Somali lessons for Afghanistan

Published: July 27, 2010

Whenever western leaders ask themselves the question, why are we in Afghanistan, they come up with essentially the same reply – “To prevent Afghanistan becoming a failed state and a haven for terrorists.” Until Afghanistan is stable, so the argument goes, we cannot risk withdrawal.
Yet there is very little evidence that Afghanistan is becoming more stable. On the contrary, the fighting is intensifying, casualties are mounting and the Taliban is becoming more confident.
So perhaps it is time to rephrase the question. Rather than asking, “Why are we in Afghanistan?”, we should ask, “If we are in Afghanistan, why are we not also in Somalia, Yemen or Pakistan?” All three countries are now plausible bases for potential terrorists.
Somalia, in particular, looks increasingly like Afghanistan before 2001. It is an almost completely failed state and western nationals are known to be undergoing terrorist training there. Somalia’s central government controls little more than a few blocks around the presidential palace in Mogadishu and the airport. The rest of the country is home to a radical Islamist insurgency, as well as to pirate fleets that prey on international shipping. Somalia is also exporting terrorism to its neighbours, as a recent deadly bombing in Uganda has illustrated.
Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia and lies across the sea from Somalia, is also attracting increasing concern from western intelligence agencies. And it has long been known that the remnants of al-Qaeda’s leadership are now based in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The west is fighting a war on terrorism in Afghanistan. But the terrorists are somewhere else. Meanwhile, our ability to combat threats around the world is sapped by the huge drain on resources caused by the Afghan war.
This observation leads in two possible directions. The first is to apply the Afghan model to Somalia – and to intervene massively on the ground to combat terrorism and to help build a functioning state. The second option is to apply the Somali model to Afghanistan. That would mean accepting that outside military intervention is often counter-productive, that its human costs are too high, that state-building is unlikely to work and that the west should concentrate on bottling terrorism up, rather than trying to defeat it on the battlefield.
Western policymakers recoil at the thought of getting bogged down in another bloody counter-insurgency operation in Somalia. The history of the country over the past 20 years has been one of successive failed foreign interventions, each leaving it in a worse state than before. Instead, the west is settling for an imperfect alternative option: monitor potential terrorist activity in Somalia from a distance, using a mixture of satellite and human intelligence. And, where possible and necessary, intervene with targeted military strikes.
The same model has been applied with some success in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Americans claim that missile attacks from pilot-less drones have inflicted heavy losses on the leadership of al-Qaeda and made it all but impossible for the organisation to use electronic communications, or to train. It is true that some innocent people are killed by the missiles. But innocents are killed on a regular basis by the war in Afghanistan.
The lesson of Somalia and Pakistan is that counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are different things. It is possible to combat terrorist groups without getting sucked into a major war and state-building exercise of the sort that the west has committed itself to in Afghanistan. That, in turn, suggests that Nato should look to withdraw troops from Afghanistan much faster than currently envisaged – and to refocus the mission much more tightly on counter-terrorism.
There are good and bad arguments that will be deployed against this course of action. The best argument is that, having committed to building a decent state in Afghanistan, the west has a moral obligation to keep going. It is true that there are many brave and decent Afghans who have put a lot of faith in the Nato-led war. But it is surely now apparent that the protection of human rights in Afghanistan cannot ultimately be secured at the point of a foreign gun. Only the internal evolution of Afghan society can provide any long-term guarantees of good government.
The other main argument against pulling back from Afghanistan is that western credibility is at stake. If we fail in Afghanistan, Nato might fall apart and America’s enemies across the world will be emboldened. Picture the fall of Saigon in 1975 – now replay that event, with the Taliban entering Kabul.
But this argument is also over-stated. A seriously reduced foreign force could help the Afghan government maintain control of Kabul – much as the African Union force has, so far, kept the Islamists from seizing Mogadishu. Even the fall of Saigon was not the catastrophic blow to the US that it felt like, at the time. Just 16 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed – helped on its way by a draining war in Afghanistan.
When western politicians talk about “credibility” in Afghanistan, it is often their own credibility they are worrying about most. America’s military timetable in Afghanistan already seems tailored to ensure that the US does not “lose” before the next presidential election. But to keep asking troops to fight and die in Afghanistan to avoid electoral inconvenience is immoral.
By Gideon Rachman
Copyright The Financial Times

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