Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, Wednesday 29th July 2009
Fact is at last fighting fantasy in Afghanistan. Fact is that Tony Blair’s vainglorious jihad against the Pashtun insurgency is not succeeding, and British commanders, diplomats and politicians know it. After three years of “inkspots”, hearts-and-minds and take-hold-and-build, that battle-weary siren of defeat, talking to the enemy, is back onstage.
While on Monday the prime minister was greeting Operation Panther’s Claw with a parody of Lady Thatcher’s triumphalism, “Rejoice, just rejoice”, the deputy chief of the defence staff, Lieutenant-General Simon Mayall, was bizarrely declaring that the current Afghan war was “not against the Taliban”.
Other British ministers suddenly went anthropological. The foreign secretary, David Miliband, professes to detect not just good Taliban and bad Taliban but “three tiers” of Taliban. His colleague, the development secretary, Douglas Alexander, has newfound friends in the “moderate Pashtun”, allegedly eager to do something called “renunciate violence”. The defence minister, Bill Rammell, wants to “peel away the footsoldiers” and rebuild trust in government institutions.
This awayday at the school of oriental studies cannot conceal the fact that we have been here for years. The one thing you know (and the enemy knows) about a named military operation is that it ends, which is one thing counter-insurgency can never do. All talk of talking to the Taliban forgets that Americans were talking to the Taliban before 9/11. Indeed, they spent a fortune training and arming them against Russia. Britain’s first Helmand offensive in 2006 concluded that the Taliban would not be beaten and was followed by talking and a “cessation of hostilities”, involving a series of local deals with (good) Taliban and a joint withdrawal agreement. It was later regarded as a disaster.
Advocates of such a strategy are scrupulous to plead cases where it seems to have worked. The first British commander in Helmand, General Sir David Richards, insisted that he was merely repeating the Malayan inkspot strategy, apparently unaware that Pashtun were no more akin to Malays than they were to Geordies.
Now we are told by Miliband “the lessons of Northern Ireland” should be applied to Helmand. For years, Ulster secretaries refused to talk to Sinn Féin “until the men of violence lay down their guns”. Yet eventually there were talks and they duly laid down their guns. Now that Johnny Taliban has had a right drubbing, the Foreign Office implies, if he promises to stop shooting at us he should be offered a loya jirga a dozen cows and honorary membership of the Travellers Club. Then we can go home.
The comparison is false. Sinn Féin never laid down its guns before talking. Had it done so, it would have split and continued to be worsted at the ballot box by the government’s preferred Catholic party, the non-violent SDLP. Sinn Féin fought on and, though it did not win a united Ireland, its use of violence was effective. The SDLP was all but wiped out and Sinn Féin emerged as the voice of nationalist Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin leaders were in government and enjoying a de facto veto over its decisions. Whitehall can rewrite history, but Northern Ireland showed violence works.
Anyway, Afghanistan is not Ireland. Britain is not the sovereign power in Kabul, nor is the Taliban a single political entity. Its disparate warlords and commanders owe allegiance to different factions under thePashtunwali umbrella. The one thing that unites them is anger at the British ending their tolerated domination of southern Afghanistan in 2006 and a desire to rid the country of westerners. That is not negotiable.
Any reader of Ahmed Rashid‘s study of the Taliban will attest that the movement is little more than a religious banditry, motivated by tribe, war, pride, money and Allah, roughly in that order. After Mullah Omar took power in Kabul in the mid-1990s, the one moderating force was the exigences of that power. Taliban leaders were forced to co-operate with the Northern Alliance, treat with the CIA on drugs, and appease its Pakistani and Saudi sponsors. Younger bloods were also unhappy at hosting Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida Arabs.
All scope to manipulate that leverage after 9/11 was swept away by the foolish 2001 invasion. Lines that might have been put out to “moderates”, even after the invasion, were abandoned in favour of what amounted to an Anglo-American war of eternal occupation. The drone bombing of Pashtun villages is said by intelligence reports to have wiped out roughly half the established Taliban leadership, mostly those with whom the west might now be “talking”.
Each assassination brings a hothead to command, eager to prove his anti-Nato spurs and less inclined to negotiate. Each recruits dozens of fighters and provokes a furious revenge. The drone killings are directly counter-productive to Miliband’s stated policy, yet he supports them. It makes no more sense than Gordon Brown’s belief they have something to do with “terror on Britain’s streets”.
Any dispassionate observer returning from Afghanistan reports the same message. This is not working. People do not want their hearts and minds bribed or their infrastructure rebuilt. The money just gets stolen. They want their poppy crop left in peace and they want to know which sheikh or Taliban warlord will rule their lives a year from now. After years of being bombed, bankrupted and betrayed, they wonder who can offer them security. The answer is neither the British nor the regime in Kabul.
When Britain ruled the adjacent Punjab, its power was based on a large land army and the belief that it would never leave. It sent out its brightest and best. They stayed, and those who collaborated with them prospered. Today those who collaborate are murdered and night letters are pinned to their doors.
Everyone knows that the British will go but the Taliban will stay. That is why the strategy of take, hold and build is mere pastiche imperialism. It relies on the palpable nonsense that the Afghan army, a drugged militia of little competence and less loyalty, will fight and defeat its Pashtun cousins. It will not.
All wars end in talking, even if the conversation is usually brief and one-sided. Such will be any deal with the Taliban, good or bad. As the Canadians and most Europeans have realised, Afghanistan is essentially a war of American vendetta, and the more stupid for it. Yes, it will end in talk, but how many more must die first?