War is weary of Kabul

Over the centuries, Britons have acquired the ability to laugh at themselves — particularly when the going gets rough. When he was the British foreign secretary’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles had an enlarged cartoon hung in his office. It showed an elderly man, just out of bed and drawing the curtains to let the light in while his wife looks on with her cup of morning tea.

The caption read: “Another day, another Afghan strategy”.
Cowper-Coles, who also served as Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, has reproduced this self-deprecating cartoon in his very telling Cables from Kabul, published earlier this summer in London. What is interesting and obvious is how the cartoon, presumably published some three years ago, hasn’t dated. Ten years into a war that initially promised a cakewalk victory, the US-led Nato forces have successfully converted effortless triumph into ignominious retreat. The latest Afghan strategy unveiled by US President Barack Obama earlier in June nullifies the so-called “surge” approach of Gen. McChrystal — a thinking officer who got the sack after an indiscreet interview he gave to Rolling Stone where he questioned his Commander-in-Chief’s interest in Afghan matters.
The US generals are right to question their President’s application of mind but the problem isn’t limited to one man’s disinterest. If Mr Obama has more time for climate change than he has for Afghanistan, he is merely reflecting his overall weariness with a place they neither understand nor cared for. The White House wants to leave Afghanistan to god and anarchy because the American people don’t have the stomach to stay on and fight. As far as a tired US military establishment is concerned, the death of Osama bin Laden means that there is at least a credible reason to return home without winning the war.
At one time, the British were said to be the repository of accumulated Western wisdom on the mysterious Orient. Certainly, distinguished members of the Indian Civil Service such as Sir Mortimer Durand and Sir Olaf Caroe and politicians such as Lord Curzon played the Great Game with aplomb. However, more than 50 years after the disengagement from Empire, even Britain appears to have been infected by the same “health and safety” mindset that has undermined its economic competitiveness. In an earlier age, a Conservative Prime Minister would have done anything to revive Britain’s importance in the land mass between the Suez Canal and India. Reflecting the public mood, David Cameron is in no position to cajole Britain into accepting additional imperial responsibilities. A Britain that — if the Cowper-Coles story is to be believed — had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to organise a chartered aircraft to ferry President Hamid Karzai to Britain and back for a “Guest of Government” visit, wasn’t in any state of mind to invest in Afghanistan’s future.
For the West, investment was often calculated in purely financial terms. Over the years, mind-boggling sums are said to have been “invested” in Afghanistan. It is said that the government in Kabul generates revenues of nearly $80 million annually and receives 40 times more in foreign aid (including a fair amount from India). Today, as the time to desert Afghanistan approaches, the West is kicking itself for throwing vast sums of money down a bottomless pit and leaving few tangible assets that will outlive the conflict.
It is difficult to compress the reasons for this failure of “development” in a few sentences. When the many thousands of aid consultants engaged by big donor countries put their heads together for a future post-mortem they will identify many villains: a trigger-happy occupation force, an equally trigger-happy Taliban that is wary of economic progress, a corrupt political dispensation nurtured by Mr Karzai, etc. It is highly unlikely that the development consultants (on whom an estimated 40 per cent of the aid money was spent) will perceive themselves as being a major part of the problem.
Yet, the first thing that struck anyone visiting Kabul after 2002 was the fact that Afghanistan was experiencing something akin to what is best described as “radical colonialism”. It was radical insofar as the thrust was towards the creation of modern institutions and a modern economic infrastructure. However, since the priorities were determined by foreign experts alone, the system was also colonial. If the money spent on the foreign experts had been spent on making the salaries of the Afghan Army, police and bureaucrats more rewarding, the state of Afghanistan would have been very different.
On my first day in Kabul some four years ago, I attended a party at the old UN complex in Kabul. The crowd was fairly cosmopolitan and young but the only Afghan present was the waiter. In his book, Cowper-Coles has reaffirmed my impressions of a skewed development process by mentioning that the two Afghan bearers attached to him provided him a sense of the vox populi. No wonder Mr Karzai’s attitude towards the West’s efforts turned from enthusiasm to prickliness to outright hostility. The innate nationalism of Mr Karzai made him see red at the sheer effrontery of European diplomats and trouble-shooters deciding what’s good and what’s unacceptable to Afghanistan. India escaped relatively unaffected by the Afghan nationalist backlash because its aid programme was linked to government ministries run by Afghans.
It is this imperial attitude that may explain why the endgame is unlikely to be smooth. The West wants to control the process of engagement with the Taliban, and is even willing to outsource part of the process to Pakistan. Earlier, it was insistent that the starting point of the initiative was an acceptance of the Afghan Constitution. Now as the deadline for departure comes closer, it is no longer that sure. Yet, what remains a constant feature of the attempts to woo the Taliban is that there is no attempt to devolve the responsibility for peace-making to the Karzai Government.
The failure in Afghanistan was caused by the West’s unwillingness to trust the Afghan people.

The author is a senior journalist

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