Leaving Afghanistan

October 22, 2010     
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A time for all things.

The current UN/ISAF mission in Afghanistan has no militarily achievable objectives, it has no credible local political partners, there is no coordinated aid mission and its political objective of ‘democratization’ is an illusion. No ‘success’ in this mission can occur because no one individual or group can realistically define what is required for success to emerge. Statements about winning the war and fostering democracy are little more than political spin.

The Military

By definition, deployed military forces can only accomplish three things. They can take ground. They can defend ground. And they can impose order for short periods of time. Military forces have also performed heroically under stressful conditions such as floods, famines and other disasters. These are not, however, traditional military roles and they succeed only because militaries have pools of decision makers and soldiers who show excellence in their ability to adapt, to presevere, and to overcome obstacles.

The current UN/ISAF mission in Afghanistan has no militarily obtainable objectives now and has not had them since January 2002 when it overthrew the ruling Taliban. Nine years after the military mission started, there are no military objectives which can be defined which would then produce ‘victory’ by using the force of arms. As such, the military forces cannot, by themselves, define or achieve victory.

The Local Partners

If an outside force such as the UN or NATO wants to have influence while having military and political forces deployed in a foreign country, they need a local partner who has credibility with the local population. The simple reality is that the local partners chosen by the UN and NATO are devoid of local (and international) credibility. A series of embarrassing election, political, criminal and economic scandals have repeatedly revealed that the local partners in Afghanistan cannot rise above their own short term and personal ambitions.

The Aid Mission

Developmental progress in Afghanistan is as important as the security mission. Although politically incorrect to say so, it is increasingly apparent that the current style of international aid missions, first started with Biafra, may be doing as much harm as good. Short term aid missions to help those suddenly struck by natural famine or disease may be truly useful and represent the best of the human condition. In Afghanistan however, despite the passage of nine years of time, there is no coordinated aid or development program in Afghanistan. The long term presence of multiple aid missions with divergent aims and interests may be distorting the local economy to the disadvantage of the locals while failing to provide aid to those who need it most. The issue of corruption, always a problem in any aid mission, appears to have become endemic in the Afghan mission.

Democratization and Afghanistan

Democracy may be valid goal in the abstract. However, democracy is not a tool for development. To the contrary, democracy is more likely to be the outcome of development. To have an obviously fraudulent election and then claim that this represents progress is an illusion.

Afghanistan and the Graveyard of Empires

In the past, Afghanistan has been known as ‘the cradle of empires,’ the ‘highway of conquest’ and also as the ‘graveyard of empires.’ Since about 1840, the term graveyard of empires seems more appropriate as a series of British, Russian, Soviet (and other) forces have tried to push their will on the Afghan tribes. The complexity of internal Afghan politics and the rather difficult neighbours (Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China), ensure that any solution in Afghanistan must have a greater appeal to a wide range of powerful political actors. An outside solution proposed by North Americans and Europeans and imposed by force is unlikely to have the answers.

Mission Accomplished?

What exactly was the intent of the mission in Afghanistan when it started in 2001? It seems rather clear that the mission was twofold. The first (and sometimes unstated) mission was to punish al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts for the 9/11 attacks. The second and perhaps more public mission was to destroy al Qaeda’s capabilities to operate in the lawless countryside and prevent further attacks based on those capabilities.

These missions, such as they were, have been accomplished. Al Qaeda has been destroyed in Afghanistan and it has been reduced to begging for money as it has slid into local irrelevance. What is left of al Qaeda as a core group is not in Afghanistan; it is in Pakistan. Without delving into detail, the reality is that a military mission in Afghanistan will not destroy what is left of core al Qaeda and its 80 to 200 followers who are living in Pakistan. The drone missions are more likely to be destabilizing the region and building support for radicals, rather than having the desired opposite effect. The Taliban (however defined) are unlikely to play host to al Qaeda again if they get that chance. Mullah Omar never did like the radical Arab presence and hosted them more out of a sense of obligation and debt rather than seeign it as a sensible foreign policy decision. Given the choice, he will not risk hosting them again.


The road to success in countering radicalism and defeating groups such as al Qaeda and the LeT lies through Pakistan. Until the issues of stability and fear are solved in Pakistan, nothing useful can be accomplished in Afghanistan or the rest of the region. If the rest of the world wants to truly help, then finding a way of resolving the conflict between India and Pakistan is necessary. After that, regional progress may actually be possible.

Declare Victory and Leave

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been broken and will not be able to recover there. This was the initial mission in 2001, so it is time to declare victory and withdraw combat forces. With no definable military role in sight and no credible local partners emerging, the continued presence of the UN/ISAF mission is not going to lead to ‘victory.’ Concentrate instead on the bigger picture of stability in South Asia (read India and Pakistan) and use this to counter the base of radicalism that is growing daily in the region.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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