editorial assistance by Bea Vanni
A strategic divergence clearly exists among the coalition partners in Afghanistan on how to deal with the Taliban. This situation in part has its roots in the historical strategic interests of coalition members in Afghanistan. It might also be due to the growing logic that the insurgency is not merely a result of the reaction of the deposed Taliban but a result of a multiplicity of factors. However, the ‘runaway pessimism’ exhibited by the British contingent in Afghanistan runs counter-productive not only to the aspirations of Afghans and the Afghan Government but also to the interests of Britain’s allies.
While it is imperative that the insurgency and the overall situation in Afghanistan is not dealt with only through military means, an array of approaches extending the peace to the south must include political, development, and other inducements and co-optations. No one understands this more than the Government of Afghanistan, which has taken numerous steps with mixed results. That is probably all we can expect from a government that is severely constrained by a disjointed group of allies and a fractious domestic political base. However, the sentiments shared by British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles in a letter to his French counterpart cannot only be in response to the deteriorating security situation but reflective of the frailties of the British approach in Afghanistan.
In the past other British officials have also raised alarm. The former British Defence Secretary Des Brown shocked Afghans by branding the insurgency an uprising by the Pashtons and legitimized the Taliban movement by calling them a Pashton nationalist movement. British characterization of the Taliban as a Pashton nationalist movement portrays a cruel misrepresentation of the conditions that brought the Taliban to power and the range of factors that propelled them to dominance. It is both a mistake and dangerous to characterize the Taliban as such: The Taliban’s struggle and their ideology have no resemblance to Pashton nationalism; indeed, they are opposed to the secularism of Pashton nationalism as evidenced by their constant battles with Pashton tribes in the FATA region.
The British presence in Helmand has been an abject failure since British forces assumed security responsibility in the province. The situation has deteriorated to the point where the insurgents control the majority of the province, where Helmand sits at the centre of poppy cultivation and narcotics trade and home to Taliban training and logistic centers. The 2006 Musa Qala peace deal between the British forces and the Taliban led to a furious row between the Afghan and British governments which eventually resulted in the expulsion of two British diplomats.
Since the United States and other NATO countries including Canada are relative newcomers to Afghanistan, their engagement is not hampered to the same degree as the legacies of historical engagement in that country. Subsequently, their intervention in Afghanistan has, on the one hand, been directed primarily by the imperatives of the so called ‘Global War on Terror’ and on the other by the ambiguities of Humanitarian Interventionism. Conversely, Britain has had entrenched interests in Afghanistan that transcends the mandates of the United Nations and NATO’s presence. Hence, Britain’s more pragmatic approach to deal with the Taliban will save burning all the bridges if they face a future Taliban government. Britain’s reluctance to wholeheartedly engage in counter-insurgency operations has been the cause of much trepidation in NATO circles as well as among Afghans.
British ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Sherrard Cowper-Coles
So when Mr. Cowper-Coles beats his chest and prophesizes on the impending failure, we cannot help but notice residues of internal chaos occurring within NATO. Moreover, the British and NATO must realize that neither failure nor once again becoming the largest refugee group in the world is an option for the Afghans, either is a return of the Taliban. Mr. Cowper-Coles and his government must recognize the essential contours of this conflict and choose a side and spare us the political gibberish of reconciliation.
The ideas underpinning aspects of this continuing conflict are not new in Afghanistan and have existed for decades. On the one hand, we have moderate forces that aspire to a democratic Afghanistan; a society that espouses the ideals of Islam with tolerance of its diversity; a society in tune with the realities of modernity in a globalized world, and a responsible member of the community of nations. On the other hand, we have an intolerant political force that manipulates religious sentiments of the people, alongside an understanding of what the Taliban represent, and knowing their aspirations are not congruent with the wishes of a great majority of Afghans.
The government of Afghanistan and the emerging civil society in that country with all their frailties represent a better option than the Taliban: A democratic Afghanistan where the rule of law prevails and a country on the path to peace and economic development stands in the best interests of both Afghanistan and the world. Taliban and their criminal syndicates present a clear track record and the Afghans are well aware of that; so, neither the British nor the West should dictate to Afghans on reconciliation. These matters must be left to the prerogative of the Afghans and they alone are in a position to deliberate on such issues.
Afghans do not need runaway pessimism; they understand both the history of failure in Afghanistan and the fragility of the present situation.
What they do not understand is the wavering on the part of the international community. Afghans need constructive partners who see their own interest in a stable Afghanistan. At a time when the ISI and the Pakistani military establishment might be considering withdrawal of their support to the Taliban, Mr. Cowper-Coles might have done just enough to make the ISI reconsider? The defeatism disclosed by Mr. Cowper-Coles serves only to embolden the insurgents and weaken the resolve of a hesitant NATO. Suffice to say that the determination of Afghans for a peaceful and viable Afghanistan will not weaken.
All this must come as a warning to the Afghans to pick up the slack and get their house in order. Afghans have long been either too willing to resort to violence when outsiders found their way into Afghanistan or too sanguine to believe in foreign benevolence. Afghans must understand the national imperatives that have compelled countries to come to Afghanistan and be on their guard should their hopes be short-changed for political conveniences.