Contrary to the spin regarding the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, withdrawal of British troops from the country is being driven solely by insider attacks and opposition at home.
The exit strategy for the ISAF had been getting Afghan security forces to fend for themselves, so that control of the country could be continued by proxy. This task, by all credible accounts, has not been achieved. Rather, the insider attacks have scuppered the training program, and now we are seeing the onset of the “cut and run” that politicians have talked up for so long.
Think what you will of the politics of the resistance, but even if you mischaracterise all, or even most, of the opponents of occupation as Islamist, the strategy of “insider” attacks has an undeniable Tet quality to it. It should also be noted that a resistance on any scale, let alone the scale of the insurgency in Afghanistan, needs support and sanction by the population to go anywhere.
An insurgent relies on the people for support, intelligence, shelter and political approval, even for extra firepower. Attacks on ISAF patrols in Afghanistan in the past have been supported, quite spontaneously at times, by locals coming from miles around to take pot-shots at the intruders, as was reported in David Kilcullen’s excellent book The Accidental Guerrilla.
The long game
Likewise, it’s easy to refute claims by a leading US general that a lack of fighting in Helmand – leading to the boredom of marines – constitutes a sign of progress. To make that argument you would have to ignore, firstly, the seasonal nature of fighting in Afghanistan - did anyone tell the general it is winter? Secondly, you’d have to miss the nature of the war itself; what insurgent would blunder into a province flooded with US Marines? The Afghans have played the long game. It has served them today as it has in previous occupations.
The only way out for ISAF was for the constituent militaries to train their way free, so the whole program had come to rest on this, and the threat of insider killings has made that plan politically untenable. For good measure, even our own side consider the ISAF presence an “occupation”.
The other major factor in this is, of course, the rejection of the war at home. Though not because the public do not grasp Afghanistan’s complexities, as has been suggested in the past – rather, it’s precisely because people do understand. The occupation has become a conversational punch-bag, it seems, everywhere except Westminster; though one suspects that in some quarters it is a grim in-joke there as well. At the same time as people support servicemen on a human level and condemn their betrayal by successive governments, the war has been a waddling tragedy since 2006.
It is an insult to talk of withdrawal in terms of the cost in pounds, as some do, when the cost in mutilation and death is what cuts us the most. I do not count these deaths as lightly as the government; I have seen a number of familiar faces appear on television, accompanied by words like: “Today, another soldier…”
What is clear is that the Afghans, portrayed as feckless and needy each time the occupation needed to be re-justified, are still, as ever, capable of controlling their own territory and their own lives and driving occupiers out of both. Defeat has been a steady drip-drip for the west, but it is defeat nonetheless.
Like Iraq, Afghanistan has a reasonably pliable government for now, but arguably the greatest collection of military power in history has been ground down by ordinary people with no planes, no armour, no drones and no illusions about why Afghanistan was invaded.
Even very recently in the Kabul Bank saga, it has been clear that capital flows out of the country and I would expect that to increase in the coming months. I also expect to see prominent public figures rushing to catch up with their loot in Dubai and similar sanctuaries.
More conventional attempts at robbery are being employed at home to escape a grim fate in Afghanistan. Only this week Private Stephen Evans, 20, of the Royal Welsh Regiment was convicted for attempting an armed robbery in order to escape of a third tour of Afghanistan. The judge took into account his “suffering post-traumatic stress disorder following his tour of Afghanistan”.
A bizarre route to take, but not totally inexplicable when you realise the average reading age of a soldier joining the infantry is ten and most other ways to get treatment or air objections are obscured or denied.
This young man may have been expressing a conscientious objection; which soldiers have a legal, contractual right to have recognised. It is a hard road, but it is better than being the last man to die for hubris.