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Winning and Losing in Afghanistan

1 October 2008

1:33 PM

1 October 2008

1:33 PM

A rather interesting development in Kabul. The French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaînė (France's Private Eye) claims that the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has told the French that the war is lost. According to Le Canard:

The British ambassador and his deputy have in turn contacted me to pass on their analysis of the situation before the Franco-British meeting on Afghanistan. These were their main points:

— The current situation is bad. The security situation is getting worse. So is corruption and the government has lost all trust. Our public statements should not delude us over the fact that the insurrection, while incapable of winning a military victory, nevertheless has the capacity to make life increasingly difficult, including in the capital.

— The presence — especially the military presence — of the coalition is part of the problem, not the solution. The foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse without them. In doing so, they are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from the crisis (which, moreover, will probably be dramatic.

The British Ambassador also told the French:

The reinforcement of the military presence would have a perverse effect: it would identify us even more clearly as an occupying force and it would multiply the number of targets (for the insurgents).

We have no alternative to supporting the United States in Afghanistan… but we should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one.

"Within five or ten years from now… (it would be positive) if Afghanistan were governed by an acceptable dictator… This outlook is the only realistic one and we should prepare our public opinion to accept it… In the short term we should dissuade the American presidential candidates from getting more bogged down in Afghanistan…. The American strategy is destined to fail.


Now, of course, a) this may not be true and b) is only one, admittedly well-placed, man's view. Nonetheless, let's suppose that this is an accurate summary of the British Embassy's views. What does it mean?

At the very least one might hope it will cause some people to ask some questions. We like to think of Afghanistan as the "good" war. But what does that mean? Allied troops have been in Afghanistan for six years now and a military victory remains elusive. Is this merely a matter of resources? If it's not, then how useful are promises to pour more troops into Afghanistan? And what does victory look like anyway? How sustainable are current operations? In fact, are we more concerned with "winning" the "war on drugs" than with pacifying the Hindu Kush and Helmand province? To what extent is the drug war compromising our ability to achieve our other objectives? Furthermore, what sort of threat does the Taliban (and a rump al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan pose to the non-Afghan world? Is it containable absent a military occupation? How long should our current occupation last? Dare we tell the public? Can we win? What are the adverse consequences, if any, of winning?

I don't pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I'd be interested in seeing them asked in Washington and London and Paris. The Ambassador, if he's been quoted correctly, may well be wrong. But what if he's right?

[Hat-tip: Art Goldhammer]


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