Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 10:44 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 10:44 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: 'Humility' is a relative term


Sam Roggeveen


21 October 2009 14:43

Anthony Bubalo is quite right — Steve Coll's essay on Afghanistan is a serious challenge to those of us who favour a minimalist strategy in Afghanistan. For one thing, I'm going to be a little more careful in future with the argument that, even if Afghanistan is pacified, al Qaeda can simply move elsewhere. Coll does not dismiss this argument, but he cautions that:

It is simply not true that all potential al Qaeda sanctuaries are of the same importance, now or potentially. Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have a 30-year, unique history of trust and collaboration with the Pashtun Islamist networks located in North Waziristan, Bajaur, and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan...These networks have fought alongside al Qaeda since the mid-1980s and have raised vast sums of money in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states through their connections. They possess infrastructure -- religious institutions, trucking firms, criminal networks, preaching networks, housing networks -- from Kandahar and Khost Province, and from Quetta to Karachi's exurban Pashtun neighborhoods, that is either impervious to penetration by the Pakistani state or has coopted those in the Pakistani security services who might prove disruptive. It is mistaken to assume that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or other Arab leaders would enjoy similar sanctuary anywhere else.

Coll also makes a solid case that this terrorist infrastructure cannot be dismantled by surgical strikes alone. To the extent that such tactics have succeeded so far, it is because the Afghan and Pakistani governments and local populations are providing valuable intelligence. They'll only continue to do this so long as they are convinced the Coalition is serious about defeating the Taliban and building a legitimate Afghan state.

Still, this is not a slam dunk case in favour of continuing or expanding the mission. If an increased al Qaeda presence is the worst outcome of a substantial Coalition draw-down in Afghanistan, we ought to be able to live with that.

Coll doesn't hang his entire case for the Afghan war on reducing the threat of terrorism. He argues that the risks of abandoning Afghanistan go far beyond an increased threat from al Qaeda and take in the broader South Asian region, which could be seriously destabilised as a result of a Taliban return to Kabul. As such, the Coalition needs to take a regional view of its Afghanistan mission:

American policy over the next five or 10 years must proceed from the understanding that the ultimate exit strategy for international forces from South Asia is Pakistan's economic success and political normalization, manifested in an Army that shares power with civilian leaders in a reasonably stable constitutional bargain, and in the increasing integration of Pakistan's economy with regional economies, including India's. Such an evolution will likely consolidate the emerging view within Pakistan's elites that the country requires a new and less self-defeating national security doctrine. As in the Philippines, Colombia, and Indonesia, the pursuit of a more balanced, less coup-ridden, more modern political-military order in Pakistan need not be complete or confused with perfection for it to gradually pinch the space in which al Qaeda, the Taliban, and related groups now operate. Moreover, in South Asia, outsiders need not construct or impose this modernizing pathway as a neo-imperial project. The hope for durable change lies first of all in the potential for normalizing relations between Pakistan and India, a negotiation between elites in those two countries that is already well under way, without Western mediation, and is much more advanced than is typically appreciated. Its success is hardly assured, but because of the transformational effect such normalization would create, the effects of American policies in the region on its prospects should be carefully assessed. (Emphasis added.)

Coll calls his essay 'The Case for humility in Afghanistan', yet this is anything but humble. According to Coll, not only does the Coalition need to build a stable Afghan state, but we have to nurse Pakistan into modernity and shepherd India and Pakistan toward diplomatic normalisation too (it's not clear whether 'normalisation' implies resolution of the Kashmir dispute).

What's more, we cannot leave until all of these aims are achieved. Crikey.