Paddy Ashdown: What we must do to win this war in Afghanistan

In this important and timely essay, Lord Ashdown argues that the history of the Afghan war is one of continuous mistakes, and outlines the key factors which can transform defeat into success

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On 18 December 2001 Tony Blair, speaking to me in Downing Street about the West's imminent invasion of Afghanistan, promised "We will have a very limited operation... It will be confined to Kabul, and then we will get out early. I don't mind... going in early, providing we can leave early." I said that seemed wise – it was very easy to get bogged down in Afghanistan.

I start from the proposition that the war in Afghanistan is one we have to fight and must win. The cost of failure there is just too great. It includes the certain fall of Pakistan and the possible emergence of the world's first Jihadist Government with a nuclear weapon; the re-creation in Afghanistan of a lawless space open for the preparation and export of international terror; the consequent deepening of what is already the most potent immediate threat to the internal security of countries like ours; a possibly mortal blow to NATO, especially in Washington's eyes. And, some even say, the possibility of a widening Sunni/Shia conflict in the Middle East, with potentially baleful geo-political consequences for all.

The problem is that we are not winning.

The reasons for this are many and go much deeper than the wrong equipment and lack of helicopters. Indeed our concentration on "giving our lads the right kit" is in danger of distracting us from the real issue, which is having enough "boots on the ground" to do the job and the right strategy to ensure that tactical military victories no longer get lost in strategic political defeat, because of division amongst the international forces and the lack of a properly integrated plan.

By 2006 Tony Blair's promise of "quick in and quick out" had got, as so often before, side-tracked by the fatal temptations of mission creep. In February that year, Defence Secretary John Reid described our task as establishing democracy, ending terrorism, achieving security in the south of Afghanistan, helping the Afghan economy and dealing with poppy destruction, while other government ministers increasingly seemed to regard the British intervention army in Afghanistan as the armed wing of the Islington Labour Party. And so the limited military aim of driving out al-Qa'ida, migrated into another full-scale attempt, in a far-away country, to create a state of which we in the West can feel proud.

We then proceeded to under resource our over ambition by investing in Afghanistan only one-25th of the number of soldiers and one-50th of the amount of aid per head of population that we put into post-war Bosnia – and Afghanistan is much, much more difficult than Bosnia.

Having thus set ourselves up for failure, we made it almost certain by creating an international architecture in Afghanistan that is confused, duplicated, without clear lines of command, devoid of any kind of single workable operational plan, and completely unable to act in a properly co-ordinated way, or speak with a single voice.

In June 2006, General David Richards, then commanding British troops in Afghanistan, got himself into some hot water by daring to state the obvious when he described the International Community's efforts in Afghanistan as "near anarchy". He set up a mechanism to try to correct this, which worked well for a while, but then fell into disuse.

And now things are once again back to where they were, with each nation thinking Afghanistan is where they happen to be fighting; the British in Helmand, the Canadians in Kandahar, the Dutch in Uruzgan, the Germans in Badakshan province and the US, at least until President Obama changed the policy, in the cockpits of their B52 bombers.

One of the cardinal rules of success in these kind of operations is unity of voice and action by the international interveners – and this we have, with willful determination, broken for eight years and ignore still. And far too many of our young men are paying with their lives because of this.

We love to criticise President Karzai, but the chief fault lies with us. If we will not get our act together how can we expect him to?

When I was asked if I would go to Afghanistan to try to put this right in 2007, I concluded that, if we were to have any chance of pulling things round, we would need a substantial change of policy, an ability to work to a single integrated country-wide plan and a lot of luck. And even then it would be touch and go. Since then, the dynamic has continued to move against us at an accelerating pace. Undeniable progress has been made in some areas, but this is more than outweighed by the decline in others.

There is still clear overall support amongst Afghans for the international operation, but this is now dropping fast and as we know from elsewhere, once this graph begins to slip, it is very, very difficult to turn round. The area of Taliban direct and indirect control is widening; insecurity in many areas is increasing; the coalition's room for manoeuvre is narrowing; there is growing, if muted squabbling amongst the allies.

Following our withdrawal from Basra in Iraq, there have even been some voices in Washington criticising (most unfairly) British forces for being risk averse and lacking offensive spirit. And there is understandable worry at home about the erosion of public support as casualties rise.

Two factors are especially worrying, one political and the other military.

Hamid Karzai has skillfully outwitted those in the international community (including in the new US administration) who wanted him to take his place in history, rather than stand again as president. He will now stand and seems certain to be elected, thanks to a less-than-fragrant coalition of northern power-brokers and warlords with dubious records, who come from outside his own Pashtun community.

Amongst ordinary Pashtuns, however, where the key contest is being fought between the influence of the Taliban and the rule of Kabul, support for the Karzai government has fallen badly because of perceived corruption in his administration. The re-election of what is still regarded by most as the Western-backed Karzai government, but which is regarded by many Pashtuns as corrupt, will not help in our efforts to win back Pashtun support from the Taliban.

Meanwhile, on the military side we have, at least in the contested areas of the south, been progressively losing the ability to prosecute the only measure which can bring us successes – the so-called "clear, hold and build" strategy. The normal instinct of the soldier is to find and destroy the enemy and that was, for far too long, what we thought we should be doing in Afghanistan.

But in counter-insurgency operations, the job of the soldier is not to chase the enemy, but to help win the support of the population. Their principal task is not to seek out and kill, but to take ground so that the reconstructors can move in and establish the rule of law, effective governance, the reconnection of water supplies, a basis for economic livelihoods and the framework of a peaceful life, supported by the local population. The short-hand term for this strategy is "clear, hold and build", with the soldiers clearing and holding, while the re-building takes place in the secure space they have created.

British military commanders in south Helmand first found they did not have enough troops on the ground to carry out this strategy and were then, disastrously, persuaded, for political reasons, that they should ignore this doctrine, first developed by the British Army in Malaya more than half a century ago and still today the inspiration of the US General in charge, David Petraeus, in favour of a misguided attempt to protect President Karzai's "people", through a series of "Beau Geste"-like forts spread out across northern Helmand.

This had four effects. It spread us too thin. It made our forces easier targets, resulting in many cases in touch and go fights for their very survival, from which they were only able to extricate themselves through extraordinary courage and high professionalism; we thus had to expend all our military energy protecting ourselves and had none left to protect a space for the re-builders. And, finally, we lost crucial time and vital opportunities.

More energy, time and opportunities were wasted in political stunts which had very little overall effect, like transporting, at huge military cost, a giant generator through Taliban held territory to the Kajaki dam, largely, so far as I can see, to prove that it could be done.

As a result and despite the extraordinary courage and professionalism of our soldiers and their commanders, we lost our best opportunities and now do not have sufficient troops, despite the belated near-trebling of British forces in Helmand, to follow a policy of "clear, hold and build", even if we wanted to. Whilst British troops are now able to extend somewhat the one kilometre rings around their bases to which they were confined in 2006, the areas which they are able to control are still too small to follow an effective "clear, hold and build" strategy.

This is where "Operation Panther's Claw", backed by a surge of US troops into south Helmand, comes in. The purpose of Panther's Claw is to re-enforce the British with US Marines and use the increased numbers to carry the fight to the enemy (with, inevitably, a higher risk of casualties) and win back the strategic opportunity to apply "clear, hold and build". If this is successful, the thinking goes, then perhaps we can start to reverse the dynamic in south Helmand.

From what I can gather, the first phase of this operation is making real progress and the Taliban, now caught between the UK/US operations in south Afghanistan and the Pakistani operations in the Swat Valley, are under real pressure (though the long-term cost of Pakistan's operation in Swat may be less positive).

I expect soon to hear coalition spokesmen claiming that Panther's Claw has been a success. I shall of course join the cheering – but not very loudly and not for very long.

It is not to diminish the outstanding courage and professionalism of the soldiers who have been doing the fighting, or the sacrifices of those who have died in Panther's Claw, to say that it is not the "clearing the ground" phase which will determine its success. It is the "holding" and "building" which follows. And Panther's Claw is neither over, nor a success until this has been successfully completed.

And here is where the concerns begin.

Does the Afghan Army have the will and enough troops of the right calibre to hold the territory we have taken? Gordon Brown seems concerned enough about this to be ringing President Karzai and asking for more Afghans. He should also be concerned about the Afghan police upon whom we will have to depend to create the rule of law in the space our troops have cleared – for while the creation of an Afghan National Army which is effective (though still far too small for the task ahead) has been a relative success, our attempts to create an effective and honest police force in Afghanistan have been little short of a disaster.

If it is the case – and I suspect it may be – that there are not enough Afghan resources of the right quality to cover the "hold and build" parts of this operation, then we will be back to choosing between once again letting the Taliban back, or providing many more troops of our own and/or increasing the engagement, even in an increased training role, of those European allies more safely billeted up north, who have so far proved rather reluctant to play a part in the fighting in southern Afghanistan. Watch this space, for it is here that we will first see whether this new operation has given us new chances, or simply exposed old weaknesses.

And then comes the re-building and the long process of winning back support from local people. This is the key to what Kipling called " the savage war of peace" and it won't be either quick or easy.

And that's a problem, too. I hear that Washington want to have clear and visible improvements by the time of the US mid-term elections. If so, we are probably setting ourselves up for failure again. Those who wish to succeed in Afghanistan should recite to themselves ten times a day the words of the Taliban commander who famously said "they may have the watches, but we have the time". Success in these things requires strategic patience and this too, is a quality which has not been much in evidence so far in Afghanistan.

Humility is another, especially when it comes to defining the limits of the possible.

In December 2007, when it looked as though I would have to go to Afghanistan, I wrote to Gordon Brown, David Milliband and Condoleezza Rice, describing what I thought the bottom line would be in Afghanistan. Here is the first line of that minute: "We do not have enough troops, aid or international will to make Afghanistan much different from what it has been for the last 1,000 years – a society built around the gun, drugs and tribalism. And even if we had all of these in sufficient quantities, we would not have them for sufficient time – around 25 years or so – to make the aim of fundamentally altering the nature of Afghanistan, achievable."

And here is the conclusion: "So the realistic aim in Afghanistan, with current resources, is not victory, but containment. Our success will be measured, not in making things different, but making them better; not in final defeat of the jihadists, but in preventing them from using Afghanistan as a space for their activity. These two aims will be difficult enough to achieve; but they are at least achievable."

I can see nothing today which causes me to alter that view. It will be tough to lower public expectations of what we are in Afghanistan for and even tougher to explain to the mother or wife of a dead young soldier that their loved one died for "containment". But we can only expect to sustain public support, if we are honest about what is possible.

And finally, we have to stop wasting our soldiers' tactical victories in strategic defeats at the political level. Far too many lives – Afghan and Western – have been wasted because the leaders of the international community in Afghanistan cannot or will not get their act together and come up with a single plan on which they can all agree and which they will then prosecute in a disciplined way, speaking and acting as one. No amount of extra soldiers in Afghanistan is going to work unless this is corrected.

What should such a plan contain?

It needs to establish no more than four clear priorities to which all will work and every cent, dollar and euro will be devoted. Candidates could include improving governance, concentrating not, as at present on Kabul, but working with the grain of Afghan tribal and local structures; enlarging the capability of the Afghans themselves, especially in the fields of security and post-conflict reconstruction; widening security with a special emphasis on improving living conditions and creating economic livelihoods. And a major push for the rule of law consistent with Afghan and Islamic traditions.

It should also contain a clear strategy for insurgent reconciliation, much as we had for the IRA in Northern Ireland, based on the southern tribes and providing a route back for the Taliban if they commit to pursuing their aims, not through force, but through constitutional means. We need to realise that Taliban fighters are not going to seek a way out through reconciliation while they think they are winning on the battlefield.

But if, by any chance, we are able to change that battlefield dynamic through operations such as Panther's Claw and succeed in putting them on the back foot, then we need to realise that capitalising on success by reaching out for reconciliation, will be a much wiser way of winning than triumphalism and the old cry, which I am sure we shall hear, of " one final push for victory, now that we have them on the run."

The key principle through all this should be not to seek to do things "for" Afghanistan, but to increase Afghan capacity, especially at the local level, to do things for themselves, leaving the internationals to move increasingly into the background.

Lastly, success will depend on having a clear regional dimension, bringing in Afghanistan's neighbours where this can be done. We may have to pay a high price to get Iran and maybe even China to play a role in Afghanistan's future. But we are likely to have to pay a much higher one if we cannot do what needs to be done to turn things round there.

Judging by their words, I think President Obama and his team get most of this. But the question is will it be applied? And if so, why is it taking so long ?

Is it, then, lost in Afghanistan?

Not yet. We have to hope the new push in the south may begin to reverse the dynamic. On that, the jury is out. But if it does, it is imperative that we do not lose the opportunity that ensues. For we do not have many left.

About the author

A soldier, diplomat and politician, Lord Ashdown has been a key player in many of the major conflicts of the last two decades. A former leader of the Liberal Democrats and High Representative in Bosnia from 2002, he was put forward as UN envoy to Afghanistan in 2007 until the post fell foul of local politics.

Born in New Delhi on 27 February 1941, the eldest of seven siblings, his father was a colonial administrator in the Indian Army. He moved to Ulster when he was four years old and went to the independent Bedford School in England, leaving before his A Levels to join the Royal Marines. Ashdown saw active service as a Commando Officer in Borneo and the Persian Gulf, before commanding a Special Boat Section in the Far East.

In 1967 he moved to Hong Kong to learn Cantonese and later joined the Foreign Office, where he was posted to the British Mission to the UN in Geneva. After standing for the Liberals in Yeovil in 1979, he was elected in 1983 at the second attempt. From 1988-1999 he was the first single leader of the newly formed Liberal Democrats, where he raised their quota of MPs to 46. Knighted in 2000 and made a peer in 2001, he has two children and two grandchildren.

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