Tobias Bunde

Security Saturday: The A-Word

German observation team in Afghanistan (By John Scott Rafoss (090121-M-6058R-004) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons”)
Last week, I was reminded of an exceptional issue of the German newscast heute journal a couple of years ago. Before talking about his next topic, anchorman Claus Kleber had directly addressed his audience: “Please do not switch now. Because we know that if I now utter the words conflict, Israel, and Palestine, we will immediately lose some ten thousand viewers.”

I often have a similar feeling when it comes to discussing the Western involvement in Afghanistan. Basically, no one wants to talk about it anymore. The prevailing mood – at least in Berlin – seems to be: Let’s just get out of that far-away country and forget it as soon as possible.

This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. First of all, it is a very strange behavior given the enormous financial and personal resources NATO countries and their partners, including Germany, have spent in Afghanistan since 2001. It just does not do justice to all those who gave their lives trying to rebuild the country. It is also no exaggeration that Germany’s participation in the Afghan mission has had a far-reaching impact on the German armed forces and the German public. A country that did not have much experience with actual fighting (in recent decades) suddenly had to deal with a considerable number of killed soldiers or the fact that German soldiers killed themselves. To be sure, the Bundeswehr was involved in fighting missions before Afghanistan, but ISAF and OEF were just a completely different ballgame. The involvement in Afghanistan triggered a number of public debates about the appropriate language: Can we say “war”, is it appropriate to refer to killed soldiers as “Gefallene”? And events on the ground, notably the Kunduz incident, forced the German public to face the ugliest parts of war. The German involvement also caused domestic (and international) debates about the German role in NATO (just one word: caveats…), the relationship between military and civilian instruments or the actual milestones and goals international actors should set. In sum, for about a decade, the mission was a defining one for German security policy.

Given this importance, it is quite striking that many in Germany try to avoid an open debate about the conclusions we should draw from the experience in Afghanistan. To be clear, lessons will be learnt anyway. However, we might learn the wrong ones if we do not have an open and intensive debate about what worked and what did not work in Afghanistan.

In this respect, I would like to recommend Roland Paris’ review essay in the June issue of Perspectives on Politics (ungated until June 23): Afghanistan – What Went Wrong? (You can also read a short summary over at the Monkey Cage, but I suggest you read the whole piece.)

Discussing a number of recent books on different aspects of the Afghan mission, Paris warns that we might draw the wrong lessons shaped by “simplified narratives”, which might not only misrepresent what happened, but also lead policy-makers to apply the wrong lessons to the next conflict.

Based on the literature on post-conflict operations, for instance, Paris questions Astri Suhrke’s argument that “more was less” in Afghanistan, arguing that international actors probably missed the window of opportunity right after the end of the intervention when they could have made a lasting impact. According to him, the Afghan mission – long an “economy-of-force-campaign” until President Obama ordered the Afghan surge in 2009 – could rather be summed up as “too much, too late.”

Overall, Paris’ analysis highlights two important points. First, the success of the mission was heavily hampered by the lack of knowledge of Afghan society, which led to a lot of non-productive or even counterproductive projects. Second, international actors were too narrowly focused on short-term gains, missing the longer-term implications of their actions. However, there was no quick solution to the problems on the ground. As Paris notes, “reliance on a series of quick fixes seemed to substitute for strategic thinking. From time to time, frameworks such as the ‘light footprint’ and ‘counterinsurgency’ provided an organizing basis for policy, but these frameworks were appealing precisely because they seemed to offer a ready solution for Afghan stability.” (p. 545).

In his concluding remarks, Paris argues that we should not draw the lesson “that nation building is impossible or ill-advised, however. To extract this lesson from the Afghanistan episode would be to repeat the practice of substituting slogans for careful analysis.” Pointing to a number of cases, in which international missions were actually quite successful (meaning here the absence of renewed fighting), he warns of the danger that seeing Afghanistan as the prototype of “nation building” could provide “a rationale or pretext for not acting in the face of strategic interest or humanitarian need.” Indeed, if the past decade was strongly influenced by a belief in the instrument of (military) international intervention, we might observe the pendulum swinging back in the opposite – and equally inappropriate – direction. Despite all its weaknesses, there are many good reasons for saving liberal peacebuilding (PDF).

Former US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, claimed in early 2011 that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Understandable as this statement might be (it also reflects the prevailing mood in Germany, I would argue), it may be a good idea to first examine what really went wrong in Afghanistan.


Additional Afghanistan links from this week:

Murray Brewster reports on NATO’s challenge to recover the enormous amount of vehicles and equipment the Alliance has brought to Afghanistan in recent years.

In his video blog, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen discusses an “important milestone”, i.e. Karzai’s decision to announce that Afghan security forces will take “the lead for security across the country” in the coming months.

Bahram Rahman presents a list of the “Top 6 Mistakes NATO & the US Made in Afghanistan”.

Stephen S. Saideman discusses Canadian losses in Kandahar and the relationship between the size of a contingent, the tasks it is asked to fulfill and its impact on the risk for the soldiers on the ground.

Finally, if you got confused by all those announcements regarding talks with the Taliban in Qatar, here’s an update by the BBC.

On a side note, it would be really interesting to know what Kurt Beck is thinking now.

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