The deaths of two British soldiers, followed by the news that NATO is suspending joint patrols with Afghan forces, have once again highlighted ongoing problems in the Afghan deployment. The fact that the defence secretary did not appear to be aware of the suspension of joint patrols indicates that there are serious issues regarding the strategic direction of the campaign.
NATO’s objective in Afghanistan is to withdraw from combat operations in 2014, leaving behind a stable country under the control of a central government in Kabul, thus ensuring that Afghanistan cannot become a refuge for terrorists as it was before 2001. In order to achieve this, NATO has been training a large Afghan army, which they hope will number 350,000 men, to take charge of the country’s security when they leave.
If NATO troops cannot patrol with the Afghan army because that army has been infiltrated by insurgents who are willing to kill them, then there must be serious doubts about the ability of that army to protect the NATO friendly central government when NATO leave. It is now time to make a serious strategic choice, choosing one of the three options which I will outline here.
1 Continue as we are now. Hope that by increasing the rigor of the vetting procedures insurgent forces can be removed from the Afghan security forces, and that these forces will be ready to effectively secure the country by 2014. The increasing frequency of attacks on NATO troops by members of the Afghan forces make this seem an unlikely prospect.
2 Extend the date for NATO withdrawal. Assume that with a new plan and more time the country can be stabilised. The deployment has lasted over a decade already, and cost thousands of lives. If no stability has been achieved by now how much longer will it take? At what point does the cost of the deployment (in blood and treasure) exceed the possible benefit? Has it already?
3 Cut and run. Assume that the war is unwinnable, and the country cannot be stabilised by NATO. This option may involve negotiating with the insurgents in the hope that they will prevent Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists again. This will mean leaving anybody who cooperated with NATO for the last ten years to a horrible fate. As well as a human catastrophe, it will be a devastating blow to the credibility of the alliance in any future conflict.
All these options are bad. Yet as far as can be discerned there are no others. History will be most unkind to the leaders who are responsible for this long, bloody and so far mostly fruitless war.