A few years ago the political consensus on Afghanistan was that either the Taliban would win by clearing Afghanistan of the allies, or the allies would win by clearing Afghanistan of the Taliban and denying terrorists a safe haven.
The final nail was plunged into the coffin of that consensus last week, with the news that Hamid Karzai was in high-level discussions with representatives of the Taliban. It was believed that the talks have escalated, as for the first time the Taliban representatives are fully authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban, and its leader, Mohammad Omar.
I have long argued that this is the only realistic endgame for Afghanistan. It has not been a popular message. But it has been the only sensible one.
Consider the facts on the ground.
A year on from the Obama administration's surge of 30,000 US troops and the UK's contribution of 500, the situation is as follows. The Taliban insurgency has not declined or remained static but has in fact increased, even installing shadow local governments. The Karzai government controls only 29 out of 121 strategic districts. Only one in four Afghans in strategically important areas back the government, and the overall level of violence rose 87 percent between February 2009 and March 2010. These assertions come not from critics of the war, but from the Pentagon's latest assessment (PDF).
Directly after the troop surge, the US chose Marjah as the site of its first offensive, not for its military importance but because it was a mission which was relatively doable, something which would be able to raise the spirits of the international force and put the momentum back on the side of the allies. Three months later, it is partially back in Taliban control. There is a growing perception that Marja has become "a bleeding ulcer." (Those are the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who was the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan at the time of the attack. Since then, of course, he has been replaced, but there has been no change in strategy).
Of course, if you look hard enough you can always find good news stories such as a senior al-Qaeda leader being killed or the retaking of certain parts of Helmand Province, but I believe that the big picture is not a positive one. After nine years of fighting, most of the areas around Kabul are still too dangerous for westerners to travel through unless by tank or armored convoy. That is not a fact which implies that those nine years have yielded any military progress. Most damningly of all, the Taliban control 70% of the country.
In light of these sobering facts, it is worth revisiting the arguments for our continued deployment in Afghanistan.
The first is surely that it makes us safer. It has long been argued that if the allies leave Afghanistan it would once again become an ungoverned area -- a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks on 'the streets of New York.'
With each news story, that argument looks weaker and weaker. Of course it is true that terrorists can launch plots against us from areas which have a government which is hospitable to them. But the reality is that this deployment will not protect us from terrorism, for four reasons.
Firstly, because while the allies have been in Afghanistan, there have still been many
areas left ungoverned from which terrorist groups can and have launched attacks, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (which has never fully been under Pakistani government control), much of Yemen (where the Christmas day bomber trained), Somalia, Sudan, and, as the 70% control figure shows, much of Afghanistan itself.
Secondly, because terrorists do not need ungoverned areas from which to launch attacks. The 7/7 attacks were planned in Britain, the 2004 Madrid bombings were mainly planned in Spain, much of 9/11 was planned in Germany, the failed attack on Glasgow airport was planned in Scotland. The thousands of homegrown attacks foiled by security services every year are testament to the fact that fighting in Afghanistan cannot protect us from terrorism.
Thirdly because everybody knows that sooner or later, the allies will leave. However formidable a fighting force the Afghan army are by then, there is no way they will have the power to prevent terrorist plots emanating from 647,500 square kilometers of mountainous terrain with no effective border at all with Pakistan.
And fourthly because it looks increasingly like being in Afghanistan does not in fact protect us from terrorism. Rather, it provokes more. There is much anecdotal evidence that our presence radicalized Afghans. That widens, not contracts, the pool of people from whom terrorists can recruit. And that means that our presence in Afghanistan is more of a provocation than a protection.
The second most common argument for our continued deployment is that we must leave Afghanistan secure. We must only leave when the Afghan army is ready to take on security of the country without us.
But as the years roll by and the hoped-for progress does not appear, this argument also looks weaker and weaker. Afghanistan as a single sovereign entity mainly exists only in Western minds and on Western maps. As well as a lack of real borders, most people there feel loyalty first and foremost to their tribe or area, and to the abstract idea of 'Afghanistan' only a distant second, if at all. No national army has ever controlled the whole territory, and estimates are that the cost of doing so would be double the total yearly revenue of the Afghan government.
Stories have begun to appear in the American press of the consequences of the US decision to contract out some of their training of the Afghan National Police: unbelievable oversights such as not teaching them to adjust the sights on their AK47s. I have no doubt there is plenty of well-intentioned training going on, but ultimately -- the decision that the Afghan army and National Police are 'ready' will be subjective at best.
Then there are the liberal arguments. There can be no doubt that a Taliban return would be a disaster for human rights, secularism, and girls' education. It is heart-rending to consider abandoning the progress that has been made.
But the truth is that there simply is no military solution. Let us not forget that the Taliban already control over two thirds of the country as things stand. And unless we are seriously going to consider staying in the 30% of Afghanistan which we control forever to protect the population from the reintroduction of such mores, these practices -- however barbaric and unjust -- are not a problem which any NATO military strategy can solve. Even the civilian elements of the strategy, drilling wells, opening schools, cannot stave off practices we find repugnant. The bottom line is that Afghanistan is not our country.
In the final analysis, many of the arguments to stay in Afghanistan which we have heard over the last few years -- the sense that leaving would put us in danger of terrorism, the national pride, and the revulsion at what our leaving would mean for those in the country who want to play their instruments or educate their daughters, still pack the same emotional punch they used to. But they look increasingly detached from the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
We have not controlled most of the county in the last nine years of fighting and we are not about to now. The best we can hope for is a negotiated withdrawal.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
Follow me on twitter (@AzeemIbrahim)