x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hope is no substitute for progress in Afghanistan

The Taliban are gaining ground around the rest of the country, proving that the insurgency is like a balloon - if it is squeezed in one place it pops up in another.

This week, with the release of Washington's long-awaited strategic review of the war in Afghanistan, should have been a moment of great clarity for Barack Obama.

The White House has a story to tell: The 30,000 troops that Mr Obama ordered to Afghanistan have blunted the momentum of the Taliban in the south around Kandahar, their former stronghold. Nightly raids by special forces are killing Taliban commanders at such a rate that morale is low, and the survivors are withdrawing to lick their wounds over the border in Pakistan.

So much progress has been made that it should be possible to begin pulling out troops - albeit in symbolic numbers - next year, in time for the start of the US presidential election campaign.

But clarity is a rare quality in Washington's endless turf wars. Two days ago leaked US intelligence assessments fatally undercut the military's optimistic version of events. Far being on the back foot, the Taliban are undefeated and their influence is spreading around the country - except for Kandahar - and they still enjoy close links with Pakistani intelligence.

Rivalry between the military and the CIA is nothing new, of course. The confusion has been deepened by the sudden death of Richard Holbrooke, the so-called "bulldozer" who served as Mr Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke was a rare figure in diplomacy, with his restless energy and hatred of waffle. His difficult character - in plain English he was something of a bully, but he cared deeply about Afghanistan and he was not a time-server - taxed the skills of colleagues when penning words of praise. Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state, wins the prize for diplomatic circumlocution with this delicate sentence: "He valued deference only when he was on the receiving end."

His legacy in Bosnia, where he brought the war to an end in the 1990s, is unrivalled. But in Afghanistan it is clouded. Some say that his death leaves a gap that cannot be filled. Others point out that he had been effectively sidelined in the great Washington power struggle, and his energies were frittered away in trying to get heard. The image of Gen Stanley McChrystal, former commander in Afghanistan, rolling his eyes as yet another email from Holbrooke popped into his BlackBerry says more about his standing with the military than the public encomiums.

Holbrooke's last words, allegedly said to a surgeon of Pakistani origin as he was being wheeled in for heart surgery from which he never recovered, have added a layer of mystery. "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," he told the surgeon, according to an initial report in The Washington Post. These words were instantly used to portray Holbrooke as a floppy-haired peacenik rebuking the US military; some saw in them a final warning to the government of Pakistan to end its safe haven to the Taliban.

These last words do not stand up to closer inspection, as The Post has acknowledged. They were part of a light-hearted exchange not with the Pakistani surgeon but an Egyptian-American doctor. Far from being a cry from the heart, this was the sort of banter that powerful men share with medical staff when they are about to go under the knife.

It seems Holbrooke said he could not relax because he had to worry about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The doctor promised to fix the two countries for him, and he is said to have replied to her: "You fix Afghanistan - you go ahead."

It is easier to unpick the story of Holbrooke's last words than it is to follow his final request to "fix" Afghanistan. Amid all the infighting, however, there are some things we know to be true.

First, the war effort is run by the military, not the State Department, where Holbrooke was based. Thus General David Petraeus, commander of international forces in Afghanistan, is in charge. The role of special representative is currently subservient to the military and thus not as powerful as it sounds.

Second, there is indeed some truth in the claims by the military that it has pushed the Taliban away from Kandahar. But the massed weight of the US armed forces will always triumph over the Taliban in a face-to-face fight, particularly in winter, which is typically the time when the fighters hunker down and wait for spring. The Taliban are gaining ground around the rest of the country, proving that the insurgency is like a balloon - if it is squeezed in one place it pops up in another.

Third, the role of Pakistan is key to defeating the Taliban. An insurgency that enjoys a safe haven across a border is always hard to overcome. By contrast, when there is no hinterland to regroup to (as in Palestine), a regular army can more easily defeat mobile guerrillas. The US military say it is getting more cooperation from Pakistan, but it is far from clear that this will change the strategic balance.

Fourth, Gen Petraeus knows that the current surge in forces and the offensive in the south cannot win the war. His own counter-insurgency manual states that victory depends 80 per cent on politics and 20 per cent on military force. So far that 80 per cent is missing. While domestic pressure in Washington demands the troops return home, the Taliban will continue to see Americans as a transient force they can wait out, like the British and the Russians before them. Gen Petraeus knows this, but American honour makes different demands.

Fifth, Holbrooke's successor needs to widen his remit to include the whole region, and specifically India. If the US forces are to make a successful exit, they need to rally the regional powers behind a settlement. Ultimately this has to involve steps to reduce tension over Kashmir and other measures to reassure Pakistan that, by dropping the Taliban, it will not be encircled by India. No exit strategy will hold unless the regional powers are all onside and have something to gain from it.

This is a gargantuan diplomatic task, requiring years of hard work. In fact, it is just the sort of task that Holbrooke, had he been 20 years younger, would have been well suited to tackle.

aphilps@thenational.ae