What is “winning” in Afghanistan?

When US troops left Iraq recently, some were criticised heavily for saying “We won”. It wasn’t that kind of war. The understandable wish of young people in a dangerous job to claim their presence had been worth it, the soldier’s wish to be on the winning side, seemed inappropriate to politicians and armchair generals. Their view of the Iraqi problem had changed and become more nuanced during the period of military activity. The troops had only been there to restore order and help the new civilian power, we were told. Civil wars in a way have no victors and many casualties.

The US General and the President in charge of the overall Afghan intervention need to resolve soon what “winning” looks like in Afghanistan. The langauge has changed over the long years of the conflict. We hear less now of war fighting, and more of seeking to buttress the civilian power, more emphasis on dialogue and policing type activities and less on winning a war. Yet our troops still live in dangerous conditions, and the death rate is high. The General himself still says there is hard fighting ahead, and sees the conflict in terms of putting down an insurrection. He simplifies the world into good guys and bad guys, those who support the current government arrangements and those who use violence and other means to try to oppose them or bring them down.

The Taleban are not an easily recognised uniformed army which one day will surrender to superior Allied forces. Nor will they all melt away over the Pakistan border to avoid Allied firepower, as if that were a good result. They can move around Afghanistan freely, blend into communities, win more recruits, win over a village here with their deeds and promises, terrify another village there into a kind of support. There is no advancing Allied front line, securing all behind it for the government.

So is winning going to be bringing the Taleban into the current government process, getting them to be an opposition which uses words rather than guns? Is it going to be driving enough of them elsewhere so the violence is at a less chronic level? Can Afghanistan produce a civilian government with enough credibility and political skill to unite most of the Afghan people behind a single central government of a non violent kind? When will the people of Afghanistan themselves have the confidence and strength necessary to say to the Taleban, you cannot use violence here to further political ends? Or will more Afghans end up saying they share some of the Taleban’s views?

In these difficult conditions there is only so much foreign troops can achieve at the request of the civilian power. Forcing the pace of our exit forces the pace at which the Afghan government has to tacke what are primarily its problems. Foreign troops have to leave some day. Saying the threat of our exit is undermining the job of buttressing the civilian power implies the civilian power is too weak to do the job it needs to do.

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18 Comments

  1. Andrew Parker
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    The only possible outcome is for the western invaders to leave at some point. Idiotic generals and politicians can delay it but in the end it is not their country and not their right to interfere. Murder and torture will never win the population over. The whole "war" was and is a crime.

  2. Derek Duncan
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I suspect that both Iraq and Afghanistan will collapse into chaos when the Western forces leave. In Iraq, it is ridiculous to believe that their new army and corrupt police wil be able to maintain the peace where the highly trained US and other countries were barely able to do so. Afghanistan will be even more impossible because of the leaking border with Pakistan.

    The invasion of Afghanistan after 911 seemed to be sensible, though hindsight makes it look rash. The invasion of Iraq was absurd in that no thought was given to what was to follow "Mission Accomplished". I consider Tony Blair to be (to blame-ed), not because he took us into the fight, but because he clearly did not think about the consequences and ensure that the US had planned properly for the future. He just felt it was "the Right Thing to Do", as he kept on telling us.

  3. cynicalHighlander
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    When they have stirred up the terrorists to bring even more draconian measures to the people in the West as thats what governments want.

  4. forthurst
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Winning? The reason for the war in Afghanistan was the 'need' to build oil and gas pipelines for transport from the Caspian region through Afghanistan to the coast whilst bypasssing the 'bad guys' in Iran. In order to achieve this it was believed that a unitary authority should be created in Afghanistan with a US installed puppet government: thus the 9/11 false flag operation was blamed on Osama bin Laden harboured by the Taliban whose 'refusal' to hand over bin Laden precipitated the attack on a country which had existed in name only. So presumably 'victory' will either be when the original objectives are achieved or a critical mass of people understand the real reasons and demand the immediate withdrawal of our troops when 'victory' will be declared, in any case.

  5. yarnefromhorsham
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Credible Afghan government. Credible Afghan army. Crdible Afghan police force. Dream On. Western values mean nothing to the Afghans – the only way this will be resolved is to leave the "local/adjoining" countries to take the lead.
    Lets just get out – we have enough problems in the UK without wasting more lives and money on a no winner.

  6. Kevin Lohse
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    ". Saying the threat of our exit is undermining the job of buttressing the civilian power implies the civilian power is too weak to do the job it needs to do. " That's the point, isn't it John? A western-style cardboard cut-out democracy is never going to survive in a nation which is still locked in a medieval society.

  7. Alan Wheatley
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    You might ask the Taliban what they think of as "winning" or, in a more practical sense, understand how they see things. If at the end of the day they think they have won, both they and a good many other with a similar view of the USA and the UK will use Afghanistan as a blueprint for more and greater deeds against us.

    So, for the long term, is not the question for us at least as much one of ensuring we do not lay the foundations of yet more trouble ahead.

    Further, quitters tend not to gather allies.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted August 24, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      They might consider that remaining in the field after Western withdrawl might be their victory. They might ponder that there has never been a successful counter-insurgency when the insurgents can debunk to a safe zone outside the control of the occupiers. They might look at Israeli adoption of UN resolution 425 and see what happened to the South Lebananese army following the IDF's pre-announced withdrawl (Hezbollah took over) They might think that if the Afghan national army is not an army after 9 years, 4 more years won't make any difference.

      They not only think they are winning, they are ~ sickening though it is.

  8. H.B.Lloyd
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    We can never win a war against an ideology. Our politicians (UK and US) were too stupid to grasp this point. Could you win a war on Catholicism or Socialism of course not. Bring our soldiers home tomorrow and let this backward country get on with its own way of life.

  9. James Clover
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    I'm afraid it will be difficult leaving Afghanistan to its own devices, as it will be like admitting what no Western government is willing to admit: that not everyone is alike, and that some societies are primitive, have not undergone the Renaissance, industrialisation and the democratic rule of law. They do not share the experience of the West, and it foolish to imagine that they are raring to become like us.

  10. Mike Stallard
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Afghanistan is part of the ancient Persian Empire. Under Islam, it was an integral part of the Abbasid Caliphate. Under the Moghuls, Persia was a fine centre of poetry, art and architecture.
    Now it is invaded by infidels, its Muslim rulers deposed, the towns flooded by dhimmis with guns and appalling manners.
    Do you know what? If I were a person who lived in Persia (what we call Afghanistan of Iraq) I would see it in the same way that the brave Poles saw the Nazi occupation.

  11. Lola
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Winning in Afghanistan is getting the Taliban to realise that although the 'West' will not 'win', neither will they. At which point the Taliban will have to realise that they must turn up and negotiate a settlement. This'll take donkey's years. It did in Ireland, and that little difference is still not 100% settled.

    Of course it would help if drugs were legalised so cutting off the Talibans funding.

  12. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I don't think we can 'win' in Afghanistan by military means – without deploying weapons of mass destruction. What bitter irony.

  13. Afghanistan
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I am a regular visitor to Afghanistan and some of my conclusions about the factual situation can be summarized as:
    Taliban are not very popular any where in Afghanistan and even in Helmand. If people would be given a chance to vote with out any pressure Taliban would never win. USA and Foreign Forces are even more Unpopular than Taliban and people hate the arrogant attitude of Young Soldiers posing as they are from the God.
    Political Process in Afghanistan has people support but people want solution to their day to day problems and provisions of basic needs which is definitely not possible in years or even decades.
    People blame the Foreigners and Foreign Forces for not delivering what they were promised.
    99% of the Afghan people feel happy when Foreign Soldiers are killed. Afghans want the forces to stay and maintain peace. Average Afghan Look at the Foreigners as a threat to his culture, values, religion, and way of life.
    99% Afghans believe that by promoting women rights west is promoting prostitution, and trying to destroy the Afghan society.
    What options west has:
    Women Lib organizations must be banned from Afghanistan. Talk of women rights must be stopped because that Ignite hatred.
    Gender issue must be thrown behind and efforts must be concentrated on the followings:
    Campaign against corruption, Development of Education, Medical, Road, Communication Infrastructure. Provision of Public Utilities.
    Foreign forces must be brought in defensive positions and policing.
    Talk of NEED TO DO MORE in public must be stopped because that ignite hatred. No nation would like to be lectured. Americans must understand that now they do not hold high moral grounds which they have buried in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Garaib, Iraq War, Kidnapping and Torture of the prisoners, detaining the people with out trial etc. so they should not lecture the world. People hate it and understand the hypocrisy.
    Americans Citizens are being ruled by lobbyists and must not listen to them
    They supported the war and now must stand behind the decision and have patience. THERE IS ONLY WORSE OPTIONS IF THEY WILL NOT HAVE PATIENCE & WOULD NOT STAND BEHIND THEIR LEADERS.

  14. Afghanistan
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I am a regular visitor to Afghanistan and some of my conclusions about the factual situation can be summarized as:
    Taliban are not very popular any where in Afghanistan and even in Helmand. If people would be given a chance to vote with out any pressure Taliban would never win. USA and Foreign Forces are even more Unpopular than Taliban and people hate the arrogant attitude of Young Soldiers posing as they are from the God.
    Political Process in Afghanistan has people support but people want solution to their day to day problems and provisions of basic needs which is definitely not possible in years or even decades.
    People blame the Foreigners and Foreign Forces for not delivering what they were promised.
    99% of the Afghan people feel happy when Foreign Soldiers are killed. Afghans want the forces to stay and maintain peace. Average Afghan Look at the Foreigners as a threat to his culture, values, religion, and way of life.
    99% Afghans believe that by promoting women rights west is promoting prostitution, and trying to destroy the Afghan society.
    What options west has:
    Women Lib organizations must be banned from Afghanistan. Talk of women rights must be stopped because that Ignite hatred.
    Gender issue must be thrown behind and efforts must be concentrated on the followings:
    Campaign against corruption, Development of Education, Medical, Road, Communication Infrastructure. Provision of Public Utilities.
    Foreign forces must be brought in defensive positions and policing.
    Talk of NEED TO DO MORE in public must be stopped because that ignite hatred. No nation would like to be lectured. Americans must understand that now they do not hold high moral grounds which they have buried in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Garaib, Iraq War, Kidnapping and Torture of the prisoners, detaining the people with out trial etc. so they should not lecture the world. People hate it and understand the hypocrisy.
    Americans Citizens are being ruled by lobbyists and must not listen to them
    They supported the war and now must stand behind the decision and have patience. THERE IS ONLY WORSE OPTIONS IF THEY WILL NOT HAVE PATIENCE & WOULD NOT STAND BEHIND THEIR LEADERS.

  15. jedibeeftrix
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    Winning can be defined as preventing groups from directly exporting violence or incubating groups that export violence, this can be achieved by continuous cruise missile / uav / special forces strikes, or it can be achieved by creating a space for a representative government with a monopoly on violence.

    The choice really lies with the Afghans, they are on the whole an electorate deemed to be adult and of sound mind, and they should be treated as such.

    The alternative is a dire prescription for the future of governance……….

  16. StevenL
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    To find Bin Laden, wasn't it?

  17. Electro-Kevin
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Bin Laden's head on a plate would at least look like victory in Afghanistan. In truth it's been a disaster.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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