Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 15:54 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 15:54 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: We can lose, but we can't be defeated

17 March 2008 09:38

Guest blogger: Jeremy Shapiro (pictured) is a fellow in foreign policy studies and director of research at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Hugh White’s view that 'the West will most probably fail [in Afghanistan], no matter how much more we do' is one that finds increasing resonance in the US. I’ve never been sure what failure means in this circumstance, but as near I can figure it, it would mean leaving Afghanistan before the Afghan Government is capable of providing stability on its own. But there exists no enemy that could conceivably compel the West to leave Afghanistan by force of arms, even at the current level of commitment. Moreover, the West clearly has the resources, in terms soldiers, materiel, and money, to maintain its efforts in Afghanistan — or even a much greater level of effort — essentially forever.  

The forces on the ground could without question continue to maintain something at least approximating the current level of stability. We may not consider this precisely 'stability', but, in the context of Afghanistan, this state of affairs represents a significant improvement on the situation since the 1979 Russian invasion and a much better future than one without Western forces. 

Of course, Western withdrawal in the next few years is certainly a possibility, but it would be a choice that we made, a decision that stability in Afghanistan is not worth the price that we are paying. This might under some circumstances be a reasonable choice, but in that case we should not console ourselves with the idea that 'we have done all that we could.' 

As the previous point implies, many of the debates about Afghanistan masquerade as conceptual debates when they are in fact debates about resources. On a conceptual level, there is in fact very little real debate over Afghanistan (unlike Iraq). The mission has UN Security Council approval, commands broad agreement across the international community, and is welcomed by the government and the vast majority of the population of Afghanistan. More controversially, I would assert that we know what needs to be done and how to do it in Afghanistan.  Counterinsurgency and nation-building are hard slogs, to put it mildly, but as an international community we have more than enough experience and expertise in both to know, broadly, what must be done. No, the real debate is not over what we should do, it is over what price we are willing to pay and who should pay it. After all the speechifying and punditry is done, it is those questions that will actually engage Western leaders at the Bucharest NATO summit and beyond. 

Each country must make its own choice and will, as Anthony Bubalo notes, take into account their interests in Afghanistan and beyond — I would not presume to judge that for Australia or any other country. There is a risk, however, that the giant circle of Western leaders, each saying 'please, after you' to the fellow on their right, will simply make the proceedings go round in circles. In that case, there are two possible outcomes: either US forces will continue to fill the gap, or we will give up on the mission, leaving Afghanistan to its fate as we did in the 1990s. Either way, one would wonder whether 'the West' that both Prof. White and I have been using so freely as the subject of sentences actually exists to a degree that justifies that grammatical assertion. 

Clearly, nation-states will never be very good at collective action on hard security tasks. But if, as a community, we are incapable of mustering sufficient resources even for a mission that commands such broad conceptual agreement as this one, then US leaders, even ones from the Democratic party, will conclude that 'the West' has a bigger problem than just failure in Afghanistan.