As the surge in Afghanistan ends it is legitimate to ask to what extent it has achieved its security goals. It is hardly a secret that the overall picture in Afghanistan encompasses complex economic and political factors above and beyond the security situation.
The surge in Afghanistan is officially over: the last of the 30,000 additional American troops deployed by President Obama in December 2009 have left the country.
Of course, 68,000 US troops are still there alongside 38,000 from forty-nine nations [accurate to 10 September] and will remain, in gradually reducing numbers, up to and beyond the end of 2014 as per the agreements reached at the NATO Summits in Lisbon (2010) and Chicago (2012) respectively.
Nonetheless, September 2012 represents a noteworthy milestone in the campaign and has unsurprisingly been marked by active debate in the media as to the success, or otherwise, of the surge. Equally unsurprisingly, the debate has been coloured by the current security situation in Afghanistan, particularly the worrying increase of ‘green-on-blue’ incidents and the US death toll reaching 2,000 (3,195 ISAF fatalities overall)
However, the intrinsic link between security, economics and politics is fundamental to the situation in Afghanistan. At this point we’ll avoid the temptation to insert the usual quotes from Sun Tzu or Clausewitz so suffice to say that improvement in one area will never be achieved without improvement in the others, even accepting that security will never be perfect in Afghanistan.
This has always been the case but is especially pertinent today as we assess the impact of the military surge. As stated by the outgoing NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, Ambassador Simon Gass, on 19 September:
“[T]he biggest uncertainties about the future of Afghanistan are much more about politics and economics than they are about the security situation.”
On the economic and development side, there have long been questions as to why greater tangible success has apparently been so elusive in Afghanistan, despite the huge amounts of western money that have been thrown at the problem. A simple, even simplistic, answer is that too much money has been haphazardly thrown at a complex range of problems which have never been properly defined or understood.
For example, last week it was reported that British development efforts in Helmand province have in fact gone too far, meaning that many new schools and clinics will be closed because the Afghan government cannot afford to sustain them in the medium- to long-term.
This disclosure will not surprise those with experience of reconstruction and development in Afghanistan but it does serve as a strong reminder, if that were even necessary, of the fundamental need to ensure sustainability and genuine Afghan ownership up to and beyond 2014.
That said, the mistakes admitted to by the British presence in Helmand should not detract from their achievements there. More importantly, they should not undermine the continued international support for development in Afghanistan. Referring to the Tokyo conference in July, Ambassador Gass highlighted the relevance of that support for the future of Afghanistan.
“It gives a high degree of assurance that when our countries say that we will support Afghanistan we mean it, because we have put figures to our promises.”
In short, while uncertainties remain in security, economics and development, the international community does have the means to positively affect the situation, although that depends on the Afghan government assuming its responsibilities, notably in seriously tackling corruption. So improvement will primarily be driven by the Afghans themselves but with a tangible international commitment to support them long-term. In the political sphere, in contrast, the solution lies entirely with the Afghans.
Great challenges and uncertainties lie therein, especially in the context of the Presidential elections to be held in 2014. Since President Karzai cannot stand for a third term, this amounts to the first democratic transition of political power in decades. Aside from the obvious need to at least limit (i.e. greatly reduce) the levels of electoral fraud which marked the 2009 elections, the legitimacy of the next government, and by extension its effectiveness, will depend on the political settlement that will emerge over the next two years.
Partly that will likely require some kind of agreement with the Taliban, or factions within it, but this also requires outreach to all ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan. A general acceptance of the political order – firstly through (relatively) fair and legitimate elections – will be just as essential to long-term security and development as the Afghan security forces and international assistance.
In conclusion, as the surge ends it is legitimate to ask to what extent it achieved its security goals but it is hardly a secret that the overall picture in Afghanistan encompasses complex economic and political factors above and beyond the security situation. That being the case, and contrary to what many commentators would have us believe, even now it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions concerning the future of Afghanistan and certainly not when those are solely based on security incidents.
Photo Credit: The U.S. Army