20 July 2009

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


With the death of another British soldier announced today, the ongoing political row about helicopters in the UK masks a wider issue: the new strategy towards Afghanistan is in nearly all ways identical to the old strategy towards Afghanistan. Namely, military forces bring security to an area, then other pillars - development and governance - are brought in. The one difference is that an additional 17,000 troops (one for every 40 sq km of Afghanistan) are in place.

As in the past, it has proved relatively easy to push the Taliban out of an area. The question now is whether the Afghan state has the ability to garner genuine public support. It is that popular support, and not just military power, that will prevent the Taliban returning once the Western troops have left.

And if the Afghan state does not have the capacity to step in once areas have been cleared, then the on-going military operations will have been in vain, helicopters or no helicopters.

One difference from the previous 'strategy' is the move to speed up the training of the Afghan police. Replacing the Taliban with a corrupt, rent-seeking police force is one way of ensuring that public support for the Afghan state does not materialise. But the poorly-paid police are aware that, should the Taliban return, they will be among the first targeted. Ensuring that they have a nest-egg to fall back on makes sense. This is one of the many vicious circles which Afghan policy faces. What is right for Afghanistan at large often goes against an individual's self-interest.

Talk of an 'exit strategy' makes sense for a US audience. Unfortunately, the same message is also heard in Afghanistan. While the exit strategy obviously doesn't involve a Taliban take-over, talk of integrating the 'moderate Taliban' will further work to undermine the development pillars. Will the moderate Taliban eventually determine Afghanistan's education policy?

The coming election highlights yet more of Afghanistan's problems. President Karzai appears to have stitched up his re-election with a range of alliances. Because people expect him to win, it is likely that people will vote for him, proving little except that they don't want their provinces to be ignored. And the people with whom Karzai has made his alliances are the kinds of people who should have been pushed out of the political process after the Taliban were defeated. Instead, they remain powerful nine years later. Afghanistan, and the West, is paying a high price for failing to take difficult decisions in the early years. Now it may be too late.