A tragic military error with a hideous civilian death-toll, a disastrously corrupt election, and the resignation of a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the MoD,the auguries for Gordon Brown’s speech on Friday could barely have been worse. They demanded an inspired response.
Instead we got a sermon on everybody else’s responsibilities and a repeat of the standard lines of “why we are there". Nowhere did we have any insights as to how we are going to change a losing strategy into a winning one. To do that, we need to understand how and why it is all going wrong. Surprisingly, for a very intelligent man, the Prime Minister appears to have no grip on this at all.
Let us start with that parody of an Afghan election. The dreadfully low turnout in the Afghan elections` should not astonish anyone. When I read the report that only ten votes were cast in one part of Helmand for every British soldier who died defending their right to vote, I was saddened but unsurprised. The truth is we should have seen it coming. Some of the reason for the low vote was undoubtedly fear of the Taliban, but at least as much it was disgust with their own government.
The ordinary Afghan expects nothing of his government, particularly in the southern provinces. They get no services, no education, no healthcare, no roads, and no water. Apart from one big canal system, a dam and the A1 major road, all built by foreigners decades ago, they have nothing. Since it has been in power, the Karzai government has enriched its friends and relatives, but done precisely nothing for the ordinary people.
They cannot even provide security and justice. If you speak to Afghans from Helmand, you will find that even in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah they do not trust government justice. To get any legal decision they have to pay a bribe to get a court hearing, probably in a year’s time. Then they have to pay another bribe to get a result, and if the bribe is not big enough, they lose.
Accordingly, ordinary Afghans who want justice today walk 5 or 10 miles to the nearest Taliban village. There they ask the Taliban for a court, the various parties are summoned, and the hearing is held the next day. After that, a couple of days are taken to check the facts, and within a week a ruling is handed down. What is more the ruling is generally fair and it is always enforced.
So it should be no surprise that ordinary Afghans were not willing to brave Taliban threats to vote for a government they despise. Indeed, if Karzai wins it will be by an amalgam of tribalism, corruption, and sordid deals with vicious warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum. That in turn means we can forget any prospects of more rigorous, anti-corruption, pro rule of law phase in any future Karzai government.
That is why Richard Holbrooke had his tempestuous exchange with Karzai. He was right to do so, and all of the coalition nations should back him up in his demands, both through the conclusion of the election and afterwards.
So have our soldiers’ lives been lost in vain? Not yet, but we cannot continue making serial strategic errors as we have done this last six years. We have managed to get the military strategy, the political strategy, the aid strategy, the counter narcotics strategy and the diplomatic strategy all wrong simultaneously. The time is running out on our ability to put it right. I suspect it was the realisation of this that made Eric Joyce walk. It will have dawned on him quite what a burden we have laid an our soldiers.
What is more, the key player in this, the American government, already realises it. President Obama has admitted to various academics who have visited the White House that he fears Afghanistan could overshadow his administration and cripple his domestic agenda just as the Vietnam war crippled LBJ‘s Great Society agenda.
This has coincided with a fading away of support for the war in the American public, mirroring that amongst the British public, and a crescendo of criticism from Washington defence and foreign policy specialists. Even the pro-war hawks are now arguing for a 12-18 month strategy, at the end of which a decision can be made whether or not to scale back the war. That timetable coincides with the November 2010 mid-term Congressional elections, which is itself crucial since American foreign policy is always driven, first and last, by domestic politics.
Generally I do not like setting timetables in counter insurgency campaigns. The act of doing so tends to gives an advantage to our enemies. However, on this occasion our senior partners are locked to a timetable that will be obvious even in the deepest Taliban cave, so we should pay heed to it. Whether we like it or not, decision time in Afghanistan will arrive within the next couple of years. So we face, not a timetable for withdrawal, but a timetable for decision. This in turn means there is a limited ration of time in which we have to recover the initiative in the Afghan war.
It means a dramatic change of strategy and pace must happen now. In addition to a tougher line with Karzai, it means a much smarter and tougher line on narcotics, and a dramatically more effective coordination with Pakistan. It means that our aid efforts must be faster and more focussed, principally on water, transport, and economic activity –on things that matter to Afghans, not westerners.
Most of all, however, it means a huge step up in military activity and effectiveness. That the Americans understand this is demonstrated by their decision to appoint General McChrystal to command ISAF in Afghanistan. His previous combat command was as head of the Special Forces in Iraq, what was described in the American press as “the most secretive force in the US military.” The veteran journalist Bob Woodward reported that General McChrystal’s force used “collaborative warfare” to bring together human and technical intelligence in” lightning quick” operations to find, target and kill insurgents, and that it was this force was that was really responsible for the success attributed to the” surge” in Iraq.
The Obama administration’s early actions reinforce this impression. Operation Khanjar the US Marine operation in southern Helmand this summer, was the biggest airlift offensive since the Vietnam war –which incidentally puts the tiny U K helicopter force in perspective.
Britain must reflect the same sense of urgency. We must stop trying to fight this war on the cheap, because saving money will cost lives. We must frankly stop faffing around with critical decisions, as we have with the current slow motion deployment of Merlin and Chinook helicopters. We must deploy all the soldiers we can to Helmand, not eke them out in penny packets as we are doing at the moment. Mr Brown should at least understand what is meant by “penny wise, pound foolish,” because that is a good description of how he has forced our soldiers to fight these last several years.
Finally, all the allies should recognise that we need a truly massive increase in the number of Afghan soldiers, to more than 600,000, which is three or four times what is currently planned. Without that, there will never be a stable future for Afghanistan free of foreign occupying forces.
In his speech yesterday Mr Brown seems to be slowly realising that an Afghan Army is a stepping stone to our exit, but he still seems to see it as simply replacing British soldiers with Afghans. That is to miss the point. The point of a qualitatively bigger Afghan Army is to create a stable Afghan state, otherwise all those words about maintaining security on our own streets will be empty rhetoric. Of course, it will cost – the coalition billions of dollars every year –so maybe that is why he shies away from it.
Most of all, however, we should understand that the next 18 months are make-or-break for our efforts in Afghanistan. If we do not make serious progress in that time, then it will be American elections that decide the future, not Afghan ones. If we make no progress, then the American public and the British public will both demand withdrawal –and many brave young soldiers will have lost their lives to no avail.