Sunday, October 5, 2008
US, NATO Fighting to Stalemate in Afghanistan?
"We're not going to win this war", Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the UK's commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province, told London's Sunday Times this week.
"It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army." he added.
"If the Taleban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this."
To appreciate this latest dose of ground reality from Brig Carelton-Smith, let us try and put it in historical perspective. The Brigadier represents a nation that has had a very long experience of running an empire and dealing with the Afghans as well as frequent encounters with the Pushtoons on the Pakistani side of the border. The British almost certainly understand the Pushtoons better than America and its NATO allies. They played the Great Game with the Russians for supremacy in Afghanistan and Central Asia for most of the 19th century. "The Great Game" as an accepted term was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901). It ended just prior to WW I when the British made an alliance with Russia and reached an accommodation with Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in Afghanistan.
After reaching a virtual stalemate in two wars against the Afghans, the British got Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan in 1893 to come to an agreement to demarcate the border between Afghanistan and what was then British India (now North-West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (F.A.T.A.) and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan).
After concluding agreements with Russia and Afghanistan, the British repeatedly tried and failed to establish control of the tribal belt (known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA) now inside Pakistan. In the face of this reality, a new system of governance was codified by the British in Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in 1901 and it remains in force today. It relies on Political Agents (PAs) appointed by the governor of NWFP (North West Frontier Province) on behalf of Pakistan's president. The PAs are the highest officials of the state of Pakistan in tribal agencies. They do not directly rule or administer, but they work with the tribal chiefs (maliks) using carrots and sticks to influence the tribes' behavior. The PAs provide money, infrastructure support and other incentives to the maliks in exchange for cooperation. When such cooperation is not forthcoming, the PAs withhold funds, levy fines and, in rare circumstances, threaten the use of military force to bring them in line. The bottom line is that the system relies on the PAs cooperation with the maliks. Without it, the governance model falls apart. Like the colonial British rulers of the past, no government in Pakistan has managed to take full control of FATA since the country's independence in 1947.
The words of the British commander clearly hint at the fact that, at best, the US and its allies can hope to reach a stalemate with the insurgents in Afghanistan in the absence of a political strategy. The political strategy necessary in a situation like this requires an understanding of the other side's position to negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement. Brute, raw military force and a corrupt Quisling government of Hamid Karzai will not suffice.
As fighting words come out of the mouths of US presidential candidates (particularly Barack Obama) about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is time for the American people to listen to the voices of reason, such as the British brigadier's voice. Let us not be swayed by the political rhetoric of the moment. We need to start thinking about the end game in Afghanistan.