Why We Couldn't Change Afghanistan

When the West finally leaves after more than a decade of war, the country will not be so different than how we found it.

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Children look at a smoking German soldier on a patrol in the village of Isa Khel in Chahar Dara district / Reuters

The West's military engagement in Afghanistan is entering its eleventh year and has another two years to go before the end of combat operations in 2014. Whatever the result of the international conferences that began last year in Istanbul and Bonn to elicit support for a successor state, one thing is clear: after Western forces draw down, Afghanistan won't bear much resemblance to the Western vision that fueled the intervention in the first place. However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country's future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country's ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area--and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.

Thus, it is possible to discern a picture of an Afghan future and to predict it will fall far short of the high hopes that attended American and Western engagement there following the al-Qaeda attacks in America on September 11, 2001. These were hopes of an Afghanistan ruled effectively by a central government in Kabul aligned with the West and capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Instead, Western influence will be severely reduced. The central government in Kabul will probably be weak, as it has been for most of Afghanistan's history. The centrifugal effect of Afghanistan's ethnic geography will be exacerbated by intensified involvement, directly and by proxy, of competing external powers. Pakistani, Indian and Iranian influence will increase, as will that of the Afghan Taliban in Pashtun-majority areas and probably within the Kabul political establishment. In the absence of a significant improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, their geopolitical competition, played out by proxy, could become the dominant ideological conflict inside Afghanistan. Given the weakness of the Afghan national polity, endemic corruption and economic dependence on international aid, the long-term survival of any successor regime is doubtful, even without the challenge of a Taliban insurgency more coherent than the mujahideen insurgency of the 1990s.

Two fundamental strategic questions emerge from this picture of the Afghan future. First, in the event of a failure to manage the insurgency in the South and East, where the Taliban is strong and likely to remain strong, can a non-Taliban redoubt be sustained in northern Afghanistan? And, second, how effectively could influence be projected into the Pashtun South in order to prevent, if necessary, al-Qaeda from reestablishing an operational base in that area?

Afghanistan will ultimately follow its own path.

On the first question, historical precedent suggests a non-Taliban North can be sustained. Before 2001, ethnic connections among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, combined with external powers, provided sufficient support to the Northern Alliance to prevent a complete Taliban takeover of the North. But it should be noted that Taliban successes in first Herat and later Kunduz provided an opening for the organization's later campaign against the Northern Alliance. This indicates that future durability is likely to depend on preventing any Taliban footholds outside the Pashtun-majority areas in the South and East. But given the strength of Iranian connections in western Afghanistan, this probably would mean accepting significant Iranian influence over the outcome.

On the second question, it would appear that sufficient influence could be projected into the Pashtun South and East to prevent the area from reverting to an operational base for al-Qaeda, should that prospect emerge as a danger to the West. In other words, al-Qaeda's freedom of operation can be disrupted after 2015 on both sides of the Durand Line, the porous and vaguely marked 1,600-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that bisects the region's ethnic Pashtuns. That is because the demands of providing support to a major counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan would be significantly reduced after the military drawdown by America and its allies and because the example of the successful campaign which ejected the Taliban from power in 2001 is well understood by all Afghan political players.

Perhaps the key strategic lesson of more than ten years of Western involvement in Afghanistan is that, despite the West's economic, technical and intellectual strength as well as its sophisticated expertise in counterinsurgency, it can't effectively compete against neighboring powers such as Pakistan, India and Iran, whose strategic interests in the region make their involvement both nondiscretionary and enduring. If the West wishes to maintain the ability to project power in Afghanistan following 2014, it will have to leverage the antipathy toward the Taliban of non-Pashtun peoples in the northern and western areas. This in turn will require a willingness and ability to work effectively with neighboring players in the region that have significant influence with certain of those non-Pashtuns of the North and West. It will also require a measure of diplomatic humility.

Any effort to assess prospects for Afghanistan after 2014 must begin with an examination of the current military state of play. Since 2010, it has become possible to assess the military surge in southern Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and the picture is somewhat positive at the local level. It should be noted, however, that the increased military presence--and the intensified pressure on the Taliban--was never intended to be permanent. The aim was to provide the Afghan government and the international community with sufficient breathing space to allow them to establish governance with sufficiently strong roots and legitimacy to endure and an Afghan security apparatus with the strength to protect it.

Thus far, where Western forces, particularly Americans, are present in strength, the combination of numbers and the professional expertise developed over a decade of counterinsurgency has disrupted--and in some areas reversed--the Taliban's tactical momentum. The success can be measured in the reduced number of violent incidents where troop densities are highest--down by more than 40 percent since 2009--and in the change in tactics forced upon the Taliban. Before 2008, for example, the Taliban pursued direct engagements, but Western tactics later forced it to make adjustments. In 2009, the balance shifted toward ieds, and from 2010, with the Taliban increasingly pressured in Helmand and Kandahar, the insurgents turned to assassinations of Afghan government officials and high-profile gun and suicide-bomb attacks in Kabul.

But the Taliban's tactical adjustments represent a double-edged sword. One edge reflects the effective counterinsurgency campaign pursued by America and its allies. But the other reflects the adaptability and resilience of the Taliban. Indeed, notwithstanding tactical and local gains by America and the West, it is clear that the insurgency, rooted in Afghan Pashtun society and protected by cross-border sanctuaries, will endure well past 2015. As the cessation of combat operations approaches, the ability of Western military forces to control events will wane significantly.

This does not mean that Western actions between now and 2014 are irrelevant. Effective transition to an Afghan security apparatus is essential. For one thing, the institutional reputation of Western armies is at stake. But beyond that, it is clear that without an effective transition, no Afghan successor state can survive long. This makes the style, timing and nature of the West's withdrawal from combat operations highly significant. Precipitate or sudden withdrawal is likely to damage the fledgling Afghan National Army and will deny time for local police forces to become effective.

But the transition, however it unfolds, is unlikely to define the long-term Afghan future. That future will emerge from deep historical, political, cultural, economic and geopolitical forces and trends, both in Afghanistan and across the region. These forces and trends almost inevitably will sap Western influence in the region as the influence of Afghans and their neighbors will increase. This can be best understood through an examination of the country's ethnic makeup; its weak central government; the tribal and other cultural elements of the South and East dominated by Pashtuns, and of the North and the Hazarajat, largely anti-Pashtun territory; and the geopolitical imperatives of Afghanistan's neighbors.

Ethnicity is a key determinant of identity in Afghanistan. It also affects how neighboring countries interact with Afghans. The country's population includes Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, Baluch, Kuchi and Uighurs. The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, with about 44 percent of the population, most of it concentrated across the southern areas of the country (and in northern Pakistan). There are also a number of Pashtun enclaves in northern Afghanistan, established by the British in the nineteenth century. The Uzbek and Tajik populations are centered north of Kabul, the Hazara in the mountainous areas to the west of Kabul.

This ethnic geography carries immense weight in determining the Afghan future. After Western withdrawal, the Taliban will probably not be able to exert effective control over the whole of Afghanistan. Essentially a Pashtun phenomenon, it will be difficult for the Taliban to command sufficient support in non-Pashtun areas to hold sway there. But the Taliban is strong enough amongst the Pashtuns to rapidly exert control over large areas in the South and East if residual structures fail.

Presented by

Michael Hart is a Royal Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 and was director of defense studies for the RAF from 2010 to 2011.

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