Committee room 10 in the House of Commons was packed to capacity. The audience was as international as it could get, with representatives from many embassies in London. MPs, diplomats, journalists, scholars all were keen to participate in a debate on the ‘Consequences of the drawdown of Nato forces in 2014’ organised last week by the South Asia and Middle East Forum.
The mood was sombre, often introspective. At the outset agreement emerged among speakers about the uncertainty of the road to 2014 and the unpredictability that lay beyond. An Afghan speaker put it bluntly: “nothing has been seriously sorted out, which means there is a disaster waiting to happen.” There is no guarantee that once the international community disengages, Afghanistan will not burn again, said Hamid Gilani. Nasir Shansab, an Afghan expatriate businessman, echoed the view. He warned of an impending catastrophe. For him the most likely post-2014 outcome was civil war, with Afghanistan facing the same fate as it did when the US invaded: a failed state.
It fell to the Afghan Ambassador to Britain, Daud Yar to offer an optimistic view of the future by arguing that transformations in the past decade meant that his country had entered a new era that was hard to reverse. But he urged the international community not to disengage completely from his country, saying those who expect quick fixes are bound to fail. Former defence minister and Liberal-Democrat MP Nick Harvey joined him in warning against doom and gloom about Afghanistan’s future and said 2014 didn’t mean the West would turn its back on the country.
Everyone agreed that Afghanistan was again at a critical crossroads. Decisions and actions taken now would determine whether the country would find some modicum of peace and stability or descend into chaos. Shansab put the onus on the international community. It could, he asserted, “either correct its handling of the Afghan problem or continue its failed policy”. And he was scathing about the Western embrace of President Hamid Karzai, whom he characterised as long being part of the problem, not the solution.
British MPs and former diplomats in the audience however said it was “up to Afghans themselves” to shape their destiny because there was not much more the international community could do. This refrain prompted a sharp response from an Afghan speaker who said: “when things go wrong we are told it is now up to you to sort your affairs”. This elicited no response from those this critique was directed at.
A couple of hours into the debate it became apparent who the elephant in the room was. As a former British envoy to Kabul put it “we are discussing Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.” He meant of course the Taliban. So when attention turned to the issue of peace talks, the prognosis from the speakers was anything but promising. The Afghan ambassador had little to say except to accuse the ‘other side’ of lacking seriousness. Nick Harvey acknowledged that political reconciliation had made no headway. He said as the UK and US could not do anything about this, it was “up to the Afghans” to pursue this, with help from regional countries.
My presentation underlined the centrality of progress towards a political settlement as the indispensable foundation for the effectiveness of all the transitions that lay ahead in Afghanistan, political, security and economic. I argued that no one wanted 2014 to become another 1989, but to avert this scenario it was essential to revive the peace process, which had been pushed on to the backburner.
There was agreement all around that a political solution was needed, but as someone from the audience pointed out, none of the Afghan speakers offered practical ideas about how to move on this. I was the only speaker who mentioned the stalled Doha process. When I asked whether it could be revived no one came forward to address this.
The limits of a military approach was a theme that resonated in the proceedings. Nick Harvey said 13 years of military effort had not built ‘nirvana’ in Afghanistan, which indicated that foreign troops could not force outcomes. Conservative MP David Holloway came down harder. He said the “business model” followed by Western countries was to just send in military forces. “When the only tool is a hammer, you look for nails to hit”. He described the futility of trying to build a strong central government at “the point of foreign guns”. He also recalled how, during his visits to Kabul, the British mission there gave upbeat briefings, usually at odds with reality. Once, he said, a diplomat told him, “You don’t get promoted for telling the truth”.
A key question that received much attention was whether the Afghan National Army would hold up after the drawdown of Nato forces. Mixed views were voiced. An Afghan speaker said the numbers were “huge” but the quality wasn’t; morale too was lacking. Nick Harvey recalled that the Najibullah regime collapsed only when the Soviet Union, which was then imploding, was unable to finance the Afghan army. “The international community mustn’t make the same mistake, but continue to support the security infrastructure in Afghanistan”.
This was met by scepticism from the audience. A former British official pointed out that as in the case of Iraq, when Western troops leave Afghanistan, international attention would diminish rapidly. So too will funding for the ANA. When the Afghan ambassador interjected to say such funding was but a tiny fraction of the US budget, it prompted comments from the floor expressing doubts about Washington’s staying power. From Harvey came this response: “we will stand by our financing commitments, but these cannot go on indefinitely”. A former MP commented: “What makes us think the international community will be interested in Afghanistan any more than it is in Iraq?”
An interesting perspective on the Afghan National Army came from Antonio Giustozzi, a scholar and visiting lecturer at King’s College. He said the ANA’s capacity will be tested after 2014 and how it faces up to this will have far reaching consequences for the country. Its resilience – or lack of it – will also determine the Taliban’s stance. If it is found wanting in capacity then the notion of seeking “total victory” will gain ground with Taliban leaders. But if the ANA proves resilient the political option will have greater appeal for the Taliban.
Giustozzi’s account of the internal dynamics of the Taliban movement was also instructive. To a query from the floor about who represents the Taliban, he countered by asking: are the Taliban “one or many”? His answer was that insurgencies do not organize themselves as Leninist parties, and instead accommodate “the fluidity of their society”. So the Taliban are both ‘one’ and ‘many’, like their society. He then explained that the friction that once existed between the Taliban’s political and military wings had mostly given way to an understanding among them that seeking a political solution would not weaken or undermine the movement.
Overall the discussion was a lively and insightful one. But it would have been more productive if Afghan speakers had tried to address the most consequential question for the coming months. What would it take to get a reconciliation process going and what could be the key elements of a negotiated settlement. It was disappointing that the most crucial ingredient for post-2014 Afghan stability – political accommodation among Afghans – was not seriously addressed during the debate.
The military aspect of the transition got more attention. This inevitably produced a partial assessment of post-2014 prospects. The last word came from a former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who said after several hours of discussion: “we have been talking of a transition, but transition to what?”
The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.