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The 300th British soldier and the UK’s Afghan strategy

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

August 2, 2010

The death of the 300th British soldier in Afghanistan is, as David Cameron pointed out, no more or less tragic than the 299 who have died before him since 2001. It does, however, come at an interesting domestic political juncture for Britain’s new government.

It is a shame that Cameron did not take the opportunity to lay out a realistic plan for our role in Afghanistan. He restricted himself to defence-based justifications, talking about ‘building Afghan capacity’ to protect their country, and avoided the political needs of the West’s war in Afghanistan.

Instead of repeating to the British public patronising platitudes about ‘why we are there’, and pursuing a shallow military aim, the new government could formulate a strategy that it can actually achieve – and give the public some intellectual credit – by considering the growing movement in favour of talking to the Taleban.

The death of Richard Hollington – a Royal Marine who died in a London hospital on 20th June from injuries sustained in an explosion a week earlier in the Afghan town of Sangin – came on the first day of Armed Forces Week, an occasion invented by the Labour government in 2008 as a way to increase respect for the military. It would thus have been a good chance for Cameron to begin to explain to the public what his government will do with our investment of almost 10,000 troops and (so far) £1 billion in Afghanistan.

Sadly, the prime minister’s statements did not rise to the challenge. Sticking to the previous government’s simplistic message of ‘helping the Afghans until they are capable of controlling their own country’ (as if we are capable of controlling their country, and as if teh Taleban themselves are not Afghans), Cameron’s words showed neither a well thought out policy nor a real commitment to bringing the public behind the issue. Something new is needed to win both in Afghanistan and at home.

Such platitudes may be politically easy for a fragile and unproven coalition government, at least in the short term. But they offer the public nothing new to justify the continuing deaths of soldiers and Afghan civilians. Cameron did not point out that the estimated 596 civilians killed by coalition forces in 2009 alone are also no more or less tragic than the death of a British soldier.

A policy of solely assisting the Afghans to defeat the Taleban, and failing to discuss in public the vital political aspects of the Western coalition’s task if it wants to leave Afghanistan, is not the exit strategy that Cameron should be planning. Other players are trying something else, and following them might be a more fruitful course of action for the British government. They are conducting talks with the Afghan Taleban.

This is a widespread effort that has been gathering pace in the last year or so. Talks and talks about talks, by various parties, are being more and more frequently reported. Now is the time for the new British government to fully participate in this political effort.

In November 2009, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that the US had begun talks with top Taleban leaders, through the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Saudi mediators. These followed previous Saudi-brokered talks in February. By January 2010, UN envoy Kai Eide was reportedly in on the game. Reports of UN-Taleban talks in Dubai were verified by so many sources inside and outside the UN, that a Taleban statement in March denying the meetings was probably simply a sign of internal splits among the militants.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai has arguably led the effort recently, in January 2010 inviting Taleban leaders to his planned loya jirga (peace conference), and conducting meetings in the Maldives since February. Although the Taleban did not attend the jirga, Karzai managed to secure the conference’s backing for a package of high level talks, plus an amnesty and job incentives for Taleban fighters. This is better than nothing and might open the way for greater worldwide public acceptance by turning the Taleban into legitimate enemies to be bargained with rather than illegitimate terrorist monsters.

This is certainly Karzai’s intention; and his enthusiasm for negotiations rather than military pressure should be a wake-up call to western players that they need to play too or lose some serious influence. In March 2010, furious at the seizure in Pakistan of an Afghan Taleban leader with whom he had been negotiating, Karzai accused the US of interfering in Afghan affairs, saying that the Taleban would become a legitimate resistance movement if the meddling didn’t stop. Pursuing a less purely punitive approach to the Taleban would help maintain precarious relations between the US and the president.

But such an approach is wise for other reasons too. The Taleban are, some argue, getting stronger and expanding their control to more areas of the country. The Afghan capital Kabul, previously one of the few areas firmly under the government’s control, has been the target of some recent attacks.

President Karzai’s credibility is low, especially in light of an ongoing boycott by his parliament, which has been refusing to debate or pass legislation since 22 May in protest at the executive’s failure to clarify unresolved points of government structure.

In addition, the Afghan army lacks the capacity to pursue a military solution in the long term – something the former British government acknowledged at a NATO conference this January when it called for an almost doubling in size of the army by October 2011. There has been no report of any progress on this expansion; far more foreign troops will be needed for some time yet, as Barack Obama acknowledged by sending in 30,000 extra US soldiers last December.

For these reasons, among those espousing talks and even peace deals with the Taleban in recent months has been the US’s former top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal. His ouster last month may mean a setback. But his successor David Petraeus, although holding a reputation as the ‘troop surge guy’ from his success with a huge increase in American troops in Iraq, is also talking about negotiations as an element of a military-diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan.

The new British government’s policy on Afghanistan needs to be more realistic and clearer. It should not ignore the growing international momentum towards a political solution to the west’s presence in Afghanistan. This must be carefully and astutely done – with some mix of military and political pressure which it is not my purpose to discuss here. But this will be the best solution in the long term: a military solution alone does not give us anything to work with after we judge we have won.

For Afghanistan and for his own standing, perhaps it is time for Cameron to give the British public a new story about Afghanistan. He could make a strong break with the previous government by being more honest with us. He could tell us it’s complicated, that we cannot simply train Afghan forces and fight on their behalf in an apolitical way. He could tell us talking is one element in an integrated military and political strategy. This might prevent 300 more British deaths, and maybe also some Afghan ones.

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