: the Afghan people are not stupid. The key element to any success in the insurgent Pashtun areas is deal making – there needs to be a credible central negotiating partner for "the Taleban" groups to talk to: he and the brother he has appointed to do this job are not that.
General McChrystal and his people talk a lot about "Reintegration", but this is essentially forcing and encouraging people to come back to the side of the Afghan government. This is different from the second key point which is "Reconciliation". Like it or not, the Afghans we have been fighting – virtually all of them – have a place in Afghanistan's future. Making deals with tribes, sub-tribes, villages, networks, even up to the gates of wherever Mullah Omar now hides. This would involve football pitch sized hangars of hundreds of analysts and Afghans looking at the provinces right down to district and village level mapping personalities, motivations, tracking and listening to calls, abstractly to the point of who smiles at who – so that we would know who controls and wants what.
We'd then need credible negotiators to get out on the ground and talk to them. I have not been able to pick up whether or not this is being done in the sort of order needed: certainly, some of the absolute experts in this field are not being used. Perhaps it is too difficult politically in our relationship with President Karzai, so we are allowing him to keep this to himself using his own people to his own purposes: this is not trustworthy or going to work. If we could do this properly, we really could separate a large part of the insurgency from the leadership in Pakistan.
Thirdly, Pakistan is the heart of the insurgency. Whatever the Pakistani political class tell us, elements of their Inter-services Intelligence would prefer chaos in Afghanistan, or a Taleban government, than an Afghan Government like Karzai's that is pro-India. They see everything through the prism of a future war with India, and the danger of a pro-Indian country to their West. Unless gigantic pressure is put on the Indians and the Pakistanis, the Taleban leadership in Pakistan will remain physically comfortable, in command, communicating, and able wait out the collapse of public opinion in the West without any pressure on them to make a deal.
So finally, we are left with what we are told is the solution to our problem, our Exit Strategy: a strong Afghan National Security Force, and yet more NATO "military operations". It sounds great on the floor of the House of Commons, and even hardened BBC correspondents can be heard parroting the line. Alas, what this really means a large army mainly composed of Afghans from the northern Tajik ethnic group replacing us in the South and the East. Such an army may not be foreign, but these people are complete outsiders to the ethnically Pashtun villagers. Heaven knows what the this week "liberated" people of Marjah make of the new arrivals – Afghan and British – in their town. This is like there being an insurgency in Wales, and having a Scottish army with some Welsh officers imposing the will of a British Prime Minister from a gangster family. Do we first create an insurgency, then fund a large army of an alien state to fight it?
But mostly we hear about is troop numbers, extending the unwanted writ of the Afghan Government – like they are the answer. Some weeks ago I asked a former friend of both Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar if more troops, holding more places really was the answer:
"More casualties, more economical cost to you – which is what Osama wants, more disorganisation in your chain of command, so more Afghan casualties, more reaction from the population, more perception of occupation, and anyway more will never be enough."
There is no perfect answer – it is all about reducing the insurgency to a manageable level, and that is done by local politics not big armies – ours or theirs. In Afghanistan and across the Muslim world, the challenge is to separate populations from extremists: since 9/11 we have only made our problem worse. Time for us all to move beyond the Bush/Blair years if we are serious about protecting our populations from terror.