Operation Restore NATO’s Prestige

The creaky North Atlantic alliance, a hangover from the Cold War, is intervening in Afghanistan in an attempt to save itself rather than the Afghan people.

Philip Cunliffe

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The deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan over the past month have given rise to a renewed focus on the expanded British war effort in the volatile southern Afghan province of Helmand. The deployment is expected to last three years, and will peak later this summer at nearly 6,000 troops. But what exactly are British troops doing there?

The British deployment is meant to strengthen the international community’s military arm in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that has been led by NATO since August 2003. NATO in turn has been seeking to expand the remit of ISAF beyond the capital Kabul. The British will spearhead this ISAF expansion in the south, which has been subject to an extended American bombing campaign. NATO has tried to differentiate its operations from the American war effort by the softer approach of despatching ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ that will ‘bring development hot on the heels of security’, in the words of the BBC’s Alastair Leithead (1). According to the British defence secretary, the British troops are there to train Afghan security forces and facilitate ‘reconstruction’ (2).

But British forces do not fall under NATO command until the end of the month. Until then, they are part of the US-led Operation Mountain Thrust, an ongoing last-ditch effort to subdue the south of Afghanistan before NATO and the NGOs arrive in August. As Leithead observes, this puts the British mission objective in Helmand in a ‘confusing position’ (3).

As if this wasn’t sufficient confusion, the British mission objective is further confused by the question of whether the British army is fighting a war on drugs or the war on terror. Former British defence secretary John Reid argued that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is ‘absolutely interlinked’ with the war on terror (though in fact, it was the Americans who endorsed their local allies’ poppy cultivation after the Taliban curtailed it) (4). On the other hand, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General James Jones, has said: ‘You won’t see NATO burning crops, but you will see us gather intelligence and support the national effort as best we can.’ (5)

The incoherence of these mission objectives only reflects the shifting and confused war aims that have guided Western interventions in Afghanistan from the start. The original aim of the war was to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The failure to find the al-Qaeda leader prompted a shift to denouncing the Taliban’s mistreatment of the Afghan population as the real problem, rather than their collaboration with al-Qaeda. After having destroyed the only force that held Afghanistan together, the aim of liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban mutated yet again into a protracted project of nation-building.

The doctrine guiding this nation-building experiment is the idea that security, development and governance all have to be delivered at once, in a neatly joined-up package coordinated across various government agencies, international organisations, multinational armies and NGOs. Today, the British army fights its wars alongside staff from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID). ‘The first priority must be for security – everyone I speak to here says that the first priority is security. But we must make sure that security comes with governance and development’, one British colonel told the BBC (6).

In other words, no development before security. But equally unless Afghanistan develops, military occupation and counter-insurgency will simply breed resentment and hostility. Without long-term development, Afghanistan will not move beyond an economy based on drug production. So no security without development either. In other words, joined-up nation-building is social work, aid delivery and counter-insurgency jumbled together.

Like two drunks propping each other up, the army offers security as the solution to the limitations of development. Meanwhile, the UN, DfID and NGOs offer development as the solution to the limits of security. But this security-development doctrine collapses under the weight of its own circularity. One is the measure of the other: development is taken as a product of security; and security is seen as a product of development. The result is that there is no external perspective or overarching framework by which to measure whether Afghanistan is going anywhere at all.

Nor can politics provide any way out of this. The international community settled the formal political process in Afghanistan after the 2005 elections, in which Afghans voted for a constitution, parliament and president under international auspices. Since then Afghanistan is regarded as being a legitimate and functioning democracy. This legitimated the handover of all other problems to NATO generals and the international technocracy of aid experts and NGO bureaucrats. But no one stopped to ask what political significance ballot boxes stuffed with slips of paper have in a country with no functioning central government and which is under foreign occupation.

In the midst of this chaos, NATO has seized upon the opportunity of a so-called ‘out-of-area’ operation to carve out a new identity for itself, fighting in a landlocked country in Central Asia far from the ‘North Atlantic’, around which this creaky, Cold War-era alliance was once based. Rebuffed by America during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, its member states torn apart over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, NATO suffered what the then US ambassador to NATO called ‘a near-death experience’ (7). The operation in Afghanistan has allowed NATO not to rescue Afghans, as much as to rescue itself. Designed to take on the Red Army, NATO is now battling against Afghan villagers for displaying insufficient gender awareness and for daring to try to satisfy the West’s appetite for drugs.

Between American bombing and NATO ‘reconstruction’, Afghanistan is now more divided and violent than it ever was under the Taliban. Afghanistan will never achieve any measure of peace and progress while it is reduced to being the stomping ground of an outdated and hapless military alliance. The irrationality of the policies of the international community in Afghanistan have ended by producing the very ‘failed state’ that it originally set out to abolish.

Philip Cunliffe is co-convenor of the Sovereignty And Its Discontents working group. Email him at {encode=”philip.cunliffe@kcl.ac.uk” title=”philip.cunliffe@kcl.ac.uk”}.

(1) Alastair Leithead, Army attempts to combat Taleban, BBC News, 1 July 2006

(2) BBC News, Q&A: UK troops in Afghanistan, 2 July 2006

(3) Alastair Leithead, Army attempts to combat Taleban, BBC News, 1 July 2006

(4) Simon Jenkins, ‘A bad attack of Beau Geste syndrome at our expense’, Guardian, 5 July 2006

(5) Ian Black, ‘Masters of an expanded universe’, Guardian, 2 March 2006

(6) Alastair Leithead, Army attempts to combat Taleban, BBC News, 1 July 2006

(7) Ian Black, ‘Masters of an expanded universe’, Guardian, 2 March 2006

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