x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Britain hopes to fragment the Taliban

The British foreign minister's hope of providing a "clear route for former insurgents to go back to farming the land" is viewed by some analysts as hopelessly optimistic.

As Operation Panther's Claw, a five-week offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, is declared a success, the British foreign minister's hope of providing a "clear route for former insurgents to return to their villages and go back to farming the land" is viewed by some analysts as hopelessly optimistic. On Monday, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, announced that the first phase of an operation to drive back the Taliban in Helmand province was over. "The announcement came as the foreign secretary, David Miliband, called for 'a more coherent effort' to achieve a political solution in Afghanistan by talking to the militants and offering them better alternatives to fighting," The Guardian reported. "During a constituency visit in Fife, the prime minister said it had been 'one of the most difficult summers' since troops went into Afghanistan in 2001, with 20 British service personnel killed in July alone. "He added: 'Now that Operation Panther's Claw has shown that it can bring success and the first phase of that operation is over, it's time to commemorate all those soldiers who have given their lives and to thank all our British forces for the determination and professionalism and courage that they've shown. " 'What we've done is push back the Taliban ‑ and what we've done also is to start to break that chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain.' "Brown echoed Miliband's call for talks with more moderate Taliban elements: 'Our strategy has always been to complement the military action that we've got to take to clear the Taliban, to threaten al Qa'eda in its bases, while at the same time we put in more money to build the Afghan forces, the troops, the police.' " Bridget Kendall, diplomatic correspondent for BBC News wrote: "The new Afghan government that emerges from next month's presidential elections, [Mr Miliband said in a speech at Nato headquarters in Brussels on Monday], should be prepared to work on an 'inclusive political settlement' to draw away all those less than convinced about their allegiance to the Taliban and even those who might want Islamic rule locally but were not in favour of a violent jihad worldwide. "So, though addressed to Nato and Brussels dignitaries, this was a speech that the British government clearly hopes will resonate thousands of miles away, in Kabul. "Putting on notice what Britain, at least, expects from a new Afghan government. And, in return, a pledge that foreign troops would not leave while Afghan communities needed their protection, but would not stay a moment longer. " 'This is not Britain's fourth Afghan war,' Mr Miliband said with some passion. 'We are not there for a colony of endless Afghan control.' "Instead, he added, appealing directly to his Brussels audience, the Nato alliance had to start really believing in its own rhetoric... that the end aim was 'Afghanisation'." Conor Foley, a humanitarian aid worker writing in The Guardian, noted: "The term Taliban is used as a convenient catch-all description for a range of disparate insurgent groups fighting the Afghan government. Foreign secretary David Miliband is correct when he says that the insurgency is deeply divided, with many of those fighting against international forces doing so for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons. The last time I visited Afghanistan, one observer estimated that up to 80 per cent of the violence came from criminal groups rather than organised resistance forces. "This was before the current offensive began, and one of the dangers of President Obama's new strategy is that it will unite these forces against a common foe. From this perspective, Miliband's analysis that the Afghan government should be concentrating on building 'effective grassroots initiatives to offer an alternative to fight or flight for the foot soldiers of the insurgency' is right. Indeed, this is precisely the course of action that humanitarian actors have been advocating for the last six years. However, his prediction that 'essentially this means a clear route for former insurgents to return to their villages and go back to farming the land, or a role for some of them within the legitimate Afghan security forces' sounds hopelessly optimistic. "The problem of most western pundits and politicians is that they believed their own propaganda about Afghanistan." Rory Stewart, a Harvard professor and former British diplomat who has worked and travelled extensively in Afghanistan, wrote in the London Review of Books earlier this month: "The fundamental assumptions remain that an ungoverned or hostile Afghanistan is a threat to global security; that the West has the ability to address the threat and bring prosperity and security; that this is justified and a moral obligation; that economic development and order in Afghanistan will contribute to global stability; that these different objectives reinforce each other; and that there is no real alternative. One indication of the enduring strength of such assumptions is that they are exactly those made in 1868 by Sir Henry Rawlinson, a celebrated and experienced member of the council of India, concerning the threat of a Russian presence in Afghanistan: In the interests, then, of peace; in the interests of commerce; in the interests of moral and material improvement, it may be asserted that interference in Afghanistan has now become a duty, and that any moderate outlay or responsibility we may incur in restoring order at Kabul will prove in the sequel to be true economy. "The new UK strategy for Afghanistan is described as: International ... regional ... joint civilian-military ... co-ordinated ... long-term ... focused on developing capacity ... an approach that combines respect for sovereignty and local values with respect for international standards of democracy, legitimate and accountable government, and human rights; a hard-headed approach: setting clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. "This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got. Our approach is short-term; it has struggled to develop Afghan capacity, resolve regional issues or overcome civilian-military divisions; it has struggled to respect Afghan sovereignty or local values; it has failed to implement international standards of democracy, government and human rights; and it has failed to set clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it? (Similarly, we do not notice the tautology in claiming to 'overcome corruption through transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes'.) "In part, it is because the language is comfortingly opaque. We can expose Rawlinson's blunt calculus of national interest by questioning the costs, the potential gains or the likelihood of success. But a bewildering range of different logical connections and identities can be concealed in a specialised language derived from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy. What is concealed is our underlying assumption that when we want to make other societies resemble our (often fantastical) ideas of our own society, we can. The language of modern policy does not help us to declare the limits to our power and capacity; to concede that we can do less than we pretend or that our enemies can do less than we pretend; to confess how little we know about a country like Afghanistan or how little we can predict about its future; or to acknowledge that we might be unwelcome or that our presence might be perceived as illegitimate or that it might make things worse."

pwoodward@thenational.ae