The Taliban is re-emerging in Afghanistan, with an assault this week on the Helmand town of Sangin; how can this be, after all the blood and treasure we have sacrificed in the country since 2001? The answer is simple: the cultural soil is reasserting itself and the western shrubs we imported are losing out to native species more suited to the conditions.
The immediate reaction might be to judge our involvement over recent years in Helmand as worthless and futile. For those who lost loved ones there, this would be completely understandable. But while we are right to criticise what has happened since, we cannot be sure about any final judgment as we have no knowledge of what would have happened had we done nothing after 9/11. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learnt and they are only reinforced by reference to Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Our incomprehension about current events is fuelled by our ignorance of the culture, the political soil of Afghanistan (and of Syria, Libya and Iraq). And that starts with an ignorance about the fragility and the contingent nature of our own systems. Most obviously, liberal democracy is a rare flower globally, the form of which differs even in its heartland of western Europe/America; the neocon belief that it is the natural condition for society should have no credibility after the post-9/11 experience – including the Arab spring – and we should be cautious about imposing it on others. Even more profoundly, we have lost sight of how the very concept of the “state” is a western construct, enshrined in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to bring to an end the 30 years war in Europe. In Syria, Libya and Afghanistan this notion is under threat as warlords and insurgents vie for local power, ignoring our state boundaries.
And there is the first clue as to what is going on around Sangin; I suspect this is more about local power than about ideology. Our military tendency is to tidy up the battlefield by labelling activity in ways the uninformed audience understands. This is to fit reality to our ignorance; it does us all a disservice. Understanding Afghanistan takes years; and we Brits have done it more than most – but a hundred years ago. Hence the locals’ disbelief at our ahistorical efforts in the country this fourth time. The Taliban does indeed spring from the soil of Afghanistan, but it is better understood as a source of power and patronage and stability and, crucially, people with the staying power we have always lacked. And a populace keen to survive will always gravitate towards those most likely to endure, for they are the most likely winners.
When I was commanding the coalition forces in Basra in 2007, I recall General Jalil, the local police chief, after he had survived his fourth assassination attempt, rejecting my offers of help. “This is not about equipment or training, this is about loyalty, and you can’t touch that.” The most precious resource in these conflicts is not hardware but time; as the locals say: “The west may have the clocks but we have the time.” Put bluntly, we have been attempting cultural change on a management consultant timeline.
This hints at the irrelevance of the tools we routinely deploy in response to the well-intentioned but so often misguided cry that “something must be done”. Unless and until we understand the conflict we are looking at, we would be well advised to follow the hippocratic oath to “do no harm”. Purity of intent is not good enough; it is by outcomes that we should judge actions.
Knocking over regimes we dislike is militarily relatively simple; creating a new polity out of the existing political soil has repeatedly proved impossible since 9/11. And as events have shown, there is something worse than “bad government”, and that is “no government”, a lesson we would seem to be creeping tentatively towards in Syria.
The current events around Sangin are generally portrayed as if the Taliban is attacking our legacy, which we feel honour-bound to defend; hence the involvement of British “advisers”. I have a sad feeling that this is the military being used to cover the absence of a political plan. Yet military activity is only as good as the political plan it is enabling.
Given that our political will and resources have run out, a more relevant portrayal might be to see this as the Afghans sorting out their own future, as they always were going to once we had stopped imposing ourselves; the Afghan soil reasserting itself. We should remind ourselves that we didn’t go into Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban per se but rather to get rid of the regime that harboured al-Qaida, which we did; we had tolerated the Taliban running Afghanistan for some years as a better alternative to the civil war that preceded it. Indeed, given the rising threat of Isis in Afghanistan, the Taliban might be seen as the best local hope of resisting and defeating Isis expansion there.
The recent strategic defence and security review and comprehensive spending review contained good news that has received scant attention: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office received more funding. Perhaps scolded by Rory Stewartwhen he was chairman of the Commons defence committee saying that “we no longer understand the world”, the FCO now has the resources to reverse some of the cuts in diplomacy it has made over the years, as foreign policy has been corralled into No 10.
It is to be hoped that its aim reverts to what it was: to give us understanding of the world we need if our efforts are to be effective, measured against local realities rather than our ignorant-if-well-meaning intent. Then events such as those taking place in Sangin should, at least, not surprise us. At best, they should not happen again.