The critique of Western involvement in Afghanistan provided by Adam Holloway and other distinguished commentators like Andrew Bacevich and Rory Stewart land telling blows on arguments for our presence there. We are hampered by financial and political corruption in the Karzai government. Our imperfect knowledge of local cultures and an under-appreciation of local politics can alienate Afghans. By rapidly building up a national army in the country, we risk laying the foundations of a military dictatorship. And our political leaders’ inability to find precise language for explaining the conflict has led to disaffection. But the case against continued (and increased) commitment has serious flaws also. By ‘misdescribing’ our enemy and our goals, as well as the consequences of military drawdown, critics like Mr. Holloway perform a sleight-of-hand that seemingly lends weight to their other arguments. If we expose the sleight-of-hand, as this post attempts to do, the critique is less impressive.
In both an article for ConservativeHome and in his Centre for Policy Studies paper, Mr. Holloway ‘misdescribes’ the enemy we are fighting in Afghanistan. He repeatedly points out how ‘Taliban’ has become shorthand for ‘every type of armed opposition, of which ideologues of the old regime are just one small part.’ This is true; the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen estimates that al-Qu’aida and the hardcore Taliban make up only 5-10% of the insurgency. ‘We have mainly been fighting the sons of local farmers,’ Mr. Holloway censures. He also downplays the link between al-Qu’aida and the Taliban. The former is an ‘internationalist nihilist group, intent on global jihad’ and the other a ‘national movement, with limited national aims’. If we accept this description, as well as the belief that political incoherence means military disorganisation, then we reduce the enemy and a reduced enemy justifies a reduced effort. ‘[Success] can be achieved with a much smaller allied force. There is always going to be some level of insurgency in Afghanistan.’
But this description is a sleight-of-hand and does not reflect recent scholarship. Ideologues make up a tenth of the insurgency but it is not the quantity but the influence they exert. ‘The Taliban maintain a sufficient degree of cohesion in the field through the strong ideological commitment of their “cadres”’, notes Giustozzi. Kilcullen argues that the 10% of hardcore ideologues in Afghanistan and Pakistan exert sufficient influence to inspire fear in the other 90%. It is also questionable whether the Taliban can be easily disassociated from al-Qu’aida; this is ‘rejecting recent history’, says Brian Glynn Williams, Associate Professor of Islamic History at Massachusetts. ‘They’ve really become much closer to al-Qa’ida’s global vision.’ Exum and Fick point out the deepening ties between the ‘Afghan’ Taliban and Pakistani terrorist groups like Jashi-i-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-i-Taliban – with AQ providing logistical and financial support, as well as broad strategic guidance. ‘The Taliban is neither a purely internal Afghan problem nor solely a crossborder insurgency threatening Afghanistan from Pakistan,’ Kilcullen writes. ‘Our enemy appears to be a confederated movement that blends insurgency with terrorism and information operations, and threatens both Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ By refining Mr. Holloway’s description of the enemy, we expose the sleight-of-hand and question his argument for a reduced effort.
As well as ‘misdescribing’ our enemy, critics like Adam Holloway misdescribe our goals in Afghanistan by fashioning a crude neoconservative straw-man. We cannot build Surrey in Helmand or Switzerland in the Hindu Kush, he warns. ‘[It is] time for us all to move beyond the Bush/Blair years if we are serious about protecting our populations from terror.’ Rory Stewart also dismisses any idea of nation-building in Afghanistan as the same delusions of the last seven years. We assume that ‘our global humanitarian and security objectives are consistent and mutually reinforcing.’ Both rubbish the stated goal of preventing future terrorist attacks like September 11th. ‘Could [al-Qu’aida] not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?’ And given the terrorist organisation is in any number of other countries, should we invade them too? ‘NATO talks about Afghanistan as key terrain against AQ, but there is just as strong a case for taking on Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Leeds.’
These arguments contain acute observations about failings in our strategy but, like the overarching critique, it relies on misleading descriptions. Those who advocate a counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan are experienced professional soldiers who toppled neoconservatism and its ‘encrusted’ moral claims, analogies and political theories. General Petraeus famously asked, ‘How does this end?’ on the eve of the Iraq invasion. Kilcullen, who helped devise and oversee the ‘Surge’, described the war as ‘fucking stupid’. Andrew Exum and Nathaniel Fick fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They all contributed to the McChrystal ‘plan’ and each has no interest in nation building. But they recognise that because you invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you leave it stupidly. And our political leaders’ inability to find adequate language to describe our goals opens them up to the easy criticism of Holloway and Stewart above. To prevent ‘future 9/11s’ is one of those clichés that allow politicians not to think hard about what we are doing. Terrorist groups do not need training camps to fly airliners into skyscrapers but they are useful to train an armed force in assaulting hotels in Mumbai or ambushing a cricket team in Lahore. Afghanistan is the epicentre of the threat from al-Qu’aida and not one theatre amongst many, each with equal importance. We must defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan because failing to do so will destabilise the region. As Professor Michael Clarke argues, the Coalition is ‘fighting for something more important’ than keeping terrorists off our streets. We are trying to prevent a meltdown that would ‘pull major powers into serious conflict, leave a nuclear-armed Pakistan in a state of anarchy and likely create ripple effects in all our countries.’ Both Holloway and Stewart encourage a ‘counterterrorism’ approach to reverse this descent but, similarly with our enemy and our goals, they misdescribe the benefits and consequences.
If our enemy is reduced to one faction amongst many and we shed neoconservative mantras for ‘steely realism’, then it is obvious how we should fight the war. ‘We must maintain a framework on the ground and assets in the country to find, fix and strike anyone presenting [a] threat.’ And it can be done without the deployment of tens of thousand of troops and the loss of billions of dollars. This approach is flawed, however. Counterterrorism relies on a constant stream of intelligence. It is not important to know where a target is now but where he will be in the hours it takes for the information to be relayed, the Special Forces team briefed, getting approval from above and the subsequent flight time. This level of intelligence can only come from the local population but given an insurgency is a competition about who governs, how can we expect them to choose a small force in a distant base over an ever-present Taliban? Intelligence dries up as we cede more of the population; our bases are moved as we cede more land, which isolates us further and renders any intelligence out-of-date.
The rationale behind Mr. Holloway’s approach is that a large army will excite the natural xenophobia of the Afghan population and strengthen support for al-Qu’aida and the Taliban. A reduced force conducting counterterrorism operations is adequate to undermine our reduced enemy. Other than overemphasising the ‘natural xenophobia’ of Afghans, this ignores what General McChrystal describes as ‘COIN Math’. If you have ten insurgents and kill two, you won’t have eight; you are more likely to have another twenty. ‘Each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them.’ Take the flaws in Mr. Holloway’s suggestion outlined above and it is difficult to see how this approach will reduce the insurgency ‘to a manageable level’.
‘We are in perfect security when we make our estimates,’ the Corinthian ambassador told his allies before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. ‘But in the test of action, when the element of fear is present, we fall short of our ideal.’ The critique of the new strategy in Afghanistan that Adam Holloway offers is one of the few that challenge its underlying assumptions. It is within our power to remedy these problems, however, and they do not outweigh the flaws in Mr. Holloway’s critique. His description of our enemy does not reflect recent scholarship, as demonstrated above. The Taliban is more complex than the classical guerrilla model he supposes them to be; it is more radical in its goals and more violent in its methods. In describing our goals, Mr. Holloway ignores the shift in policy attitudes since 2006, as well as overlooking the tested military doctrine developed by professional soldiers which forms the substance of our new strategy. Finally, the alternative plan he offers is not a strategy but a tactic; and it is one we are using anyway. ‘War [does not] follow a fixed pattern,’ continued the Corinthian ambassador. ‘It usually makes its own conditions in which one has to adapt oneself to changing situations.’ In a conflict as fast-paced as Afghanistan, the critique offered by Adam Holloway is regrettably outdated and in need of revision.