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Afghan Quagmire: Multi-Decade Conflict

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, August 19, 2011

Former British ambassador and Special Representative to Afghanistan Sherard Cowper Coles offers a revealing first-hand account of the present day Afghanistan in his memoires Cables from Kabul. His critical comments and dispassionate assessments to a great extend vindicate what many us here in Pakistan have been talking about i.e. forget about the military option and leave Afghans on their own to fix their problems. 

This book contains a revealing sequence of events during Cowper-Coles' posting in Afghanistan – friendly inter-actions with the American counterparts, Afghan government officials, or spats with all those involved in what he calls the Afghanistan project – a metaphor that denotes the American endeavour of “nation-building” in Afghanistan. But this “project” meanwhile draws sarcasm and scorn from many NATO member countries, and Cowper-Coles invokes the term “project” on several occasions through the book to explain the shortcomings and the consequences of a policy that has largely been driven by the United States. 

“The real fault lay in the design of the whole project: a constitution drafted by a Frenchman and imposed by an America that was (and is) out of sync with Afghan political realities. A constitution which imposes something like fourteen separate national elections in twenty years is not really sustainable, politically or economically,” writes Cowper-Coles. 

It also reveals non-American NATO members’ frustrations with Washington, about the contradictions in Washington (between the State Department and the Pentagon-CIA) and about the corruption and culture of nepotism and patronage that the American aid and security money has promoted inside Afghanistan.

“One had the sense of great leviathan rolling forward, spending money, establishing programmes, but without really knowing what everything was for, and how it would deal with the real problem: an anti- foreigner insurgency then infecting most of Afghanistan Pashtun belt, and spreading,” writes Cowper-Coles(P.228), while recalling a very high-profile gathering of Afghans, Pakistanis and international interlocutors in Islamabad, where the Afghans skipped the entire meeting just to get an audience with President Asif Ali Zardari, leaving the international participants fuming about the seriousness of their Afghan counter-parts. 

After spending three straight years and moving through power corridors of Kabul, London, Washington, Islamabad and Istanbul – to mention the least – Cowper-Coles believes that the hasty intervention in Afghanistan many not have been necessary. “It is unarguable that the west got into Afghanistan in October 2001 without a clear idea either of what it was getting into or of how it was going to get out.” 
Without realising it, we have become involved in a multi player, multi dimensional, multi decade civil conflict, the origins of which go back many years. It is an unresolved struggle, over the nature of Afghan polity, between Islam and secularism tradition and modernism, town and country, Sunni and Shia farmer and nomad, Pashtun and Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara.

The former ambassador also sounds extremely critical of the way the American government and the establishment has thrown money around, only to fuel corruption and promote misgovernance; “sums which may seem quite small in Washington create powerful distortions, and feed much corruption, in economies as poor as Afghanistan's” (P 284). This applies perhaps especially to the Commanders' Emergency Response Program funds available to field commanders to spend more or less at their own discretion. In 2008-9, the total Pentagon CERP budget for Afghanistan, of about $750 million, was roughly the same size as the total self-generated revenue of the Afghan state. A further aspect of this is that, thanks largely to the role of Congress, US aid funds are almost as much for Americans as for overseas beneficiar­ies. Thus, some 40 per cent of American aid moneys allocated to Afghanistan are said to find their way back to the United States, in the form of consultancy and security contracts, equipment orders, and so on. That is hardly a good way to win Afghan friends and influence Pashtun people.

Cables from Kabul also delivers a stinging criticism of the way the late US AfPak envoy – Richard Holbrook – threw his weight around to push things through – issues that mattered to him –regardless of what other thought of him or his plans. In the book, Holbrook comes across as a man who, would often come late to the meetings, had grand plans but little time, or attention to implement them.

“The full meeting lasted three and a half hours. Holbrooke was present for less than a third of the time. He announced that he had an important alternative engagement, although he later confided to me that the real reason of his absence was the opening of an exhibition of paintings by his sons-to which he kindly invited me,” writes the former ambassador of one of the multi-lateral meetings (P.239)

“And throughout I pursued Holbrooke –by telephone, text and email, and when could find him, in person. In Paris, on private business, he invited me from London to join him for dinner. Rushing from a delayed Eurostar, I missed an appointment with our Ambassador and headed straight to the restaurant, worried that I would have kept Holbrooke waiting. But he was even later.”

A major conclusion that Cowper-Coles draws from his experiences in Afghanistan is the fact that the American way of handling this “Pashtun insurgency” will probably not work.

Cowper-Coles also quotes from a 2008 Rand Corporation study of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan to underline that (P 278) the analysis of 90 insurgencies since 1945 indicate[d] that three variables [were] correlated with the success (or failure) of counterinsurgency efforts: a) capability of indigenous security forces, especially police local , b) governance, and c) external support for insurgents, including sanctuary.

In Afghanistan, none of those three variables is likely to swing defini­tively and enduringly in favour of the coalition for many years yet.

Let the Afghans sort it out among themselves, and trust them, is the advice from the former special representative. We will need to accept, as we already have to do, that often it may be better to let the Afghan themselves to do a job badly than for us to do it for them. Even if the Afghan may be less effective, and more corrupt and inefficient, the western way, it may be wiser to let the Afghan make their own mistakes, and learn from them. However imperfect the result of such a process, they may last longer than attempts by outsider to buck the Afghan market.( P 291)

The ambassador is also skeptical of whether the American Military-focused approach that had been led by Gen.David Petraeus will leave behind sustainable political structures?

“The unremitting pressure of US domestic politics will still limit the American Republic’s ability to do the right thing abroad, in this case pressing hard and from the highest level for the political settlement in and around Afghanistan, and between Israel and all its neighbors,” wonders Cowper-Coles.

“….the chances of acceptable governance falling, in any lasting way the spacing being created by those tactics are not good. Such a military-focused approach risks making Afghanistan safe not for better governance, but for the warlords and narco-mafias that the Taliban originally targeted when they took power in the mid-1990s,” according to one of the lessons the former British envoy learnt during his three years stint in Kabul. He indeed has offered a very measured reality- check for all those who had believed that they could set Afghanistan right by cleansing it off the Taliban insurgency, realizing little that the insurgents were not outsiders, nor were they short on time – unlike the short and pressing deadlines that domestic politics in the US and other NATO countries impose on combat missions overseas.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk