The Taliban are coming back for Afghanistan
The problem facing Afghanistan is not one that the U.S., or any other external force can solve
It has not escaped anyone that the U.S. intervention in Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster. Twelve years on and the country is effectively split in three, between the Shi’a South, the Sunni North-West and the Kurdish North-East, with no sight on the horizon as to how it might ever be whole and peaceful again. We are reminded of this on a daily basis, as ISIS continues its rampage through the region.
What we hear less of in the news is how Afghanistan is still in the grip of an ongoing civil war between the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban. And the Taliban are on the ascent. Just this week, they have taken Kunduz, a major urban centre in the north of the country, and strategically important both for its transport links and its food production.
Unlike in Iraq, the U.S. cannot be accused of being half-hearted in its efforts in the country. It continues to spend about 4 billion a year on the Afghan army, for example, and has so far spent over 65 billion, just on that. That is on top of all the other infrastructure and economic investment. The problem is that no amount of money is going to fix Afghanistan. Indeed, the American approach was doomed to failure from the start, a fact foretold by almost all experts. As in Iraq, the U.S. has proven perfectly apt at destroying a military and a state apparatus. And it can even rule a country under direct military occupation.
What it cannot seem to do in a country where the majority of the population is hostile, is rebuild a civilian state from the ashes - not when the government military it tries to train up often has no desire to fight the Taliban, and sometimes trained soldiers simply desert to the Taliban.
The problem facing Afghanistan is not one that the U.S., or any other external force can solveAzeem Ibrahim
And it has recently emerged that the Pakistanis had warned their U.S. allies that this was going to be the outcome all along. Vali Nasr’s recent book contains an iconic passage, describing how General Kayani, Chief of Pakistani Army, reacted to the American proposal to build up and equip an Afghan army for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Nasr narrates:
In one small meeting around a narrow table, Kayani listened carefully and took notes as we went through our list of issues. I cannot forget Kayani’s reaction when we enthusiastically explained our plan to build up Afghan forces to 400,000 by 2014. His answer was swift and unequivocal: Don’t do it. “You will fail,” he said. “Then you will leave and that half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan.” We tried to stand our ground, but he would have none of it. He continued, “I don’t believe that the Congress is going to pay $9 billion a year for this 400,000-man force.” He was sure it would eventually collapse and the army’s broken pieces would resort to crime and terrorism to earn their keep.
And so it was going to be. Something resembling an Afghan army still exists, and still fights, however half-heartedly, for the Kabul government. But for how much longer?
The problem facing Afghanistan is not one that the U.S., or any other external force can solve. It is that it is not a country in the way we think of a country in the West - it is nothing even vaguely resembling a nation state. It is, instead, a diverse mix of ethnic and tribal alliances, as well as a number of urban polities, who have little in common and little interest in a common good. And they have been constantly fighting with each other since the 1970s, even before the Soviet invasion.
The Taliban in the 90s had been the only group with both the firepower and the internal discipline to emerge on top of this conflict and impose some semblance of order. But as things stand now, even they might find it difficult to reimpose their authority. Nevertheless, one thing remains the case: whatever happens next, the prospects for a secular, democratic, pluralistic but unified Afghanistan run from Kabul are very dim indeed.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
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