An honest assessment of Afghan mistakes, but what is next?
It is encouraging that the U.S. administration finally seems to be getting a handle on what went wrong in Afghanistan these past eight years.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s report is a stark and honest assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
A failure to send more troops within the next year and regain the initiative “will likely result in failure,” he said.
Everyone knows that time is running out to get Afganistan right, with political support eroding fast in the West but the Taliban dug in for the long haul and getting stronger all the time.
McChrystal is also right in saying that more troops and more resources are not enough in themselves, and pointing out many of the errors of the past eight years.
– corruption and abuse of power by the Afghan government
– Western troops, who lack an understanding of Afghan society, employing tactics which have alienated ordinary Afghans
– and the failure of aid efforts which “too often enrich power brokers, corrupt officials or international contractors and serve only limited segments of the population”.
I was in Afghanistan as Reuters bureau chief in from early 2002 until 2004, and what is depressing is that many of those mistakes were starkly apparent right from the outset.
Airstrikes which killed innocent civilians are now being acknowledged as counterproductive, and there has been a lot of attention of the failure of the country’s central government.
But there has perhaps been too little attention on the failure of the aid effort, which Ashraf Ghani lambasted as “dysfunctional and lacking accountability” when I met him on my last visit to Kabul in March.
Ghani, an unconvincing presidential candidate but a globally recognised expert on rebuilding failed states, argued that the amount of money NATO spends every month, more than $20 billion, could educate five generations of Afghans.
What has been spent has far too often been wasted.
There has also been too much attention paid to the central government in Kabul — presidential elections were never going to solve anything — and far too little paid to improving local governance outside the capital and even bringing democracy down to the villages.
But how to fix things now?
It is not going to be easy because fixing Afghanistan will be a lot harder now than it would have been in 2002, when Western intervention and troops were largely welcomed in the country.
Perhaps the only way to turn things around is to change perceptions about who is likely to be the winning side.
There may be a parallel with the way the global economy seems to have been pulled away from the brink of depression by massive government intervention, which helped to restore confidence among ordinary people.
In a sense, the only way to change perceptions was to throw the kitchen sink at the problem, to get ahead of the curve.
In Afghanistan, the danger is the West is permanently behind the curve.
Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy announced in March might have been enough in 2002 but looked and sounded inadequate to many people in 2009.
As McChrystal himself said: “inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced”.
So the question is this.
Will more troops come in time to make a difference? Will they be accompanied by a massive surge in developmental resources to Afghanistan, a radical reform of the way aid is administered and delivered, by a serious effort to improve security and local governance outside Kabul and a convincing public commitment to stay the course?
Because if they aren’t, the West will always look like it is chasing the game.
Photo credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic (Man looks toward Kabul from old cemetery)