Afghan War Skeptics Speak Out Amid U.S. Optimism
The military’s assessment of the Afghanistan war, made public Thursday, offers a rosy view of the United States’ future in the region. But an open letter to President Obama, which carries the signatures of 23 academics, analysts, journalists and former diplomats with experience in and knowledge of the region, paints a much grimmer picture.
The letter criticizes the overall strategy of the war effort, calls for negotiations between the Taliban and the coalition forces, and asserts that – despite the money spent and lives lost in the nine-year war – the situation has worsened.
“The operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and in Helmand provinces are not going well,” the letter states. “What was supposed to be a population-centred strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property.”
It goes on to question the possibility that Afghanistan will be able to take control of its own security by 2014. The Obama administration has stood by its promise to meet this deadline.
Neon Tommy spoke with one of the co-signers of the letter, Gerard Russell, a former diplomat who worked for Britain and the United Nations on Afghanistan and the Middle East for 14 years.
Neon Tommy: What was the goal behind organizing the writing of this open letter?
Gerard Russell: I wasn’t the organizer, but I think that the organizers care a lot about Afghanistan and feel that it is important not to delay much longer before serious efforts are made at reconciliation.
NT: You’re talking about reconciliation between the Taliban and the U.S. and NATO forces?
GR: Yes. What I’m talking about essentially is, I think that U.S. public opinion must get used to the idea that the Taliban and the Afghan government may reach a peaceful settlement.
NT: It’s interesting that you mention public opinion, because it appears that there is a lot of disillusionment with the war, or that they’re not interested, or they’re in it to win it, so to speak.
GR: Right. I mean, that’s very understandable. But the truth is this isn’t like a conventional war where just by eliminating the biggest ship or getting a surrender from the biggest ship, you can end a war. What we’ve got here is a very fragmented enemy, and to end the conflict in Afghanistan is going to take more than just defeating them. It’s going to take actually persuading them to support the Afghan government, which will be a much bigger task.
NT: Especially considering that even the U.S. doesn’t seem to have much confidence in [Afghan President] Hamid Karzai.
GR: I guess that’s a different issue. The good thing about President Karzai is that he isn’t unacceptable to the Taliban. That is, to Pashtuns and devout Muslims. And for a lot of them, he’s not the problem. They have a problem with how the government works at the local level in Afghanistan.
NT: Can you elaborate on that?
GR: A number of people who have been in southern Afghanistan have told me – and I’ve met Afghans who say this – that mainly people are upset with the district governor. They don’t see the President in their daily lives. They see the police force taking bribes, they see the courts not functioning and they see local officials failing to do their jobs. So, these are the problems that the average Afghan is concerned with.
If you look at testimony, you’ll see plenty of Taliban directions that are in line with Karzai, so it’s not about him personally. It’s about the way the country is run. So a large part of the solution, I feel, is going to be decentralization.
NT: So, a completely different form of government?
GR: Yeah. A government that, on the local level, allows people to have much more say about how they’re run. The things that people are complaining about are very often local.
Sometimes the problems start at the top or they start in Kabul, but the manifestation of it – so what people are actually reacting to – is, generally speaking, something happening in their village, in their area. And there will be cases in which people are joining the Taliban simply because they want to fight foreigners, so it is not necessarily the case that they are hostile to the Afghan government.
NT: The Pentagon’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan is pretty optimistic. It even cites the military actions in the southern regions of Kandahar and Hemland provinces as making progress, but your letter says the opposite.
GR: I wouldn’t say that they are failing, as such. However, I think that the point is the necessity of talks, regardless of whether the military campaign succeeds or fails. You can easily say that bringing tanks into populated areas is not a population-focused approach.
I have to say, in the academic community there is a lot of skepticism about the claims of success.
But I think the point is, regardless of military success, what you’re seeking to achieve is a change in the mentality of the people. And military success does not guarantee that by any means, especially when that military success is achieved by an army – the American army or the British army – which is not going to stay in Afghanistan, and which is a foreign army.
So, the Afghans have a very long memory of colonial British India and the wars with the British. And they don’t necessarily accept that just because they’re defeated in one battle means they have to concede the war. So, I would say we should be very, very assuming that military success shouldn’t divert us from political strategy, because in the end, this is about changing people’s minds.
NT: What happened to the American military's “hearts and minds” campaign, then?
GR: It’s been a tough insurgency and I do have a lot of respect for the military. And I think that they incorporate that into what they do. But frankly, it’s not going to be about foreign soldiers winning Afghan hearts and minds. It’s going to be about the Afghan government winning the hearts and minds, and in order to do so, they’re going to have to talk with the Taliban, because the Taliban have succeeded in gaining a foothold in a number of areas of Afghanistan.
And frankly, it worries me to think that we might rely upon military forces for that problem. It is a psychological and a political issue, and it should be dealt with as such.
NT: How can Americans be convinced that negotiating with the Taliban is an acceptable option?
GR: Well that’s why it’s important for people to speak up when they see that it is necessary. The truth is that the negotiation of settlements will happen with the Taliban one day. It may or may not involve America, but it will happen. It will happen between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And the only question here is whether or not America will have any influence it the matter. So if it engages now, then America will have an influence. If it doesn’t, then it will happen after American forces withdraw and there will be no international involvement.