Saturday, 11 October 2008

The language of victory

There has been more than a little reaction to the comments a week ago by Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, senior British commander in Afghanistan, where he was quoted as saying  that we must “lower our expectations,” and that “we’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”
“We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” Carleton-Smith said.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

This interview between a British officer and a British journalist was not a private conversation, and his words went far beyond Britain. They were heard in the US, in Canada, and in Australia. Who doubts they were also heard in Afghanistan, and across the border in Pakistan?

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the word defeatist in rejecting some of what was said, while endorsing the idea that negotiation had a role to play: “Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government.” He compared this to the successful strategy of supporting the Sunni Awakening in Iraq.

The point is not to negotiate with irreconcilable enemies of democracy in Afghanistan, rather it is where possible to facilitate those ready to turn from supporting the insurgency to supporting a democratic future for the country instead. Not to capitulate to the enemy, but to reduce support for the enemy.

A clear and detailed view of the practical limitations of negotiation with the Taleban has been provided by Martin Patience of BBC News, while Massoumeh Torfeh gives a more forceful view.

It has long been clear that all serious people involved in the West’s current counter-insurgency wars understand that the choice between political and military solutions is a false one. Political, military and economic solutions are interdependent. Of course some less serious commentators have had difficulty understanding this:
“We hear a lot about how violence is down in parts of Anbar province. But this has little to do with the surge - it’s because Sunni tribal leaders made a political decision to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. This only underscores the point - the solution in Iraq is political, it is not military.”
But as one of that candidate’s supporters acknowledged:
“The surge came just in time to salvage a remnant of Sunni presence in Baghdad, which is one major reason why Americans suddenly found new allies among former insurgents who not long before had been blowing up our convoys.”

Back to Afghanistan. In writing on Canadian reaction to Brigadier Carleton-Smith’s words, Terry Glavin pointed out that strategically there was nothing new in what he said. And in terms of the detail that was to some extent true, but there remains a problem in Carleton-Smith’s choice of language, and that was why Gates used the word defeatist.

The main error was in saying “we’re not going to win this war,” and yet the aim Carleton-Smith described of reaching a point where Afghanistan’s security forces would be able to manage the insurgency, that aim looked a lot like victory, or at least like a stage on the way there. So why did he not see it as such? Was the clue in the word ‘we’? If by ‘we’ he meant the British army, or even NATO, he was making a big mistake. A victory by the army of a democratic Afghanistan would be a victory for NATO and for the UN.

The West’s interest in Afghanistan is identical with the interest of the majority of the people of Afghanistan. The anti-war movement in the west refuses to understand that. If those charged with leading Western efforts in Afghanistan do not fully understand it, then we have a problem.

There is no reliable alternative to security through democracy. The fantasy of a quick-fix acceptable dictator has been shown again and again to be disastrous. Our enemies were raised under such dictatorships. And that leads to Carleton-Smith’s second mistake: the vague phrase “political settlement”. It has to be made clear that the only acceptable political settlement is one which respects the will of the people of Afghanistan. Perhaps he did say that. Perhaps those words were left out of the report. If so the fault is with the journalist. Those words need to be said every time there is talk of negotiation. They need to be repeated and repeated, and repeated again.

“The people will win,” Terry Glavin writes, and I believe he’s right. It’s in the West’s interest to hasten that victory. The way to do that is to commit totally to that victory in word as well as deed, to victory by the people of Afghanistan, victory for democracy and the rule of law in Afghanistan, not victory just for the current party in government but victory for the system of government that best serves the people.

Victory is not served by allowing even the smallest doubt to form about our commitment. Ambivalence leads to war, it prolongs war, it allows defeat.

Victory in the cold war came when the people of Eastern Europe  no longer believed in the power of their oppressors, when they were convinced their own power was stronger. Part of building that belief in Afghanistan’s population will be direct military action by NATO, part will be economic development, but at the centre must be the idea, and the belief in the idea, of the strong and free Afghanistan that will come with victory.

Follow up posts: Punchline, and Loose lips.

Related: Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? from the International Crisis Group July 24 2008.

Also, linked to earlier, but here it is again: Knowing the Enemy by George Packer, The New Yorker, December 18 2006, on David Kilcullen, on Al Qaeda’s information strategy, and on how victory must come through giving security to the population.

And from Your Friend in the North: F.A.O. Brigadier Carleton-Smith.

Image from the Archives of Ontario. Copyright © Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

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