With Britain and its allies increasingly engaged militarily in Syria, Iraq and, prospectively, in Libya too, the have harshly illuminated the stark dangers and unforeseen consequences of precipitate western intervention in foreign lands – and how easily such adventures can go disastrously awry.
was the first intervention of the post-9/11 era, hurriedly launched after the attacks on New York and Washington. The primary US aim was to destroy al-Qaida’s bases. But the mission quickly morphed into regime change. Once the Taliban were toppled, the objective changed again, into nation-building.
The succeeding 14 years in Afghanistan is the story of how the US and its allies have struggled and, so far, failed to create the peaceful, stable, prosperous, pro-western democracy they optimistically envisaged in 2001. As this week’s emergency deployment of US and British special forces and advisers in Helmand suggests, grand policy designs have been overtaken by gut panic.
Barack Obama disowned George W Bush’s Iraq occupation and withdrew as fast as he could, but he took a different line on Afghanistan. In 2009 he in a high-risk attempt to end the war. Yet improvements in security were short-lived. The Taliban could not be beaten; nor could they be induced to make peace.
Nato nevertheless pulled out last year, fingers crossed behind its back. But Obama’s decision in October to halt the withdrawal of the remaining 9,500 US troops showed he no longer believed his own rhetoric about the ability of the Afghan army and police to maintain security. Dismayingly, the elected government of the president, Ashraf Ghani, like that of Hamid Karzai before it, has proved incompetent, divided, and .
Now the US is stuck. It cannot leave entirely and it cannot escalate. Behind the bland White House press statements, it seems plain Obama has not the foggiest idea what to do next.
For all their apparent battlefield successes, the Taliban are not in much better shape. The leadership crisis that followed July’s admission that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years has riven the movement. His successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, faces strong opposition. The were recently forced to deny reports Mansour had been badly wounded or even killed in a factional shootout.
This discord has two major implications. One is that , may be fatally undermined by the fact that no one agrees who speaks for the Taliban. The other is the opportunity these divisions offer the new guy on the Afghan block – the black-flagged hoodlums of Islamic State.
Isis has established itself in north-eastern Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, where clashes with local Taliban are reported. In June, the Taliban asked the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to avoid actions that could lead to “division of the mujahideen’s command”. Their plea was ignored. Isis is now actively recruiting in eastern Afghanistan, using a daily Pashto language to air interviews, appeals and songs.
Last week US Gen John Campbell, commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said Isis controlled up to 3,000 fighters. He warned its influence was spreading. And this takes no account of the residual al-Qaida presence, and the continuing depredations of feudal chieftains such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the powerful Haqqani network.
Thus if all western forces finally upped and left, the Taliban would not necessarily “win”. At this point there would be little to prevent Afghanistan swiftly falling prey to a multi-faction, nationwide fight between Kabul government forces, jihadi groups, indigenous Pashtuns (the Taliban), freelance Sunni mafiosi, and even Tajik militias from the old Northern Alliance. This could take the country back to the disastrous civil war era of the 1990s, destroying the painful societal, educational and humanitarian advances of the past decade and threatening a renewed refugee emergency.
As ever in Afghanistan, regional actors continue to pursue their narrow interests. China is worried about spillover radicalisation of its Muslim population in western Xinjiang province. Russia has expressed similar concerns about the destabilisation of former Soviet central Asian states and the inexorable northwards flow of Afghan opium. such as Abdul Rashid Dostum. Beyond the western border, Iran, as always, looks for advantage.
Like the US and Britain, none of these countries has a credible plan, or even half a half-baked idea, about how to solve the Afghan conundrum. But the principal Afghan lesson is clear, and it is one that applies elsewhere in the world: generally speaking, military intervention just makes matters worse.