I wrote back in November that as we approached the July deadline when President Obama promised to start drawing down troops from Afghanistan, the tensions between politicians and military would re-emerge, as “the military ask for more time to get it right, and Obama tries to hold them to the deal he thought he made in late 2009”. This is now coming to pass, in London as well as Washington.
I also argued that having some sort of public timetable for the troop drawdown was a reasonable solution, perhaps the only solution, to the politicians’ problem of balancing conflicting messages to different audiences in Afghanistan and at home. But the military do have a legitimate complaint about the particular dates the politicians have chosen, which sacrifice the natural campaign timetable to its political counterpart: Obama’s July start-date is driven by the long run up to the next American election, Cameron’s 2015 end-date by the British one.
The military also genuinely believe they have made progress in the last year, with the American surge providing a greater troop density for the counter-insurgency campaign, continued investment in building up the Afghan army and police, and impressive work by American and British special forces systematically targeting Taliban commanders.
The military point to the relative comfort with which international and Afghan forces repelled the Taliban’s recent attempt to retake their spiritual home of Kandahar city — and the difficulty they are having in sustaining their ‘spring offensive’.
General Dannatt in this month’s Prospect goes so far as to assert that British forces “are in the best position yet”, and are “on the verge of winning hearts and minds”. He warns the politicians against a premature reduction in troop levels, urging them to continue “investing troops and cash until the progress achieved is irreversible.”
The optimists’ problem is that the basic shape of their argument — that the military has made progress, but it is fragile, and the next period will be crucial — is one the politicians have heard too many times.
And while the Taliban’s military capabilities may have been “degraded”, they might yet retain the capability that matters most, that of scaring the local population — preventing them siding decisively with the government and international forces — and demoralising the native security forces. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam showed how an insurgency could suffer a tactical defeat which turns into a strategic victory through its effects on morale in country and at home.
The Taliban’s ability to spread their offensive to Northern Afghanistan also threatens to stretch and distract international forces just when they feel they have achieved the necessary density and momentum in the South. These attacks were in areas where the crucial process of “transition” to Afghan security control is due to begin in a month’s time. The Northern attack in Takhar, like the Kandahar prison break a month before, demonstrated the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate or compromise supposedly secure government compounds. It succeeded in seriously wounding a NATO general, and killing one of the few iconic figures in the Afghan security forces, the controversial but respected General Daud, who commanded the police across a quarter of Afghanistan’s provinces. It reflected a wider shift in tactics towards targeted assassinations, which General Daud was worrying about a week before he was killed, observing that “such attacks create mistrust within security agencies and demoralise them.”
Daud said the Taliban had resorted to this tactic because “they are not able to achieve any big victory in clashes with the security forces”. I remember similar claims being made by the British military in 2007 and 2008 about the Taliban’s switch away from direct attacks towards the use of IEDs. A switch in tactics is not always a sign of desperation — and even if it is, that doesn’t mean it won’t work. International military fatalities remain at historically high levels. Just as the optimists should not have presented the usual winter lull in fatalities as evidence of success, sceptics should not now present the usual summer increase as evidence of failure. But wiser commanders acknowledge that in a conflict like this, domestic support is just as crucial and fragile as Afghan support, and fatalities are a major factor.
Any serious assessment of the situation in Afghanistan must range wider than security trends. Just as the success of the American surge and reformed counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq depended on wider factors — political developments in Baghdad, and the attitude of the Sunni and Shia population — so too with Afghanistan.
The most optimistic political development is the start of serious talks with the Taliban. The dispute between the military and the diplomats over these talks is often mischaracterised. Almost everyone agrees that a successful or acceptable outcome in Afghanistan will require a new political settlement, involving some elements of the Taliban. The disagreements (Stephen Grey has written a good recent account) are over details, sequence and timing. The military were right to question whether the Taliban really wanted to talk, or whether we really knew which ones to talk to. But they were wrong — crude, as well as over-optimistic — to insist that they had to break the insurgency first, before talks could start. So it is a welcome development that America has decided to run the military and political tracks in parallel, and agreed to German-mediated talks with Tayyab Agha, the most plausible high-level Taliban interlocutor to emerge so far.
Crucially, Pakistan and India appear to be supporting these talks rather than undermining them. But as yet these are merely talks about talks, and unfortunately there is no similar cause for optimism in relation to other wider factors — the attitude of the local population, the performance of the Afghan government, and the security situation in Pakistan.
NATO has had to apologise for the latest air strike on Sunday which killed 14 civilians in Helmand. General McChrystal sharply reduced the use of air strikes as part of his broader overhaul of the counter-insurgency approach. This was effective, but unpopular with the troops, who depend on air strikes to get them out of tight situations. His successor David Petraeus relaxed the rules slightly — he is a more political general as well as a smarter one, but this could equally have been the first sign that he didn’t have the same single-minded focus he had in Iraq, or the same belief he could win. Either way, civilian casualties have been rising again. The great majority are caused by the insurgency, as even Amnesty International now acknowledge. But those caused by international forces have a disproportionate effect on Afghan opinion, and are ruthlessly exploited by the Taliban for propaganda purposes.
The Karzai government meanwhile has completely failed to distance itself from corruption, let alone seriously tackle it, as illustrated by the continuing saga over electoral fraud, and in particular, the Kabul bank. The latter recently forced DfID and other international agencies to suspend funding of many aid projects; if the problem is not dealt with soon, the payment of state salaries could come under threat. This would be a huge practical as well as symbolic blow to the legitimacy and effectiveness of the government which our military strategy is meant to support.
Finally, the security situation in Pakistan looks increasingly fragile, after a fortnight of high-profile extremist attacks, including the embarrassing penetration of a naval compound in Karachi. Pressuring the Pakistani authorities to step up their action against the extremists is notoriously difficult. There are signs that America has decided to prioritise: first, rebuilding the relationship after the bin Laden operation, and second, supporting and stiffening Pakistan’s resolve in tackling the Pakistani Taliban. If so, then the third priority, the even more difficult task of pressuring Pakistan to take action against the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Quetta Shura, will once again have to wait. That may be the right overall judgement, but it is undoubtedly bad news for the military campaign in Afghanistan.
Looking at this picture as a whole, it will be difficult to blame Obama if, as seems likely, he overrules the optimists in the American military, and insists on a sizeable drawdown this year — saving billions in the process. Before the bin Laden operation, I would have guessed he would aim to reduce troop numbers by 5,000; he may now be able to go closer to 10,000, around ten per cent of the force. For a politician to defy the senior military is never easy, and always risky. Bob Woodward reports Leon Panetta, once Clinton’s Chief of Staff and soon to be Obama’s Defence Secretary, advising Obama two years ago that “no Democratic president can go against military advice… So just do it. Do what they say.” But Obama knows he has a window of opportunity. The latest polls show approval of his handling of “terrorism” and“‘the situation in Afghanistan” up between 7 and 15 points since January; and although people have also become more positive about the success of the Afghan campaign, it is still the case that more people want the troops to come home “as soon as possible” than want them to stay “until the situation is stabilised”.
Where does that leave Britain? Facing another potentially difficult summer, is the answer. Fatalities are likely to rise, though they will probably stay lower than in 2009 and 2010, reflecting our smaller share of the burden in Helmand — having handed over Sangin, the deadliest district, to the US Marine Corps. For symbolic reasons we pushed hard for Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, to be on the list of the first areas to transition to Afghan control — but this could leave us facing awkward questions about whether we are willing to fill holes left by departing allies, with the Canadians leaving Kandahar now, and the Danes facing an election in November that might hasten their exit from Helmand.
It looks like David Cameron is attempting — with greater success — what Gordon Brown tried to do in the run-up to Obama’s last major Afghan decision in late 2009: trying to pre-empt any awkward questions about burden-sharing, and escape the impression that we’re just following the Americans, by guessing the broad outline of Obama’s approach and announcing it first. So Cameron has made clear that 450 out of 10,000 British troops will leave by the end of the year, the first step on the way to his promise that all combat troops will be out by 2015. This has duly exposed the same tensions as in Washington, sharpened in our case by the British military’s desire to erase the perceived stain of Basra. Tuesday’s Telegraph reported the senior British general in the NATO headquarters in Kabul urging the politicians to maintain existing troop levels for another two summers. But the same article also quoted a “senior Whitehall source” pointing out that “the Prime Minister has to be able to reject military advice and take the final decision as he sees fit, because that's what happens in a democracy. The generals don't like that but they'll have to accept it.”
The Conservatives seemed to forget this vital constitutional lesson in opposition; it is healthy, as well as convenient, that they have remembered it now they are in government. It is also politically astute. British public opinion is even less supportive of staying to “finish the job” than Americans, with 70 per cent believing troops should be withdrawn “immediately” or “soon”; and despite what the senior military are saying to Cameron now about the need for “strategic patience”, he may remember from Blair’s experience over Iraq how quickly they can turn against a campaign when they too believe it is lost.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser to the Labour government and wrote the cover story on Afghanistan for The Spectator eight weeks ago.