Disarming Conflict
Rethinking the Afghanistan Mission
July 30, 2007 Comments

That the international effort in Afghanistan is faltering, most recently confirmed by a British House of Commons report,[1] is not in doubt.[2] Nor is it in doubt that sooner or later Canada will leave Afghanistan. But the latter should not be determined by the former.

Whether Canada stays beyond February 2009 involves a broad range of issues - especially the implications for other Canadian priorities and the ability to respond to urgent needs elsewhere - but exit strategies do not help us meet the responsibility to understand what is not working in Afghanistan and to fix it by encouraging the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) contributors to make the changes needed to mount a more effective Afghan mission.

NATO of course manages the ISAF command and its current chief intelligence officer, Canadian Brigadier General Jim Ferron recently told an international group of journalists[3] that the deeper causes of the insurgency are not religious fanaticism but are essentially a combination of nationalism and social grievances.

In the south there is the particular and traditional Pashtun wariness of foreign influence (by which they now also seems to mean Kabul), and throughout Afghanistan grievances are linked to poverty and lack of economic opportunity, corruption, and lack of education. "The enemy is illiteracy, it's poverty, it's unemployment," he said.

The same point has been emphasized by the International Crisis Group which reports that when surveyed Afghans repeatedly point to a variety of social and political grievances that account for their opposition to the government:[4] p olitical disenfranchisement which favors some groups or tribes and excludes others from decision-making; disputes over land and water, exacerbated by the return of refugees and internally displaced people as well as a long drought; c orruption that includes misappropriation of state and donor resources by officials; the l ack of development by a government that has oversold the short-term benefits of democracy; and a buse by local and international security forces, involving mistreatment by local police or army as well as by international forces during village and house raids, the killing of civilians through aerial bombardment, and illegal detentions. [pp. 11-12]

In other words, the challenge of that we call "the Taliban" is focused less on irrational fanaticism than on very basic and familiar grievances - the kind you find in any conflict. These are grievances that are amenable either to negotiation or to accelerated development and good governance efforts.[5] As the Afghan Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies[6] reminds us, "the international community must realize that the centre of gravity of this conflict is not Taliban or even al-Qaeda. Rather, it is the Afghan people who have suffered immeasurably. Until the population is convinced that the battle is about improving their livelihood, Afghanistan will not proceed down the road of stability."[7] The population in the south opts to support the Taliban, not out of loyalty to Taliban jihadist ambitions, but out of non-confidence in the international and Kabul forces and the political order they are there to advance.

In the southern heart of the insurgency there is no social stigma against young men selling their combat services to the Taliban to help keep Kabul and its backers at bay and that is the local political calculation that has to change. The political calculus at the village and family level won't change by isolated reconstruction projects designed to win hearts and minds. Instead, it depends on the development of a new political framework and consensus - a kind of Bonn II exercise to integrate the Pashtun into a political/administrative order that they believe will respect their collective interests. Again, the Afghan Centre for Conflict and Peace points out that the 2001 Bonn Agreement brought together various groups opposed to and still fighting the Taliban. "The fault lines between these various groups were never resolved - the sought after peace agreement where people from opposing sides negotiate and come to a settlement never materialized. On the ground, the Taliban were isolated and on the run resulting in the premature conclusion that the Taliban was a spent force. Instead, they fled across the Afghan-Pakistan border and started to regenerate and where they re-organised, re-armed, and recruited from the local madrassas."[8]

Until a process to bridge the basic fault line is thoroughly pursued, if not actually built, the counter-insurgency war in the south is more likely to fuel insurgency than to suppress it. And, perhaps most worrisome, it will continue to divert funds and attention away from consolidating the relative stability in the north, where the failure to address the long list of grievances noted above, threatens to further undermine political and economic conditions.

Re-thinking of the Afghanistan mission logically points to two kinds of changes.

First, it suggests a greater emphasis on consolidating the relative stability of the north through training support to security forces, especially training local police to reject corruption and to accept the demands of strict adherence to humanitarian and human rights standards, and support for good governance and reconstruction. Assistance in disarming non-state groups is also essential, but before local militias can be disarmed so that the government can reclaim its constitutional monopoly on the resort to force, confidence in that government and its security forces needs to improve. That means new economic opportunity to re-integrate members of armed groups into society, and it requires effective security forces to contain the criminal violence that is inseparable from poppy production and the drug trade.

On training, the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier has been emphasizing a shift in that direction in the south. But without a change in the military-centred counter-insurgency strategy, training looks a lot like the tried and failed Vietnamization strategy pursued by the Americans in Vietnam. It implies a continuation of the same strategy, the attempt to forcibly suppress the Taliban without a new political process, except that the front end of the fighting gets increasingly shifted to Afghans in an accelerated civil war. ISAF officials, including Canadians, regularly remind us that the insurgency will not be militarily defeated - and it is a truth that applies to Afghan military forces as well.

The insurgency in the south will not be defeated and the strategy must be to contain it.[9] In part, containment means preventing the insurgency's spread beyond the south by increased reconstruction and police training to build confidence in government and the rule of law in areas of the country not bedeviled by the insurgency.

Containment also points to the second primary change needed, that is to shift in the south from counter-insurgency combat to the political task of building an inclusive political order that has the confidence of southerners. It means pursuing that Bonn II-type effort toward a new political arrangement that has some chance of winning the confidence and loyalty of the Pashtun communities that dominate the south and that traditionally mistrust and resist control from Kabul. It means negotiating a new political order that the Pashtuns[10] will find clearly superior to what is on offer from the Taliban. And what constitutes a superior option? - one that addresses the needs and grievances that currently undergird the insurgency.

That may be described as negotiating with the Taliban, but what it really means is peace and reconciliation talks with the disaffected Pashtun communities in pursuit of a political dispensation that they regard as meeting their needs. If that means a Taliban role, that is a choice they are surely entitled to make within basic international human rights standards.

The challenge facing Canada is not to agree on a withdrawal date but to help transform the entire ISAF operation into a constructive and durable process toward an Afghanistan that meets the basic needs of Afghans.


[1] "UK operations in Afghanistan," Thirteenth Report of Session 2006-07, House of Commons Defence Committee, July 18, 2007 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmdfence/408/408.pdf).

[2] See the sources listed in the last posting, "Closing the Afghanistan credibility gap," closingt.

[3] Ahto Lobjakas, "Afghanistan: NATO Sees ‘Tribal' Nature of Taliban Insurgency," Radio Free Europe, July 20, 2007 (http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/07/88253227-F287-4104-A336-0874C98978C2.html).

[4] "Countering Afghanistan's Insurgency: No Quick Fixes," International Crisis Group, Asia Report No. 123, November 2, 2006 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4485&1=1).

[5] See Ernie Regehr testimony to theStanding Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Report 28, 1 st Session, 39 th Parliament, November 8, 2006 (http://cmte.parl.gc.ca/cmte/CommitteePublication.aspx?SourceId=184288&Lang=1&PARLSES=391&JNT=0&COM=10475).

[6] The Centre's web site describes it as an independent research centre based in Kabul that conducts action-oriented research aimed at influencing policy-makers in key areas including state building, governance, narcotics, conflict resolution and peace building. The Board of Advisors includes: Canadian Paul Evans of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (and formerly of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia); Robert Rotberg, Director of the Program on Interstate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; and Surin Pitsuwan , the former Foreign Minister of Thailand. The web site is at http://www.caps.af/.

[7] Hekmat Karzai, "Why isAfghanistanfacing a serious insurgency?" Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, Afghanistan (http://www.caps.af/detail.asp?Lang=e&Cat=3&ContID=100).

[8] Hekmat Karzai, "Why is Afghanistan facing a serious insurgency?" Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, Afghanistan (http://www.caps.af/detail.asp?Lang=e&Cat=3&ContID=100).

[9] Rory Stewart, "Where Less is More," The New York Times, July 23, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/23/opinion/23stewart.html?ex=1342843200&en=fbd9aaaadcd57a21&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss).

[10] A May Strategic Counsel survey indicates that 63 percent of Canadians support negotiating with the Taliban to end the violence in Afghanistan. The Strategic Counsel, A Report to the Globe and Mail and CTV: " Trusted Canadian Institutions, Afghanistan, and Foreign Ownership," May 18, 2007 (http://www.thestrategiccounsel.com/our_news/polls/2007-05-18%20GMCTV%20May%2014-17.pdf).

Topics: Human Security

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.