Alphen, The Netherlands. 17 July. In 1842 Sir Charles Napier wrote perhaps the most succinct telegram in military history to mark his success at the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War - “Peccavi”, he wrote, “I have sinned”. It was a play on words as Napier had just conquered what is today the Pakistani province of Sindh. In another play on words NATO is ‘planning’ Operation Resolute Support to replace the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in December 2014 at the end of major combat operations. Resolute Support is vital if Afghanistan is to have any chance of a future that is other than ghastly. Without full American and British backing Resolute Support will be a non-starter because they remain the West’s signature powers.
Sadly, all the mood music I am picking up at a high-level in Washington and London is that if this mission goes ahead at all it will be neither resolute nor offer much in terms of support to Afghanistan’s tottery government. The US and British Permanent Representatives (ambassadors) to NATO’s North Atlantic Council are rebutting perfectly sound military guidance on the grounds of cost. Indeed, the political reflex now is to get out at any cost.
The cost is indeed prohibitive. Afghanistan costs the US taxpayer $110bn per year and it costs $1m simply to keep an American soldier in Afghanistan for a year. Clearly, that burden will need to be reduced drastically.
In January 2012 I wrote a piece entitled, “Beaufort: Why We Must Leave Afghanistan Now, Not End 2014”. My sense then was that support for the mission at the highest political levels in both Washington and London was very soft and consequently the campaign was not embedded in a meaningful regional-strategic political, diplomatic and economic strategy. Indeed, I recall a conversation with a very high-level British official shortly after I had published “Plan B for Afghanistan” for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. From his remarks it was clear men and women were dying simply to keep an arbitrary December 2014 date with political failure.
The US now says it will only stay in Afghanistan if the Kabul Government enters into “bilateral security arrangements” that offer American forces immunity from prosecution. President Karzai will enter into no such agreement because he does not want to be seen to be accommodating the soon-to-be departed Americans as he faces potentially life-or-death elections in April 2014.
Washington is locked into sequestration and with relations between Presidents Obama and Karzai close to breaking point the US is threatening a “zero option”; the withdrawal of all US forces by end 2014. Meanwhile, and not for the first time, David Cameron is demonstrating yet again an inability to grasp the strategic implications of his political short-termism.
Even if Resolute Support does finally go ahead for the first such time in NATO history Britain will lose the deputy commander slot of a major Alliance mission. Incredibly Germany and Italy are offering to take the lead in Britain’s absence. In fact Berlin and Rome are also playing narrow politics with Resolute Support as they have no intention of leading anything. It is simply an attempt to mask their respective failures in Libya and Mali.
London says that whilst it will support the new Afghan army training academy (‘Sandhurst in the Sand’) it will do no more. Britain “has done its bit” according to Downing Street. The timing could not be worse. Britain is about to make NATO the centre-piece of its 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. London once again will be seen to be saying one thing and doing another.
The Taliban are watching on with deep satisfaction as Western ‘strategy’ collapses and see no reason to enter into meaningful peace and reconciliation talks. Indeed, their attacks are increasing in both scale and volume. In spite of real progress on the ground over the past two years Afghanistan today looks increasingly like 1989 on the eve of the Soviet withdrawal.
A desperate race is now on to establish credible Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) prior to NATO’s departure. Indeed, whilst the Afghan National Army (ANA) is making real progress it still looks and acts nothing like a modern army. Without training, mentoring and above all credible air power there are real questions as to whether the ANA will stand and fight in the coming struggle.
The greatest honour both Obama and Cameron could afford the thousands of their men and women in their national uniforms who have been killed trying to make flawed Afghan strategy work is to properly commit to Resolute Support. Indeed, if Napier were alive today he would send London an entirely different and far less succinct telegram. He would remind his political masters just why sacrifice was necessary. “Stamus contra malo” - “We stand against evil”. If that is not the case then why on earth did we go to Afghanistan in the first place?
As for the cost; what will be the cost of complete and utter failure?