By Lee Butcher
The on-going debate on our future strategy, and eventual withdrawal, from Afghanistan often misses a fundamental question. Who have we been fighting, and what does that mean for the future of this troubled country?
The Taliban are not an army. They aren’t like the coalition forces they are fighting. When you fight a war against an army you can destroy their equipment, kill their soldiers, and dismantle their structure. That army will then disappear and the conflict will end.
This is not what we have been doing in Afghanistan. The Taliban are an ethnic group, they have a distinct cultural identity, linguistic nuances different from the other ‘tribes’ of the region and a distinct ethnic history.
The politics of Afghanistan resembles more that of Sub-Saharan Africa then Western Europe or East Asia. Parallels can be drawn to the post-colonial history of Africa. In places like Kenya, when colonial rule ended, there commenced a scramble to fill the power vacuum. Like in Afghanistan the competitors for that prize were ethnic leaders. In Kenya the Kikuyu, the largest and best financed, won the day. They have been in control, largely, since. Like the Taliban they were better organised and more able to take advantage of a perilous political situation.
We must not see internal conflict based on ethnic lines like we would conflict between nation states. Different solutions and different strategies are required to address it.
When we say we are fighting the Taliban, it has not always been clear who it is we actually are fighting. Is it the whole ethnic group or armed extremist elements within it?
International law makes clear its view of targeting ethnic groups. It is genocide, as the UN convention defines it ‘”the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group”. When we have been fighting the Taliban it has been important to know who it is exactly we have been fighting. We cannot have been target the whole of the Taliban, including the women and children who belong to that ethnic group. We have been fighting the armed elements loyal to the last regime. There are paramilitary groups within the myriad elements that make up the Taliban who we have been fighting.
This key to how and when we should go. There are Taliban willing to negotiate, to end the fighting and join the political process. The military strategy is clear, keep fighting the armed loyalist elements until they are so weakened that they are willing to negotiate, or their rivals within the Taliban force them to do so. Once those loyalist groups are unable to form a threat to the recognised Afghan government we can then leave.
Defeating the Taliban is therefore a questionable aim, one that fails to grasp the complications of the conflict we are engaged in. We can’t, nor should we desire, to destroy the Taliban. We want to place the internal political power of the ethnic group within the hands of moderate Taliban and weaken the political and military wing of the extremist loyalist groups. The most likely outcome is to see the Taliban as part of the wider ethnic makeup of the national Afghan political landscape. They will be part of the process, and do not pose an existential threat to that system.
Until we make clear the nuances in this conflict, and put them front and centre of our future strategy, confusion is likely to remain the norm in this debate.