As the prospect of meaningful peace talks continues to hang tantalisingly over Afghanistan, Ciarán Carey draws upon his experience of working in the country with NATO during the post-2001 conflict period to urge a more dedicated and thoughtful reflection on the war, and what has accompanied it.
The war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in America’s history. It also represents the longest sustained overseas intervention by European nations in modern times. It is almost seventeen full years (and counting) since the American-led, but widely supported, UN-mandated intervention that forced the Taliban from power and sought to install democracy in Afghanistan. However, this time period is still much shorter than the more than four decades of conflict that the Afghan people have endured in their own country.
Despite this longevity, or more likely because of it, Afghanistan no longer regularly features on the front pages of western newspapers or, more pertinently, at the top of briefings for western policy and decision-makers. In truth, given the plethora of crises that we currently face, that is understandable – which is not to say that it is fair or wise.
It is worth noting at this stage that if the reader expects, or even hopes, to see Afghanistan described as a ‘quagmire’ or ‘the graveyard of empires’, then this would be a good point to stop reading in order to preempt inevitable disappointment.
The latest iteration of peace talks may finally – finally – offer some glimpse of a solution to Afghanistan’s conflict. Ashraf Ghani, the current President of Afghanistan, has offered talks which would include the Taliban, with no pre-conditions. Ghani has an advantage which his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, did not have in that he, his family and his allies are not the subject of the visceral hatred which the Taliban felt towards Karzai, on account of the latter’s personal and family history, as well as his support base in southern Afghanistan. Ghani’s administration (while not short of its own problems, both pre-existing and entirely of its own making) is not required to carefully maintain the same fragile conditions which Karzai did. That, in part, is what has allowed him to make such a bold (and probably necessary) move towards dialogue.
President Trump’s recent decision to remove H.R. McMaster from the position of National Security Advisor, in favour of John Bolton, is unlikely to be conducive to a positive outcome in the Afghan peace talks.
At the same time, the role which the current resident of the Oval Office decides to play (or not play) is as important as it is unpredictable. On that note, President Trump’s recent decision to remove H.R. McMaster from the position of National Security Advisor, in favour of John Bolton, is unlikely to be conducive to a positive outcome in the Afghan peace talks, among many other matters of import to global peace.
McMaster’s time in charge of the anti-corruption task force Shafafiyat (meaning ‘transparency’) in Afghanistan under General David Petraeus did not, in the opinion of some of us who worked with him, give cause to believe that the political sensitivity and bigger-picture understanding requisite to a peaceful outcome to this conflict were among his strong suits. That said, his intellect and personal engagement in a peaceful outcome on Afghanistan are not matters up for dispute.
The same can not be said about Bolton. Above all, his likely unwillingness to deal with Iran and Pakistan does not bode well for a successful resolution to the Afghan peace talks. Whatever the faults of Iran and Pakistan in their conduct in Afghanistan – which are many and highly egregious – the war will invariably require a regional dimension to its conclusion and McMaster at least would have recognised that and pushed for that outcome in the peace talks. This is a stance that Bolton is unlikely to accept.
All that said, the primary purpose of this article is not to provide a summary or analysis of the political situation as it stands; nor is it intended to outline a detailed opinion on the prospects for peace. There are observers who can do that with much greater up-to-date knowledge than this writer, in particular from the most important perspective of all: namely an Afghan one.
Instead, the purpose of this article is to consider how the long war in Afghanistan is currently seen in the West or, perhaps more pertinently, how it will be seen in times to come.
Recently, the current commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, General John Nicholson, was accused of being too close to the war and to Afghanistan itself: specifically, of being “in too deep”. There can be no doubt that objectivity and clarity of thinking are fundamental requirements for a commander in an operational theatre. But even bearing that in mind, this still seems like a strange line of criticism.
For a great many years during this war, we were accused of not understanding Afghanistan. For the most part, this accusation was absolutely fair and accurate.
For a great many years during this war, we were accused of not understanding Afghanistan. For the most part, this accusation was absolutely fair and accurate. As then Major-General Flynn (yes, him) stated in 2010: “We’re no more than fingernail deep in our understanding of the environment.”
Would it be better, at this very late stage of the game, to send a commander with no experience or knowledge of Afghanistan? Hardly. If not, should the current commander’s background be held against him? That seems like an easy question to answer.
The age-old rabbit hole logic of ‘we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ must absolutely be avoided, of course. But that is a decision for politicians and policy-makers, not in-theatre commanders. It would also be a gross mischaracterisation of the sustained NATO effort in Afghanistan since the end of the transition process in 2014, both militarily and diplomatically. Without this effort, it is highly doubtful that the ongoing peace process would offer the promise, however tentative and qualified, that it does.
We have been too quick to try to move on from our Afghan experience; too ready to ignore the repercussions and overlook the lessons, both good and bad, that arise from it.
Above all, the truth is that anybody who has spent time in Afghanistan, like General Nicholson – and like the author – can empathise and in fact emphatically agree with General (Ret.) Stan McChrystal’s statement in his (excellent) autobiography My Share of the Fight. Those who cannot were likely doing something wrong. Of Afghanistan, McChrystal wrote:
“I’m not unbiased. Afghanistan can do that to you. […] In her beauty and coarseness, in her complexity and tragedy, Afghanistan possesses a mystical quality, a magnetism. Few places have such accumulated layers of culture, religion, history and lore, that instill such fear and awe.”
That criticism of General Nicholson – of being ‘in too deep’ – however, touches on an important matter: namely, that we have been too quick to try to move on from our Afghan experience; too ready to ignore the repercussions and overlook the lessons, both good and bad, that arise from it. If Nicholson has been marked by his experiences in Afghanistan, so be it. We all have and we have to accept that – even embrace it if possible, however hard that proves.
The conflict in Afghanistan will be the longest war the West has ever been engaged in, at least in the modern era. From a military, diplomatic, and humanitarian perspective – and indeed across many other fronts – this conflict will profoundly mark a generation and will influence policy and practice for even longer. It is high time that fact was recognised and properly addressed as there will come a time when Europe and America will, separately or together, face comparable challenges. We would be wiser in facing those future challenges having reflected properly upon the experiences drawn from Afghanistan, our longest modern war.
Ciarán Carey is a policy advisor on foreign and defence policy. He has worked, among other places, at the House of Commons as an advisor to the SNP, in the Balkans with the OSCE, and for NATO, both at its headquarters and in Afghanistan.
Feature image: Welcome to Afghanistan, Kabul Airport. Image: Carl Montgomery [CC BY 2.0]