Independent on Sunday that General McChrystal had some very downbeat assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, shines a light on the reality of NATO policy there. Nine years into the war only five out of 116 key strategic areas are under the control of the Afghan government. The new 'clear and hold' strategy - capturing territory, ensuring security and embedding new forms of governance - is failing. The small town of Marjah was supposed to be a showcase. Yet four months after seizing it from the Taliban 'US marines are involved in frequent gunfights on the edges of town, while roadside bombs are a constant threat.'
The head of the British Army is pessimistic about military victory and calls for peace talks to commence sooner rather than later with the Taliban. It says something about the way our politicians are failing us that it takes a military man to grasp the nettle of a negotiated settlement to this conflict. But any talk about withdrawal invariably faces the rejoinder that if troops leave a bloodbath will start; that Afghanistan will be used as a training ground for terrorist attacks on the West; that our troops are making the ultimate sacrifice over there to keep us safer here; and talk of withdrawal is a betrayal. While these arguments have a powerful emotional pull, intellectually they increasingly don't stand up.
We already have a bloodbath in Afghanistan. And the longer the war goes on, the more bitter it will become. Our government are trying to prepare the British public for more soldiers dying. And if more of our troops are going to die, imagine the impact of escalating this war on the Afghan people. As we drop more bombs and shoot more bullets, bitterness towards NATO troops, and those who support them, will intensify. Foreign invasions generate the conditions for civil war. There is no doubt that the withdrawal of the troops will result in blood letting and scores being settled in the short term. But it is the presence of foreign troops that is driving the violence. Withdraw the troops and the primary source of that violence will recede.
We are told that if we don’t stay in Afghanistan, Al Qaida will be able to plot against us unhampered. But Al Qaida are a global network. They are not tied down to a specific geographical area. You don’t need invading armies to stop them. You do need good policing, intelligence operations and political initiatives that address the grievances of the Muslim world that Al Qaida seek to exploit and recruit from.
In accessing the threat of Al Qaeda, and the prospect of success for a peace process, it is important we don't blur the differences between them and the Taliban. The Taliban might have odious politics but unlike Al Qaeda they are not motivated by a global jihad. They are not concerned with the world outside of the borders of Afghanistan. There were no Afghans involved in 9/11 or 7/7. You don’t hear about Taliban fighters being implicated in violence in Iraq, Palestine or Kashmir. Indeed, the Taliban have shown they were prepared to break with Al Qaeda in the past. Prior to the invasion they offered to hand over Bin Laden to a third country. If only George Bush had accepted the offer instead of rejecting it. It is possible to reach a political solution or compromise with the Taliban. It is not possible to do so with Al Qaida.
Whatever we might think of them, the Taliban have been consistent in saying that if foreign troops were withdrawn, they would stop fighting. They have outlined preconditions for a negotiated settlement. These include the offer of a ceasefire, replacing Western troops with a peace keeping force drawn from Muslim countries, a transitional government which includes all partners in the conflict, and nationwide elections after the Western forces leave. Taliban leaders even admitted they were not cut out for running government and would go back to running their madrases (religious schools) instead once foreign troops withdrew. It is difficult to take this last point seriously. And it is undeniable that very large sections of the Afghan population are fearful of the return of the Taliban. Yet despite these fears a majority of Afghans (64%) want a negotiated end to the conflict, and are willing to accept the creation of a coalition government including the Taliban leadership. In light of the problems of conducting accurate opinion polls in Afghanistan these findings are all the more profound.
It is not beyond our wit and wisdom to negotiate the withdrawal of the troops and leave behind mechanisms that ensure security and stability for Afghan population. One variation on the Taliban suggestion of a peace keeping force comprised of troops drawn from Muslim countries to replace NATO troops, is the suggestion that an 'international presence comprise of troops uninvolved in the US-led invasion and occupation, and controlled by the UN General Assembly (rather than the US-dominated Security Council), act in the interim period while a new national coalition government is set up and peace established.' Others outline a process which would could commence with commitments to power sharing arrangement, guarantees from the Taliban against the return of Al Qaeda and from the Americans on funding militias.
There are many who will accept all of the above, and the inevitability of negotiations with the Taliban, but argue we still need to escalate the war in order to militarily weaken the Taliban and make them more amenable to a peace process. This is a strategy for prolonging conflict, not resolving it. While a Taliban force of around 25-30,000 troops cannot defeat NATO, neither can NATO defeat the Taliban. It took 25 years of conflict in Northern Ireland - in which the IRA could not defeat the troops but neither could the troops defeat the IRA - before we achieved peace and a political settlement. Afghanistan is a country around 45 times the size of Northern Ireland. It has a population around 20 times the size of Northern Ireland. It is a completely more formidable challenge in terms of counter insurgency and one that NATO is failing. If the only circumstances in which discussions with the Taliban should take place are when they are militarily broken, this conflict will be going on for another nine years, and thousands more lives will have been wasted. We need to start the peace process now.