We are still confronted by more questions than answers 10 years on in Afghanistan. For better or worse, this is the nature of the conflict in the long-troubled central Asian state. The war in Afghanistan is an experiment in a new form of war where “victory” will be measured against uncertain goals of stability, development, and reconstruction.

What complicates matters greatly for strategic planners in Washington, Brussels and even Canberra is that the people of Afghanistan are justifiably resentful of this experimentation that has bought little in the way of tangible benefits, while the Taliban-led insurgency are acutely aware of the strategic uncertainty around the operation. However, this is not just an issue of “should we stay or should we go?”, but what our responsibilities are as an international community.

The strategic ambiguity that characterises the operation in Afghanistan stems from the catalyst for the intervention where the US and its allies struggled to understand how to respond to the threat from al Qaeda. That is, how does a state respond to a direct, armed attack from a non-state actor? Here, the immediate mission statement was relatively clear-cut:  the removal of the al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, to find those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and to destroy the al Qaeda organisation.

However, from 2001 to 2005, the US and its allies fell into familiar patterns. That is, the threat at the core of the war on terror was re-articulated in conventional security terms in focusing on the Taliban as a pseudo-state actor and, of course, folding in Iraq as part of the dynamic. As has been widely and convincingly argued, this has been the most detrimental miscalculation of the war on terror and for the pursuit of a more lasting and resonant solution to the situation in Afghanistan.

The shift in operational focus from the original goals of the 2001 intervention to the focus on stabilisation, development, and reconstruction was driven by a need to undercut the structural causes that facilitated transnational terrorism. That is, how best to prevent the ability of a movement such as al Qaeda becoming operationally capable of committing an attack such as 9/11.

This rearticulation of the goals in Afghanistan towards stabilisation, development, and reconstruction, the forces under the command of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) has led to a series of quandaries. Central to this is the dilemma whereby development is predicated on a relatively stable local environment. However, this stability requires a degree of popular participation, something lacking as most Afghans see the Karzai government and its NATO/ISAF backers as illegitimate.

In other words, the stability required for development is undercut by the very lack of development as a means to enhance the legitimacy of the state. In this environment, a resurgent Taliban, as well as the numerous other sub-state groups in the country who may feel threatened by the emergence of an increasingly assertive government in Kabul, need only disrupt this delicate balance between stability and development to prevent advancement toward what we see as our strategic goals.

Day-to-day security remains the primary issue for most Afghans; something that reflects poorly on how this conflict has been managed at a strategic (i.e. political) level since 2001 while the initial optimism among the bulk of the Afghan population for the occupying force has largely faded. Corruption is rampant, the most recent elections were mired in credible allegations of vote-rigging, opium production continues apace, and the progress of negotiations is stuck over the question of whether to include representation from elements of the Taliban.

All of this puts NATO, ISAF, and the Australian troops and advisers on the ground in a profoundly difficult situation. Domestic pressure for clarity on what our strategic goals exactly are has led to a focus on 2014 as the drawdown date. It is hoped that the newly formed Afghan National Army will have the capacity to take over security operations in the country backed by a reasonably functional government.

This is likely to be premature, with the most likely outcome being a government and armed forces with limited reach outside of a few major cities and the rest of the country controlled by sub-state organisations that can draw on external patrons for arms and finances. The alternative to this is leaving the “end-date” for this mission open, potentially fomenting a greater degree of popular resistance to the foreign presence and what would be seen as an imposed government in Kabul.

This is, in many ways, a no-win situation, but one that we need to get used to. With an intervention in Libya under the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, as well as current grappling in articulating a response to the current humanitarian and security disaster in Somalia, the international community is feeling its way along in still slowly coming to terms with a more fluid, uncertain security environment.

This is a long process, and unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, it will be played out in their backyard.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey