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.