international analysis and commentary

Forecasting the 2012 London conference: several Afghanistans

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The latest conference on Afghanistan, held in London on January 28, officially delivered what it had promised: the increase of security forces, coupled with the reduction in fighters through a “buy-off” scheme, should allow foreign troops to start leaving in a couple of years. Language on anticorruption was also sprinkled throughout the declarations, in order to keep consistency with the concerns voiced during the presidential elections in August.

Thus, the conference produced all that was needed to engineer some optimism in the international community and pass the message that “we are doing it right”: Obama’s decision for a surge was endorsed, Karzai committed to dialogue and a set of new concepts, from reintegration to “infantry improvement”, were passed giving the impression of a new phase. Unfortunately, most of this is not new at all, to the point that one can already guess what the next London conference will eventually propose two years from now: a partition of Afghanistan that will give the Taliban a “Southern Emirate”, leaving the North and the West to more progressive governments – thus, confining the Taliban to a limited area.

In order to understand the pitfalls of the latest conference a close precedent is at hand: the first London conference of January-February 2006, which launched an ambitious compact between Afghanistan and the international community. It set important benchmarks in security and economic and social developments, and there was optimism that Afghanistan was on the right course. No later than May 2006, the insurgency started to raise its head and it soon became apparent that the South and East of the country had not been stabilized. The security concerns eventually disarticulated the debate on the compact and economic and social transformation fell prey to the insecurity problem, as is still very much the case today.

The difficulty with the arrangement agreed at the 2010 London conference is that it fails to offer any credible solution. Pushing ANA and ANP numbers up is like trying to fill a bottle with a hole on the bottom: even leaving aside the lack of sufficient trainers, the desertion rate and the incidence of combat deaths are so high that most of the investments are regularly squandered in a matter of months. At the same time, the stress that the US has been putting on military preparedness since 2001 has prioritized minimal preparation (two-week training modules) over long-term improvement of the human capital and the creation of unified, committed and loyal armed forces. But little can be achieved with a force that is largely illiterate and poorly paid, and therefore prone to ideological manipulation or outright corruption. These problems are not new, and yet no long-term plan has been devised to solve them, as the continuous search for a short-term fix has impaired the possibility of solving the root issues. No amount of money or weaponry can change the human material that is employed in battle. Moreover, the ANA and ANP depend on foreign intelligence and air support and therefore cannot become autonomous. Let’s not forget, of course, that the funds for additional soldiers and police will need to be found among international donors: the entire effort therefore relies on their willingness to foot the bill for an imprecise number of years.

Here, indeed, lies the core of the problem: the international community is saying that it is ready to 1) pay soldiers to fight and 2) pay the Taliban to defect. It is therefore creating huge incentives for the Afghan male population to continue the war on one side or the other and replicate the same pattern already seen in Soviet times: army units quickly discharging their ammunition to pretend they are fighting opponents – in order to get new supplies, some of them possibly to be sold to the enemy – and mujahideen prompting their masters to get more resources to continue the fight. Thus, war – already one of the biggest industries in the country – will be the main source of income for the population and an indirect way to manipulate foreign patrons.

This cannot work. Besides a question of sustainability (how long can we fund such a shaky balance of powers?) and the inconsistent nature of the incentives we would provide, there is also no reason why the Taliban leadership should offer the US and its allies the respite they are so badly seeking. Any government propped up by Western troops is going to be perceived as lacking full legitimacy, so no call for reconciliation can be considered legitimate by the hardline Taliban. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the Reconciliation Programme, managed thus far by Sebghatullah Mojaddedy and which allows repented Taliban to come back into society and receive a piece of land, has so far failed to dent the scope of the insurgency.

The latest London conference, in short, has failed to offer real solutions to the problems on the ground. However, it has showed a clear tendency to settle with some parts of the Taliban insurgency. This may be the key for the next step. If war prospects do not improve for the West, it may well happen that, two years from now, the call for a settlement with the Taliban will take the form of parting the country on a federal basis: in other words, recognizing the insurgents’ strongholds in the South and the East and consolidating the non-Taliban presence in the North and West, possibly with international forces there. Kabul would be the seat of the federal government. Such a scheme would confine the Taliban to a limited area, making them more controllable, and would secure those parts of Afghanistan that have already enjoyed progress under the international presence. It would give the Taliban the burden of managing an administration rather than just opposing the present one in Kabul. Most importantly, the presence of a Pashtun conglomerate would give Pakistan a backyard to rely upon and a clear area of special interest, assuaging its worries vis-à-vis India and giving it a better chance to impose some order among its own Taliban. Finally, having an Islamic emirate inside an Afghan federation would probably be the least problematic way of working out the inclusion of the Taliban in mainstream politics: comparing life between Taliban-controlled areas and areas under different governments, Afghans could decide for themselves where they would be better governed.

This settlement would take a realistic look at the forces on the ground and make overall regional interests more visible and manageable. More importantly, it would define and bring into focus the different “Afghanistans” that already exist. It is probably too early to voice it in official discussions  – as both sides still fight for total control –  but it should certainly be retained as a possibility. It would be wise for the US to play this card sooner rather than later, before conditions impose it, as now seems to be the time for “reintegration”.