An honest assessment of Afghan mistakes, but what is next?

September 21, 2009

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.

What is less encouraging is the fact there seems little political appetite around the globe to fix the mess.AFGHANISTAN

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.

Among  them:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

    – 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.

For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic (Man looks toward Kabul from old cemetery)


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Our government treats the people of Afghanistan exactly the same way that they treat the American public. They think that elections and programs will solve the problem. Our government always has someone to blame, be it the Iranians, terrorists, or the past former white house leadership.

History tells us that there has been a history of strife in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran and Vietnam. History also tells us that the English, the Russians, and now the US have been unsuccessful in resolving local conflicts. Like Vietnam we still have the problem of denial as to how things are, because we have leaders who want to look good rather than face the problem. If we need more troops pull them out of Germany and Japan and make those troop withdrawals permanent.

Posted by f belz | Report as abusive

Why dont I see an article for getting out of Afganistan in any of the major news services? The public doesnt want this war and yet I see it being covertly promoted in all the major news services. Politicos are forcasting a dire future if we leave but no ones talking about the cost of the war and that the US will be so involved that it wont be able to respond if something major comes up. Also does anyone remember Vetnam? The public turned against that war and look what happened.

Posted by Mhammond | Report as abusive

The need to restore confidence and create support of the Afgan population is conflicting with an obvious internal disarray and corruption within the Afgan state. We are and should not rebuild broken communities under the pretext of protecting ourselves on against terrorism. Defeating terrorism at Afganistan, then Pakistan, will just move it over to another-stan without real solution. A different approach is needed and we need to conserve forces to define and execute a different international defence against terrorism. We need to pull out of Afgan-Pakistan and regroup. with the same sense of urgency that seemed to work with the economic crisis.

Posted by TM | Report as abusive

In Vietnam we came to the realization that we were hopelessly chasing success, because the South government was bent on self enrichment, while awaiting our delivery of success into their hands. The South government was weak and inept. It seems to be much the same with the Afgan goverment. My conclusion is to pull the plug now and leave them to the tender mercies of the taliban. Now or later the result will be the same – failure.

Posted by john green | Report as abusive

Seems to be following the Vietnam script.
Protect the population from insurgents -> strategic hamlets -> social, economic, psychological dislocation -> more insurgents.
Body counts are the road to victory -> free fire zones -> any armed Afghan (most when travelling) is a target -> more insurgents.
More responsive leaders -> keep trying coups until find a winner -> more insurgents.
Spend big, spend more -> support from arms manufacurers, chemical companies, computer suppliers, mercenary recruiters, other big media advertisers -> more insurgents.
Stop when national bankruptcy, conscription and civil war -> more insurgents (in the USA).

Posted by Survivor? | Report as abusive

The problem is that we are not willing to do what is necessary to win – and you all know what that is. We have a president who is “uncomfortable with victory.” If we aren’t there to win then get out. Otherwise give ’em hell. NO PALE PASTELS!

Posted by Anne M | Report as abusive

We can’t win in afganistan, so we should get out and take our 100,000 “contractors” with us

Posted by Jim Haber | Report as abusive