Adrian Hamilton: We are now irrelevant to Afghanistan's future

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The Independent Online

Sherard Cowper-Coles, our loquacious former ambassador to Afghanistan, was on the radio yesterday practically breaking down in tears at the prospects for the country. We were leaving, he argued, without a proper international plan. The conference on Afghanistan which has just taken place in Bonn was a farce. Holding it without the Taliban or Pakistan was like holding one on Northern Ireland without including Sinn Fein or the Republic.

He's right on all counts. The massacre of Shia worshippers in Kabul on Tuesday and the roadside bomb which killed nearly 20 civilians yesterday are the most shocking intimations of the violence and breakdown of security which could follow our declared withdrawal over the coming two years.

It's been madness, say those concerned with Afghanistan, including Cowper-Coles, to set a date for our leaving without organising a proper international plan to prepare for it. Even long-standing critics of our involvement now worry that, by setting a deadline, we are encouraging a struggle for power which could tear the country apart.

The concerns may be justified. Yet it is hard to believe that the security situation would have been any better if we had not given a date. Leaving the future up in the air, or implying an open-ended commitment, would not have prevented a contest for power developing, only confused it.

The presence of foreign troops is part of the problem, not a solution to it, however effective local pushes in particular areas may be. Indeed it is possible to argue that, by giving a date, we have encouraged the Taliban and insurgent forces to stay their hand, knowing that the power play could wait until we left.

Should there now be a descent into sectarian warfare – which one prays will not be the case – it will be the result of foreign intervention, not home-grown tensions. Sunni violence against Shias is a feature of Pakistan and Iraq rather than Afghanistan, which has relatively little history of it, partly for geographical reasons. Mountains tend to keep ethnic groups apart in a way that cities don't. If the Taliban didn't carry out these atrocities – and they deny them – it seems far more likely that they were planned in Pakistan by those in whose interests it is to promote a collapse of civil order, rather than domestic insurgents who see such intercommunal violence as self-defeating to their hopes of power.

For all US efforts, that is not a reason for hoping it might be possible to disengage the so-called "moderate" Taliban from their more extreme colleagues. So long as we are there as foreign invaders, treating with us will be seen as treasonable, while the government of Hamid Karzai is too weak and too implicated in the rule of the warlords to be considered a negotiating partner.

Cowper-Coles's answer would be a grand international conference of all the regional players to agree a settlement. It may be a good idea in principle but it's hardly possible, let alone workable. Britain, America and Europe are currently pursuing a policy of confrontation with Iran, the one country which could act as a brake on the Shia response to assault. Nor are relations much better with Pakistan, which, given drone attacks and Indian meddling, feels no incentive to act as a constructive partner in peace. Indeed, there are elements there which clearly feel the opposite.

This is one measure of our failure in Afghanistan as we begin drawing down our troops. A more important one is the failure to bring to the Afghan people the security, the investment or the hope that might have made our invasion seem worthwhile to them. What no one likes to admit is that, just as in Iraq, we went in to Afghanistan without an idea of what we would do once we'd unseated the regime, and now we are leaving it, just as in Iraq, largely unconcerned to the future of the Afghans.

Can an Arab Spring survive a Russian winter?

If the demonstrations against Vladimir Putin gather pace and if (as some of his advisers urge) they're put down with extreme force, do we then consider imposing sanctions as we have in the case of Syria?

It's not a purely theoretical question. We should have learnt from the experience of the Arab Spring not to dismiss the idea that popular uprisings can spontaneously combust and bring down governments. We should have also learnt that regimes are able to drag out their end with brute force. As a regime, Putin's has shown as little adaptability to change as the Assads' in Syria. Bussing in paid young supporters to Moscow to shout down protesters is all too gruesomely reminiscent of similar scenes in Damascus and Tripoli.

The difference, of course, is that Russia is a nuclear power and a member of the UN Security Council. As in the past, the US and Europe would probably prefer a strong man such as Putin in power rather than the uncertainties and fractures of a real democracy. The demonstrators on the street, however, don't see it in those terms and no one knows just how much force they have behind them.

Should they come out in numbers again this weekend, do we openly applaud or secretly hope that it will all fizzle out?