Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Military force alone won't bring peace to Afghanistan. The West must get the local economy into shape, says Ed Butler.
The dark, misty eyes of the village elder in Garmsir said it all: the disappointment, cumulative fatigue and the worry that you only see in civilians caught up in a long-term combat zone. His gnarled fingers spun his worn beads relentlessly; the dry rivulets engrained on his weatherbeaten face belied his relative youth.
He had just spent an hour or more telling me in pained terms about the predicament of the 500 or so villagers – including the elderly, women and children – who had exiled themselves to the desert outside Garmsir, the southern gateway into central Helmand. For the past few weeks, the Taliban had been slowly suffocating the village with increasingly confident probing attacks against the poorly manned and equipped force of Afghan police garrisoned there. The elder explained that the villagers were left with no option but to flee to the sanctuary of the sand dunes, as they no longer felt safe sleeping in their own beds at night.
What really troubled me about this conversation was that, once again, the expectations of the ordinary Afghans that we had ostensibly come to help had been dashed. After years of terror under the Taliban regime, the Helmandis had genuinely thought that we were going to make a difference to their almost medieval way of life.
In this case, the elders of Garmsir wanted no more than £25,000 to rebuild and re-equip the horticultural business that had once been a thriving entity in what was the breadbasket of Afghanistan. Their contention, which I had immediately grasped as the commander of British forces in southern Afghanistan in that long, hot summer of 2006, was that if we could provide jobs and an economic platform for their people, then they would keep the Taliban at bay: they would look after their own security, put food in their own mouths, engage their young men in a sustainable livelihood and, most importantly, persuade the sceptical villagers that life was better under coalition forces than under the Taliban.
Could I persuade the Foreign Office or Department for International Development to take a business-based, rather than aid-based approach, to reconstruction and development? Building a sustainable economic platform, creating jobs and a free market, was and remains the best and most cost-efficient way of transforming a failed state into a more prosperous and safer community. Well over $100 million a year has been spent in aid in Afghanistan since 2001 – to what demonstrable end?
Sadly, I was unable to sway the bureaucrats. The fleeting opportunity passed, and the Taliban exploited the disappointment to their advantage. The resulting bitter battles saw control of the town ebb and flow between opposing sides. The initial Afghan consent for our presence turned, over a matter of months, into tolerance
and disillusionment at best. The exhausted people of Garmsir were telling us then what we are clearly being asked now: does the international community have the bottle and required resources for a long campaign in Afghanistan?
If we are not prepared to make and invest in these key strategic choices, then we must fundamentally amend our definitions of what a successful end to this campaign looks like. Equally importantly, we must adjust and manage the expectations of the international community and our own public as to our aims and objectives in this strategically critical country, within a troubled and increasingly unstable region.
What has at last been recognised by our political leaders is that there is no stand-alone military solution to Afghanistan. As in all counter-insurgency campaigns, the application of military force is just one of the necessary levers in producing a successful outcome. My experience of nearly a quarter of a century of operations, and as an active participant in all of "Blair's Wars", is that the military can only buy time and space for other influences to have an effect.
In Afghanistan, the
military can only contain the Taliban-led insurgency until the Afghans have the capacity and capability to look after their own security, deliver sufficient, Afghan-defined governance and the rule of law, within acceptable corruption levels. The reason many commanders feel frustrated is that the military is not empowered to create lasting peace and prosperity, as the resources are held by the other government departments; notwithstanding this, the military is blamed for not delivering the peace, despite having created the necessary conditions – albeit temporarily in many cases.
Now, therefore, is the time for new solutions, ones that are responsive to the changed battlefields that British and coalition forces find themselves immersed in. Rupert Smith, my fellow former officer, explains in his book The Utility of Force that today's Armed Forces are engaged in "operations among the people". I would go further, and say for the people, and for the community.
If we are to meet our foreign-policy objectives, and our goals in terms of development, we must adopt a new approach to our overseas campaigns that focuses on businesses and economics. This is, I hope, what the new US administration really means by "soft power": jobs, not aid.
Sustainable peace and security can only be achieved in Afghanistan if jobs and economic opportunities are created. This has to involve new joint ventures between the government and the private sector. Not once in my career were businessmen or economists consulted about how to build the infrastructure – roads, bridges, power facilities and factories – in "emerging markets", despite the appetite for such opportunities among CEOs. Multinational companies, for instance in the mining sector, plan and resource their investments, in similar frontier locations, over a time period of 20-25 years. Perhaps there are some lessons for the MoD, and other government departments?
President Obama's strategy to "disrupt, defeat and dismantle" al-Qaeda and the Taliban, combined with an even greater emphasis on capacity-building within the Afghan security forces, will undoubtedly contain the Taliban and prevent Afghanistan sliding back into a failed state, one that can harbour those radicals who want to inflict attacks on civilians in the British and American homeland. To achieve this, the military must take a ruthless approach to those who oppose change and the establishment of Afghan democracy. But to be successful, this must be combined with a "surge" that is both political and economic, one that delivers a better alternative to a Taliban-led government, curtailing rampant corruption and narcotic-fuelled terrorism.
My concern is that time – and popular support – for this misunderstood campaign may well run out before there is tangible success. Just as the Stinger missile did for the Soviets, so the suicide bomber may do for Nato. Furthermore, as a senior government official once said: "We may have the clocks, but they have the time."
Of even more significance, however, is the new US administration's overt recognition that this is now a regional problem, not just an Afghan one. At the tactical level, the British government would do better to focus its resources and mindset not just on "Helmandshire", where our troops operate, but on all of Afghanistan. Such a change of approach could consider putting all British forces and assets under the full operational command of the Americans; this would go a long way towards providing the desperately needed unity of command and single plan that are so patently absent in the current Nato operation.
The message to the elders of Garmsir, and the rest of Afghanistan, must be clear: we are here as long as it takes to make life better than it is now, in terms of security, governance and welfare. The Afghanistan of tomorrow will not look like a Western democracy, with Western values and standards; nor can it again become a haven for Islamist jihadists. A pragmatic start to the new Obama-led strategy would be to ask the ordinary Afghans what they want, where they want to go and at what speed and cost. The big question is: does President Karzai, or even his people, know?
Brigadier Ed Butler was commander of British forces in Helmand. He is now CEO of Corporates for Crisis Ltd, which advises blue chip companies and the financial services on the political, social and community risks of operating in emerging markets.