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Chapter 15

Rules of Afghan Disengagement


By Greg Mills and Anthony Arnott


South African rock superstar Johnny Clegg’s “Orphans of the Empire” summed up some of the complexities and frustrations of the international presence in Afghanistan, his music and lyrics rising above the throb of the four engines of the Royal Air Force Hercules flying out of Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in October 2012. 

For “Africa”, in his iconic tune, one could seemingly substitute “Afghanistan”: “He wished he understood the indigenese. But the shadows they are lengthening and the sun it must set, bewildered and confused he scurries home to his bed . . . Let me grow old Africa, let me in.” 

More than a decade into the post–9/11 operation to remove the terrorist threat posed by the Taliban and their one-time al Qaeda allies, the international effort is winding down. International troop numbers shrunk from a peak of over 135,000 in 2011 to 90,000 by August 2013. If plans work out, this will reduce further to around 25,000 at the end of 2014. 

It is too easy, especially for those far away, to dismiss the progress made in Afghanistan by enormous sacrifice and cost of staggering proportions. As of the start of 2012, an estimated $285 billion in military and other forms of assistance had been invested there since the 2001 invasion, including nearly $40 billion in development assistance. Afghanistan’s inflow of development aid – $16 billion in 2010 alone – has at its peak equalled the country’s gross domestic product. 

There has been another, greater treasure expended. More than 3,000 international troops have died on operations, including nearly 2,000 American and, by mid-2013, 444 British soldiers. And with the improvements in battlefield care have emerged other long-term issues. There have been 250 UK amputees alone, some double and triple, among the international casualties. At its peak one-tenth of the British Army, and approximately 80 percent of the equipment it will use in the next generation of operations, was deployed in Afghanistan, a remarkable commitment that many armies would have found unsustainable if not impossible. 

Between us we have been in and out of Afghanistan on eight missions since 2006. Each assignment has taught us a lot, not least about the difficulties inherent in international peace-support missions of outsiders coming to assist local forces. It has also reminded us of the sacrifice that others have made so selflessly, in lives and, less dramatically, in lifestyles amidst long-term deployments in often grim and unsafe conditions. Each occasion reminds, too, how much has changed, and continues to do so. 

For two days at Bastion we undertook RSOI (reception, staging and onward integration) initiation training to refresh our skills in TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures). This included the current IED (improvised explosive device) threat and practices in dealing with them, to cultural mores, the contemporary “Green-on-Blue” attacks perpetrated on members of ISAF (the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force), first aid and battlefield triage, and the rules of engagement. 

Even the economy, long a bastion of drug producers, warlords and pilferers of aid, has picked up, though much remains to be done. In part this is a function of the huge movement of people from rural areas into the cities. The capital, Kabul, has tripled in size to over six million people in a decade. The increase in number of mobile phones to more than 18 million amongst a population of 35 million has made business easier, though official exports are 20 times less now than imports, and business confidence is vulnerable to security swings. The country will, if it is to not only survive but be successful, have to learn not just to import what it consumes. 

These changes have created a crush of traffic and people, and a tremendous pressure on infrastructure and resources. But these are signs of progress. New buildings have sprung up, and not just of the “poppypalace” variety funded by drug money, but businesses and malls. The streets are alive with people making a living. If Afghanistan keeps up its annual economic growth rate of over 11 percent since 2001, those born that year will, by 2020, have seen the economy grow eightfold. Still poor, perhaps, but no longer desperate. 

Take the province of Bamian as an example of how different the situation is today. It was once best known for the giant Buddha statues, which the Taliban blew up in a pique of religious intolerance in March 2001. Today it is a centrepiece of mining prospecting, a sector which offers as much as $1 trillion in rewards for the country – provided that long-term stability and rule of law can be assured for investors. 

Mining is not the only opportunity. The carpet sector employs over three million Afghans in 20 provinces, more than are supported by drugs, though in a sad paradox of activity, the illicit world has received much greater attention and aid than the licit. One result of such neglect is that many carpets are smuggled out through Pakistan, both to avoid taxes and to gain a “Made in Pakistan” label to enable onward export. Better logistics will help many poor Afghans, and this requires getting and keeping the region on-side, a political rather than military task. 

Kabul and Bamian are two key indicators of the benefits of sustained growth and security. Progress is also down to the spread of enablers, including cell-phones, the internet and the media. Around half of Afghanistan’s population has access to television, and more than two million surf the internet. Cell-phone banking is now available, hopefully spearheading lower capital costs and improved access. Improved communications is also perhaps one of the key tools for turning the tide on widespread government corruption. Of course much can be improved, not least the country’s overall political economy, where those in government with influence and access seek to turn this into personal financial profit. Corruption, not governance, and warlords, not the private sector, have been emblematic of the local environment. This is partly down to the country’s own history, and partly a reflection of regional norms. 

If Afghanistan were to create a political economy largely free from corruption it would be the regional exception. But as Kautilya reminds us in Arthashastra (The Science of Wealth), India’s classic text from 300 bc: “Just as it is impossible to know when a swimming fish is drinking water, so it is impossible to find out when a government servant is stealing money.” As elsewhere, in a positive cycle of growth and governance, the only likely means to reduce these levels of corruption is through the political activism of a middle class that does not owe its wealth to political favours and to whom this type of corrupt behaviour is not only a personal affront, but also a cost to their pockets. 

Such drivers will help history to stop repeating itself and reform the governance environment. The Soviet Union pulled out its military forces from Afghanistan in February 1989. However they kept aid flowing to their proxy regime led by President Mohammad Najibullah until the start of 1992. Just four months later, the mujahedin took over as Najibullah ran out of cash to pay for his army and pay off the militias. Four years later he was dead, murdered by the Taliban who took over Kabul, re-establishing a grim order from the feuding and lawless mujahedin. 

The parallels appear eerily similar. The Soviets spent billions of dollars building infrastructure. Najibullah led reconciliation efforts with the mujahedin, fuelled by Soviet money. Moscow also “Afghanised” the military efforts, building a local army of around 320,000 men, even though it remained entirely dependent on the Soviets for fuel, arms and succour. 

There are differences, of course. For one, the Jihad of the 1980s was a national struggle; today’s struggle with the Taliban is largely tribal. And the contemporary economy highlights a crucial difference of the two eras, seldom considered, and one that can be used to the international community’s advantage: individuals today are personally wealthy, much more so than during the 1980s. That creates a different stake and offers powerful and useful levers to convince the power-brokers – warlords by another name – to play ball. 

This also hints as to how the international community might shift its own focus as it transforms its military commitment. Most of its attention has dwelt on insecure areas, notably the restive southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Future aid may instead be better spent on rewarding stability, in order to reinforce success in those areas that want to be part of a new order, rather than on compensating insurrection. 

Another difference from the Soviet era is that the mujahedin at that time enjoyed widespread international support and legitimacy, including from Western allies, making it easier to fund and recruit. Although the Taliban has also received some support from Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Iran, this cannot be compared to the external succour provided to the mujahedin in the 1980s. 

Still, unlike the mujahedin, the contemporary insurgency’s principal funding sources are from non-state actors such as Islamist terror-networks and drugs. More international actors than before are keen to see Afghanistan stable rather than playing its historical part as a geopolitical football. 

And a final difference is in the nature of Afghan politics itself. Although Najibullah attempted to democratise the country towards the end of his rule, the combination of media and technology today ensure Afghanistan is further down the path of democracy than before. The 2014 presidential election will be another positive step in that direction, although from previous experience, considerable and steadfast international pressure, scrutiny and logistical support will be necessary to keep things on track. This is inevitably a messy process, but one, too, that has to be kept in perspective in the nation-building business. 

At Camp Bastion shortly before nightfall, a siren sounded with the ominous words blaring over the tannoy: “Op Minimise” – the shutdown of all external communications when there have been serious casualties, probably deaths, allowing the families to be informed officially before the news leaks out. Then followed the clattering of the Chinook carrying the cause of the alarm, offloading its human cargo just metres behind our accommodation block. It was a grim reminder of the sacrifices made yesterday, today, and in all likelihood tomorrow, in this war for the Afghans and for the security of those far away. 

Yet with 9/11 a fast-receding memory, many are dubious about the cost and benefits of staying the course. Inevitably and ironically these doubters are mostly armchair pundits far from the battlefield. In Afghanistan’s “foxhole, as the old saying about the lack of atheists on the battlefield has it, few have this luxury. 

Responsibility for security transitioned to an Afghanistan National Security Force lead in June 2013. But with insecurity and casualty rates remaining high, the fear has been that everything will change for the worse as the international community continues to withdraw. To the contrary, this is an opportunity to move the partnership onto a strategic platform, where aid and other forms of assistance are used like patient investment – made in the expectation of long-term returns. The key thing that has to change is the tactically driven policy urges which have characterised the last decade. If all this can be done and the exit managed in partnership with the Afghans, a catastrophic replay of the Soviet experience is not preordained across the Hindu Kush.  

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