Time to shift from a military to a political exit strategy in Afghanistan

As the US, Canada, and others focus on the 2014 deadline for extracting their military forces from Afghanistan, the neglect of a credible political exit strategy threatens to push that troubled country still further down the path of escalating civil war.

A decade’s worth of UN-authorized military intervention has accompanied major change in Afghanistan, much of it for the better, but one thing foreign forces could not change is the country’s entrenched ethno-political polarization[1] – or, to put it less delicately, the foreign military presence has done more to exacerbate than to  bridge the country’s Pashtun/non-Pashtun divide.

In the absence of national institutions capable of building trust between, and common cause among, Afghanistan’s diverse national communities, its basic divide has found regular expression in military combat. Since the departure of the Soviet Union in 1989, civil war of varying intensity has been a constant feature of Afghan life.[2]

In the first four years of the post-Soviet era armed conflict continued, but at levels far below those of the previous decade of fighting. Violence slowly increased, however, as the Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements of Afghan society, united in their desire to remove all remaining vestiges of Soviet-friendly rule, turned their attention to who would then dominate. That round of the civil war peaked in 1993-1994 and also served as the crucible from which the Taliban emerged, first as a radical Islamist political movement and very soon thereafter as a military force.

The Taliban went on to capture Kabul in September 1996, but the great national divide remained and the fighting, with the largely Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities of the Northern Alliance pitched against the largely Pashtun Taliban and related militias, persisted until 2001 when US forces, in the wake of 9/11, combined with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban Government.

It looked like a new beginning. The civil war seemed to be over, with the Taliban and other Pashtun militias apparently vanquished, and violence levels were lower than they had been for decades. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was authorized by the UN Security Council to support the new Government in Kabul and it began operations in 2002 in a climate of strategic consent – that is, all the major players in Afghanistan appeared to welcome it and saw it as a peace support operation.

At that point the Afghan intervention was consistent with the UN’s basic principles and guidelines for peace support operations – namely that peace support operations be conducted in a political context of basic support, with international armed forces directed toward isolated spoilers without getting caught up in supporting one side in a civil war.

But that soon began to change — slowly in 2003 when the UN authorized ISAF to expand operations beyond Kabul and its environs, and more rapidly by 2005-6 when Canada undertook to take ISAF into the Pashtun heartland in Kandahar province.

The Taliban, it turned out, were far from defeated. Pashtun suspicion of the new Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul remained high, and the climate of strategic consent was rapidly eroding.

The old Northern Alliance/Taliban civil war was back, and that in turn led to ISAF’s basic and fateful error. In defiance of decades of learning from UN peace support operations, ISAF assumed that it could re-establish strategic consent through superior military force rather than through renewed diplomacy and political reconciliation efforts.

And, to be sure, in the escalating military operations against the Taliban the superior military forces proved to be unfailingly successful. But already in 2006 a Canadian military official told a Waterloo workshop that while the Taliban were losing every direct military confrontation with international forces, they had both the capacity and the intention to transform tactical defeats into strategic advantage – and thus to completely erode that strategic consent on which ISAF initially depended.

And the central flaw in Canadian and ISAF sensibility and practice during this period was the determined refusal to recognize that eroding strategic consent was a political reality that needed a political/diplomatic response rather than intensified military effort.

So now, as international forces plan to leave Afghanistan, the fighting continues and the ethno-political divisions are undiminished.

There are welcome indications of increased political/diplomatic efforts to address those divisions, not least through a regional effort launched by a 2011 conference in Istanbul.[3] The search for credible power sharing arrangements and the creation of trusted national institutions capable of mediating basic conflicts without resort to force is obviously daunting, but it is as essential as it is difficult and is worthy of primary attention.[4]

Meanwhile, it is renewed resort to force that increasingly occupies the thoughts and actions of ethnic and militia leaders contemplating the exit of international forces. Their preparations focus on an anticipated spike in Afghanistan’s enduring civil war. The Northern Alliance under the newly-organized National Front is actively mobilizing non-government militias to prevent what they fear will be a surging Taliban takeover bid when the international forces leave.[5]

ISAF and countries like Canada pursue their own brand of military mobilization in anticipation of heightened civil war by intensified training and expansion of government armed forces.  What militia leaders and the international community alike ignore are the lessons of decades of UN peace support operations – namely, that political divides are deepened, not bridged, by brute military force.

International forces are set for major withdrawal come 2014; preparations for that transition need to be understood primarily as political, not military, challenges.


[1] Citha D. Maass and Thomas Ruttig, “Is Afghanistan on the Brink of a New Civil War?” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, August 2011. http://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publications/swp-comments-en/swp-aktuelle-details/article/afghanistan_a_new_civil_war.html.

[2] A more detailed account, with appropriate sources provided, can be found at: Ernie Regehr, “The Road to Kandahar”: Ignoring Accepted Peace Support Principles,” presentation to the G-78 Conference oiin Ottawa, September 28-29, 2012, on the Panel: The Road to Kandahar. Soon available at: http://www.web.net/~group78/conference2012/con12_main.shtml.

[3] “The Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan,” see Astri Suhrke, “Towards 2014 and beyond: NATO, Afghanistan and the ‘Heart of Asia’,” NOREF Policy Brief, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, August 2012. http://www.peacebuilding.no/Regions/Asia/Afghanistan/Publications/Towards-2014-and-beyond-NATO-Afghanistan-and-the-Heart-of-Asia

[4] See, for example:

Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, Co-Chairs, International Task Force on Afghanistan in its Regional and Multilateral Dimensions, Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace, Report of The Century Foundation Task Force (New York: The Century Foundation, 2011).  http://tcf.org/media-center/2010/lakhdar-brahimi-and-thomas-pickering-to-chair-international-task-force-on-afghanistan

James Shinn and James Dobbins, Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, August 2011). http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1131.html.

Michael Semple, TheoFarrell, Anatol Lieven and Rudra Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation,” Briefing Paper, Royal United Services Institute, September 2012. http://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/Taliban_Perspectives_on_Reconciliation.pdf

[5] Graham Bowley, “Warlord’s Call to Arms Unnerves Afghan Officials,” the New York Times International Weekly, 25 November 2012, p. 7.

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