x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

No military end to Afghanistan's decade of war

As the American-led war effort approaches its 10th birthday, signs of progress have emerged amidst the carnage.

Fighting season is upon us in Afghanistan. Many wish it would be the last. As the American-led war effort approaches its 10th year, signs of progress have emerged amidst the carnage. Taliban forces are losing their hold on parts of the country, especially in the south; village elders appear to be turning their backs on long-time militant benefactors.

But it’s hard to see how these gains will hold without a political solution and a broader strategy of engagement, one that not only brings regional elements to the table but members of the Taliban as well.

Despite clear gains, a military end to a war, which is now longer than the Soviet occupation, remains elusive. The former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, made this point last week when he questioned whether lasting stability could be delivered from the barrel of a gun. With as many as 35,000 full-time Taliban fighters, according to Nato estimates, the answer is clearly no.

Mr Miliband is not alone in his frustration. A growing chorus of critics are concerned that an over-reliance on military power has weakened the West’s hand. What’s needed, many believe, is a diplomatic offensive that seeks to incorporate elements of the Taliban insurgency that can be convinced. Dangers abound, but after nine bloody summers, it’s worth trying.

But negotiations alone can't end the fighting. Western officials have said so before, but it bears repeating: Pakistan remains the missing piece of a blueprint for a stumbling exit. Taliban fighters continue to stream over the ungoverned tribal areas, armed with cash and recruits. So far, efforts to attack these safe havens with unmanned predator drones have done more to anger the Pakistani public than anything else.

Squabbles over perceived violations of Pakistani sovereignty will not be solved easily. But Washington could earn dividends by finally putting its soft-power rhetoric into practice. Improved trade ties and renewed capacity building, rather than a flood of direct aid, may be the only way to transform Pakistan’s civil society and win over sceptics.

With over 130 coalition soldiers already dead in 2011, and many more maimed, this summer may be the last politically feasible chance to test America’s approach to the Afghan war. Come July, when the US is scheduled to begin handing over security to Afghan forces, it could be too late.