x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Politics is art of the possible, but only if security is in place

Analysis Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy is cheered by a poll showing that Afghans are optimistic about their future, but a solution to governance hinges on pushing back the Taliban.

The news could not have come at a more opportune time. A poll conducted by the BBC, ABC News and Germany's ARD television network showed 70 per cent of Afghans were optimistic about their nation's immediate future. This contrasted dramatically with international perceptions of the current state of the nation.

President Hamid Karzai's controversial re-election and his difficulties in forming a cabinet have led many outside observers to believe that Afghanistan, contrary to the apparent Afghan opinion, is moving in the wrong direction. It was in this context that the seventh meeting of special representatives to Afghanistan and Pakistan was conducted in Abu Dhabi. The meeting was labelled as a set-up piece for the London conference at the end of this month. Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan for the US president, Barack Obama, was particularly welcoming of the findings. "The poll was very good news for us," Mr Holbrooke said.

But if it was good news for him, then the report by Major Gen Michael Flynn, the man in charge of intelligence in Afghanistan, must have been equally bad news. His report on the state of intelligence gathering painted a dire picture of out-of-touch US operatives unable to paint a coherent picture for their superiors. However Mr Holbrooke did not believe the two issues are connected. "General Flynn was making general statements about intelligence; [the poll] is a snapshot of the ideas and opinions of the population. I don't think they're related to each other," Mr Holbrooke told The National.

He was almost correct. Certainly, America's intelligence efforts are only marginally connected with Afghanistan's well-being. It is, rather, one part of the whole picture. At its core, the new US counter-insurgency strategy focuses on making political progress. To accomplish this, the US must make space for politics by providing security. This is why Gen Flynn's assessment ought to give Mr Holbrooke pause. Without adequate intelligence, progress in US efforts to push back the Taliban will be difficult, if not impossible, to measure.

What intelligence Gen Flynn does have appears to point to a frightening trend in Afghanistan. According to his report on the state of the insurgency, the Taliban have installed shadow governments in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. No longer is the Taliban a problem of Afghanistan's south-east. Counter-insurgency has been called "a competition for governance" by one of the foremost modern experts on the subject, David Kilcullen.

If the Taliban have competing governmental structures in almost all of Afghanistan, then the US is losing or, at least, not winning that competition. What would appear to be in order is greater co-ordination between the diplomatic and military efforts. Mr Holbrooke believes this already exists. "We have joint civil and military efforts at every level," he said. Some of the current problems he believes are due to the legacy left by the Bush administration.

"We inherited a situation where only 10 per cent of American aid went through the Afghan government, so we were undermining the government we were trying to strengthen." As the new US strategy has only begun to be implemented, he is undoubtedly correct, but if Gen Flynn and his boss, Gen Stanley McChrystal, are correct, then the US has only a limited amount of time to overcome these growing pains.

This will not be easy, and the dangers are at times difficult to see. One particularly fascinating finding of Gen Flynn's assessment was that the overwhelming majority of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are now made with ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser. Until mid-2008, they were made with unexploded munitions. This might be of interest only to security analysts if not for the fact that ammonium nitrate fertiliser is used by only a small portion of Afghan farmers.

Banning it would make little difference to farmers, but it would make a huge impact on the ability of the Taliban to build bombs. Mr Holbrooke called agriculture "the top non-security priority". It is, rather, potentially a top security priority. IEDs kill far more civilians and soldiers than any other weapon employed by the insurgents. The IEDs are getting larger and more destructive, and there is no good counter-measure for them.

Gen Flynn called them comparable to the mujahideen's Stinger missile, which proved so devastating to Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan. In short, they are the main source of the Taliban's military prowess. This is what civil-military co-operation is designed to tackle, and it appears that the US is still coming up short. But, like the Afghans, Mr Holbrooke remains optimistic, but also realistic, about the state of affairs.

"We are making progress and the poll is clear evidence, but the Taliban is far from defeated." Certainly, all indications are that the Taliban are far from defeated. Indeed, they may only be growing stronger and it remains to be seen whether the US has the wherewithal to reverse the trend. @Email:smclain@thenational.ae