Imagine the scene. It’s a dirty whitewashed three-storey government building in the capital city, surrounded by high walls with US helicopters parked around. Inside sit several US generals and two Europeans, in the dusty heat. The war they are there to discuss is secretly assumed to go on for 25 years. They all know they cannot win it despite superior air power and unlimited cash. They had all given it their best shot with use of terrible weapons. Neighbouring countries have been mercilessly bombed, and ushering in governments very unfriendly to the US and the West.
It was time to find a facesaving formula and begin to draw down the troops. The PR angle was agreed – to call it localization of forces; the pretense of handing power over to the local military, and of it all going according to plan. They knew that one day soon the capital would be overrun. In the middle of all this there was a looming US election, with the opposition candidate supported by parts of the US military, trying to delay ‘troops home’ until after the election. The face saving was only that of generals, not the politicians.
No it is not Afghanistan, it was Vietnam 1969. The localization was called ‘Vietnamization’ instead of the current ‘Afghanization’, and the cross-border bombing was in Cambodia and Laos, not Pakistan.
So now we have the head of the UK Coalition government at the G8 summit going along with the pretense in Afghanistan. The war is going well, we hear. It’s all ‘on track’. Some would have been briefed that it is going to be left ‘messy’. Maybe they should all be briefed on the reality of those final 6 years in Vietnam, and acquire some extra wisdom.
Funny isn’t it how, despite our ‘success’, key roads even in Kabul are off limits to ISAF forces, the parallel insurgent local governance is more popular than government structures, and oh yes rape of young girls is legal again. A key war aim was to deny terrorists the freedom to operate in territory not controlled by the state. But the majority of territory has been insurgent-controlled for quite some time.
Whilst one cannot forget that brave troops and dedicated aid workers have achieved extraordinary things in supremely dangerous circumstances, one cannot also deny that the achievements have been a drop in the ocean, and sadly billions in cash have been wasted or stolen.
We can learn the lessons of the past and exit in a more honest way. They key focus should not be saving the face of the generals. It should be achieving a negotiated settlement with those countries having an interest in the insurgency (India & Pakistan primarily) plus agreements between the West and both Afghanistan & Pakistan or border-related issues. A legacy of peace is the aim, not another 10 years of face-saving pretense whilst Kabul is overrun and more die. That is in Britain’s national interest.
I lived in San Francisco in 1970 and saw the Vietnam vets coming home. One vet friend used to drive on a child’s cycle the wrong way up the freeway, he had become so unhinged. Horrific. In Afghanistan all IASF members have more vets injured than have been reported.
I worked in a political role in Afghanistan a couple of years ago and traveled outside Kabul. The despair of UK officials has been widely reported, and I’ve seen it first hand. But we are in the Coalition now and in a better position to inject some sanity into our approach, and drive out that despair. It is not too late for the UK to come out of Afghanistan holding its head high, but we need to take a stand.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.