Afghanistan: Can we learn from our mistakes?

As the conflict in Afghanistan approaches its tenth anniversary this October, we take a look at Yale’s forthcoming book Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way, a major new assessment of strategy in this most unstable of nations.

The recent death of Osama Bin Laden has prompted fears in the West about the resurgence of terrorist violence from al-Qaeda. There is also deep concern that Taliban forces in Afghanistan, galvanised by the death of such an influential figure, will begin reasserting their strength in an attempt to recover authority over the country.  The Guardian newspaper reported today that British military leaders are particularly concerned about the Taliban exploiting the ‘power vacuum’  after the handover of security to local forces in 2014. It would be disastrous to witness Afghanistan fall once again into religious extremism and international seclusion, especially after ten years of bitter conflict.

Royal Marine Commandos in the town of Barikju, Northern Helmand, Afghanistan.

The initial aim of NATO forces, to topple the Taliban regime and replace it with a more democratic government aligned to Western interests, was swiftly achieved. However, stabilizing the country in the ensuing years has proven much more difficult. Despite billions of dollars in aid and military expenditure, Afghanistan remains a nation riddled with warlords, the world’s major heroin producer, and the site of a seemingly endless conflict between Islamist militants and NATO forces. The pressure to pull forces out of the country by 2014 has become an enormous political issue, and today’s concerns from General James Bucknall emphasis a feeling from the military that their job is nowhere near complete. Bucknall said:

“Until we have made it clear that the international community is not going to abandon Afghanistan in the near term, until that time, the insurgents will think that they can wait out the campaign. The Afghan people will not necessarily have the confidence to back their own government. And it is important that the regional players understand that the international community is going to be here for some time to come. December [2014] is not a campaign end date but a waypoint – a point at which the coalition security posture changes from one that is in the lead to one that is mentoring and advising, but is still here.”

This may be bad news for politicians, who will be keen to draw a line under the conflict once and for all, but if miliatary leaders are to be believed , Western forces will need to maintaining a presence in Afghanistan for some time.

In the timely and important book Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall offer a panoramic view of international involvement in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010. Tackling the subject matter as a whole, Bird and Marshall weave together analysis of military strategy, regional context, aid policy, the Afghan government, and the many disagreements between and within the Western powers involved in the intervention. Given the complicating factors of the heroin trade, unwelcoming terrain, and precarious relations with Pakistan, the authors acknowledge the ways in which Afghanistan has presented unique challenges for its foreign invaders.

Ultimately, however, Bird and Marshal argue that the international community has failed in its self-imposed effort to solve Afghanistan’s problems and that there are broader lessons to be learned from their struggle, particularly in terms of counterinsurgency and the ever-complicated work of ‘nation-building’. The overarching feature of the intervention, they argue, has been an absence of strategic clarity and coherence. Furthermore, in the continued absence of a clear and coherent strategy for Afghanistan, the threat to Western interests from the region will not be reduced, and may grow.

Coming Soon from Yale:

Losing Small WarsLosing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan by Frank Ledwidge is a thoughtful and compellingly readable book. Ledwidge (a former military intelligence officer who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq) examines the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking how and why it went so wrong. With the aid of copious research, interviews with senior officers and his own personal experiences, he looks in detail at the failures of strategic thinking and culture that led to defeat in Britain’s latest ‘small wars’. It is an eye-opening analysis of the causes of military failure, and its enormous costs. This book is not yet available, but you can read more about it in Yale’s Autumn/Winter 2011 Catalogue.

Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way is available now from Yale University Press.

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