Written evidence from Matt Waldman, Independent
1. NATO forces are not winning in Afghanistan.
The insurgency is expanding and becoming more powerful and more
deadly. The majority of Taliban are neither extremists nor mercenaries:
despite the use of extreme tactics, most insurgents believe they
are fighting a just war against aggressive invaders and a degenerate
2. Counter-insurgency in Afghanistan cannot succeed
without two elements essential for success: a legitimate, functioning
Government, and insurgents that are deprived of external sanctuary
and support. Transition - efforts to build Afghan forces and transfer
responsibilities to them - faces major obstacles and will take
longer than anticipated.
3. Despite some improvements, there continue
to be major constraints in the effectiveness of international
assistance to Afghanistan. In particular, it is impeded by the
drive for rapid physical results, lack of Afghan ownership, and
overuse of contractors and consultants. Operational rules heavily
constrain the effectiveness of UK and other diplomats. A highly
challenging counter-insurgency campaign, which requires non-military
efforts that match those on the battlefield, will not be won by
fluctuating personnel who are detached from the population and
excessively shielded from risk.
4. Efforts to "reintegrate" insurgents
are unlikely to be successful due to widespread mistrust of government
officials, the strength and reach of the insurgency, and because
the programme does not address the principal reasons why Afghans
5. Most Afghans support talks with the Taliban,
and some insurgent objectives converge with wider Afghan and international
interests. Given this, and the constraints of counter-insurgency
and transition, the potential for negotiations with the Taliban
should be explored. But dialogue is blocked by international incoherence
and insurgent mistrust of the coalition, which is compounded by
the military surge. The process requires careful handling. It
is jeopardised by numerous potential spoilers on all sides. There
are questions about the feasibility of power-sharing, and an agreement
could lead to constraints on civil and political freedoms as well
as the rights of women and minorities. To endure, any peace process
and prospective settlement must be widely seen to be inclusive
and just. Any settlement must also seek to address some of the
root causes of the conflict, especially the abuse of power.
6. Largely due to its rivalry with India, Pakistan
provides sanctuary and considerable support to the Afghan Taliban,
which it sees as an instrument for achieving strategic influence.
Talks require Pakistan's support, but giving its officials excessive
influence over the process could trigger opposition within Afghanistan
and countermeasures from regional states. Concerted efforts are
required to reduce the extent to which Pakistan perceives a threat
from India, and to improve the two countries' relations.
7. This statement seeks to highlight, briefly,
issues related to the effectiveness of the UK and other foreign
powers in Afghanistan about which there are often misplaced assumptions.
Given Afghanistan's complexity, the observations forgo detail
and nuance, for the sake of lucidity. It addresses: conflict conditions
and the Taliban; constraints of transition and counter-insurgency;
aid effectiveness; practical constraints on effective UK engagement;
reintegration; reconciliation; and Pakistan (as it relates to
8. NATO is not winning, or even beginning to
win in Afghanistan. For each of the last four years military officials
and politicians have said that they are starting to turn the corner
in the conflict. In each of the last four years the insurgency
has grown larger, more powerful, and more deadly.
9. Over the four years from 2006 to 2009 the
number of insurgent attacks on Afghan and international forces
has increased by 48, 52 and 43% respectively.
(This is reflected in the chart below, which shows actual and
attempted insurgent attacks against the Afghan Government or foreign
forces from 2004-2010.) In the first half of 2010, there were
some 3,500 insurgent attacks, up by 51% on the same period for
This August ISAF recorded 4,919 "kinetic events" (security
incidents, predominantly involving insurgents), an average of
over 150 incidents a day, which is up 49% on last August.
Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan per week, 2004-2010;
10. Insurgents are using increasingly effective
asymmetric tactics against coalition forces. From 2006-2009 international
military casualties increased by 21, 27 and 77%.
There were 489 coalition deaths in the first eight months of 2010,
up by 58% on the same period for 2009.
11. Over the last three years civilian casualties
have increased by 39 and 14%.
(Comparative figures are not available prior to 2007.) In the
first half of 2010 there were a reported 1,271 civilian casualties
(mainly due to indiscriminate attacks by insurgents), a 21% increase
on the same period for 2009.
12. Insurgents are conducting a systematic campaign
of threats and intimidation against the population. In the first
half of 2010 insurgents assassinated an average one civilian per
day, usually due to their actual or perceived association with
the Afghan Government. News reports suggest that in Kandahar alone
there are currently an average of four or five such killings a
13. The insurgents have expanded their presence
from the south and south-east, to parts of the north, centre and
west, and they now have control or influence in over half of the
country. Government officials can barely access one-third of the
country and there are districts outside government control in
almost all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. In the first half of
2010 there were 14 provinces in which there were over 100 insurgent
attacks, and another eight provinces in which there were over
And as the Taliban have extended their territorial presence they
have also expanded their rudimentary structures of governance
14. The Afghan insurgency comprises seven main
groups, which are supplemented, variably, by foreign militants.
There is considerable segmentation within, and mistrust between,
different insurgent groups, and an uneasy relationship between
field commanders and the Pakistan-based leadership. The Quetta
Shura-led Taliban is by far the largest bloc, which also comprises
various groups, but is relatively hierarchical and cohesive. Links
between the movement and al-Qaeda are minimal. On the whole, insurgents
do not appear to be popular with the Afghan population, but in
many areas they are seen as preferable to the Afghan Government.
They are fatigued, and have been weakened by special forces' operations,
but they remain confident, and have no shortage of manpower or
15. Despite false and contradictory claims by
some western officials, the majority of Taliban insurgents are
neither extremists nor mercenaries. Many groups use extreme tactics,
including organised violence against civilians; and social and
economic deprivation helps to explain why foot-soldiers fight.
But most Talibs are fighting what they consider to be a just war
against aggressive invaders and a degenerate, proxy regime. They
have multiple motivations, which usually involve: retaliation
against perceived military aggression (especially airstrikes that
kill civilians, or abusive raids and detentions); resistance to
a perceived foreign invasion and threat to Afghan and Islamic
values; opposition to abuse of power and impunity; and exclusion
from power or resources, especially at local level. Recruitment
is reinforced by expediency and opportunism.
16. Some western officials assume that Taliban
objectives are intrinsically antithetical to western interests.
Some goals would rightly be considered objectionable by parts
of Afghan society and the international community, such as further
constraints on the rights, freedoms and opportunities of women
and girls, or extreme punishments for violations of Islamic social
codes. But other stated goals, such as the withdrawal of foreign
forces, enforcement of law and order, and better governance, are
consistent with Afghan and international aspirations and interests.
The extent to which the Taliban seek administrative, as opposed
to political, power is not entirely clear.
17. Two principal strategies govern current operations
in Afghanistan: transition and counter-insurgency. The former
will be difficult to accomplish in the anticipated timeframe;
the latter may simply not be achievable.
18. 'Transition', meaning efforts to build Afghan
forces and transfer responsibilities to them, faces huge obstacles.
The current goal is to generate 171,600 troops, and 134,000 police
by October 2011. Sustaining a force of this size, however, would
heavily depend on significant, long-term foreign assistance. The
annual cost of salaries alone is likely to exceed the Government's
total annual revenue. International efforts to build Afghan forces
begun in earnest only in 2007 and have prioritised force quantity
over quality. Given weaknesses in logistics, training, and leadership
there are serious questions about the capability of the Afghan
Army to conduct independent operations. Afghan police are poorly
equipped and widely seen as ineffective, corrupt or abusive. Both
the police and army suffer from a high attrition rate (including
casualties, desertions and discharges it amounts to 16 and 23%,
respectively), which poses continual recruitment and training
19. Separately, counter-insurgency in Afghanistan
will not succeed without two of the sine-qua-nons for success:
a legitimate, functioning Government, and insurgents that are
deprived of external sanctuary and support. The Afghan Government
is corrupt and ineffective; its officials are often seen as unjust,
predatory and benefitting from impunity. In many parts of the
country there is widespread loathing for officials. At the same
time, insurgents benefit from safe havens in Pakistan and a significant
level of support from parts of the Pakistan intelligence service
20. Afghanistan suffers from a ruling mafia elite
and industrial-scale corruption. Yet reportedly no senior Afghan
government figure has been successfully prosecuted for corruption,
and current investigations have stalled.
This is hardly surprising: for years the West has not only failed
to challenge corruption, but has channelled millions of dollars
to Afghan power-holders it deems politically expedient, regardless
of their records. Many Afghan officials, including those suspected
of corruption, continue to receive large sums of money from various
international actors, including the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Graft has been compounded by the allocation of vast reconstruction
funds to Afghan and western contracting companies that are wasteful
or ineffective, with limited oversight. These factors have led
to a conspicuous and increasing inequality between a rich elite
and impoverished population.
21. There has been a colossal failure by the
international coalition to empathise with ordinary Afghans and
act accordingly. Consider that many Afghans, especially in southern
Afghanistan, are profoundly Islamic, conservative, and have an
understandable mistrust of foreign forces. In their perception
western forces, garrisoned in fortified compounds, launch attacks
which kill, injure or antagonise Afghan civilians (often without
proper, visible accountability or redress); collude in the empowerment
and enrichment of abusive strongmen and a corrupt regime; maladminister
assistance funds; and herald the commencement of their departure.
Most Afghans live in difficult conditions and will accept what
support they can get, but in light of the above considerations,
and in the face of systematic Taliban intimidation, it is increasingly
unrealistic to expect western soldiers to win Afghan hearts and
22. This is underscored by countless discussions
this author has had with ordinary Afghans which suggest that a
majority of the population no longer believes that the coalition
actually wants to defeat the insurgents. The explanations for
this vary but they are often connected to the failures of such
a powerful military coalition, America's on-going support to the
Pakistan military, whom they know are supporting the Taliban,
or America's alleged ambition for regional dominance and resources.
However mistaken the scepticism of foreign intentions may be,
it is deeply entrenched and spreading, making it even more difficult
for foreign soldiers to win the support of the population.
23. There have been improvements in health and
education services, and many rural areas have benefitted from
community-based development programmes. The capacity of certain
ministries is improving. But there continue to be major constraints
in the effectiveness of international development assistance.
Three significant factors, described below, are the drive for
rapid physical results, lack of Afghan ownership, and overuse
of contractors and consultants.
24. Aid has suffered from a perpetual short-termism.
The complex, challenging and insecure environment requires lengthy
project timeframes. Yet foreign donor contracts tend to be short-term,
and implementing agencies often face pressure to deliver rapid
results. To achieve social and economic sustainability it is essential
to build the capacity of Afghan individuals and institutions,
rather than focusing predominantly on physical capital.
25. An essential ingredient for successful development
is "ownership" - the buy in or active participation
and engagement of those involved. It is required both nationally
and locally, and helps to ensure that aid is relevant, builds
capacities and has a substantial, lasting effect. Yet much aid
to Afghanistan has been supply- rather than demand-driven, which
undermines efforts to achieve ownership. This has led to projects
that seek to replicate western models of development that have
little or no relevance to Afghanistan. The extensive use of foreign
soldiers or contracting companies to deliver aid has also limited
the potential for achieving local ownership.
26. Private contractors are essential for reconstruction,
but many make huge profits, often through several tiers of sub-contracts,
while delivering mixed or unsatisfactory results. Local contracting
companies, in particular, are seen as wasteful, corrupt and delivering
low quality work. Expatriate consultants are also essential for
technical assistance and capacity-building, but many are insufficiently
experienced or qualified, and absorb costs that are wholly disproportionate
to their value-added. Concerted efforts by foreign donors to address
these issues could significantly enhance the impact of aid and
potentially improve the long-term prospects for stability.
27. UK ability to influence events in Afghanistan
is extremely limited. At this stage in the conflict it is difficult
for any foreign actor to achieve major shifts in direction, and
what foreign influence there is lies principally with the US.
28. Nevertheless, UK influence is greatly diminished
by operating practices that heavily constrain our personnel. British
diplomats are expected to conduct sophisticated, in-depth analysis
of Afghan affairs; to build trust with, and influence, key partners;
and to support and oversee major assistance programmes. Though
often of high-calibre, it is difficult for diplomats to accomplish
these tasks under current conditions. Most live in heavily fortified
compounds with little access to the field, and have minimal contact
with Afghans. Tours are generally for one year, rarely more than
two, and are disrupted by too frequent rest breaks out of country
(two weeks in every eight, not including holiday). Few are fully
trained in local languages: reportedly, just six UK diplomats
have been trained in Pashtu, the language of the insurgency-affected
south and east, and of the roughly 160 diplomats at the Embassy,
only three speak Pashtu or Dari fluently.
Similar constraints apply to countless other foreign experts,
diplomats and officials. (They also apply to expatriate NGO workers
and analysts, but such individuals are not engaged in counter-insurgency.)
29. Given these constraints, civilian achievements
are impressive. But a highly challenging counter-insurgency campaign,
which by definition requires non-military efforts which match
those on the battlefield, will not be won by fluctuating personnel
who are detached from the population and excessively shielded
30. Impediments to transition, counter-insurgency
and foreign assistance have led policy-makers to turn their attention
to other policy areas, such as reintegration and reconciliation.
31. Considerable emphasis has been placed by
the coalition on the new Peace and Reintegration Programme, which
offers economic incentives and opportunities, including vocational
training and community projects in agriculture or reconstruction,
to persuade insurgents to desist from violence. A 'High Peace
Council' is being established, along with provincial and district
level committees, to oversee and direct the programme.
32. Despite commendable efforts by ISAF and Afghan
officials involved, the plan faces severe challenges of implementation.
The programme relies heavily on local government officials that
insurgents are unlikely to trust. It envisages large-scale projects
but the Government has little presence or capacity outside district
centres. It will be especially difficult to implement in Taliban-dominated
areas, where it is most relevant, and insurgents are likely to
target participants or their families.
33. There are indications that insurgents are
tired of fighting, and recently a number of insurgent groups in
the north and west have either surrendered or expressed an interest
in reintegration. Thus, if implemented incrementally, by competent,
credible officials (of whom there are few), the programme stands
a chance of achieving small successes.
34. However, many potential "reintegrees"
doubt that the Government will fulfil its promises of assistance
or protection. Moreover, the programme does not address the principal
reasons why Afghans fight, as noted above, such as the abuse of
power and the perceived aggression of foreign forces. It is therefore
unlikely that many fighters will abandon the insurgency, and the
number who do so is likely to be matched or exceeded by the number
of new recruits. The priority is to ensure that the programme
does not exacerbate the conflict or undermine future possibilities
for reintegration. Sibghatullah Mojadidi's Peace and Reconciliation
Commission, which the programme replaces, was so corrupt and ineffective
that it diminished the prospects for insurgent reintegration.
35. There is international incoherence on the
issue of "reconciliation". Some military officials see
reconciliation as a tool of counter-insurgency to induce high-level
insurgent defections, and thus weaken and divide the enemy. Some
see it as a way of cutting deals with the Taliban in order to
facilitate foreign forces' departure. Others see it as a process
to address grievances between hostile groups, especially the Government
and Taliban, in order to resolve the core conflict and achieve
a more inclusive political settlement.
36. Assessing the risks, opportunities and implications
of negotiations with insurgents is acutely difficult. That said,
there are major flaws and constraints of counter-insurgency and
transition; an increasing number of western policy-makers see
the current course as politically and financially unsustainable;
and the idea of talks is widely supported by the Afghan population.
In addition, there is a degree of convergence of Taliban, Afghan
and international interests, especially in terms of the presence
of foreign troops, Afghan sovereignty, law and order, and arguably,
37. Thus, the international community should
ensure greater coherence on "reconciliation" and actively
seek to facilitate government-Taliban dialogue. For talks to begin,
the international community, in particular the US, needs to demonstrate
a genuine interest in talks. It should modify its insistence on
stringent preconditions which may be blocking talks altogether.
But the process should proceed with caution: a rush to negotiate
would be self-defeating and any negotiations process would involve
major risks and challenges.
38. Presently the biggest obstacle to talks is
mistrust between the warring parties. Confidence-building measures,
such as removing former Taliban figures from the UN blacklist,
have been unilateral and comparatively insignificant. The coalition's
military surge appears to be intensifying the conflict, and compounding
enmity between the parties, and is therefore reducing the prospects
of negotiations. Mistrust is reinforced by the coalition's emphasis
on the reintegration of fighters, rather than genuine, high- or
39. The process could be disrupted by powerful
spoilers within the Government, political factions, the insurgency,
or the region: strategies are required to ensure they are integrated,
marginalised or contained. There are numerous questions about
the form, scope, and guiding principles of the process; identity
of mediators; and even which actors are represented in talks given
the segmentation and fragmentation of the parties.
40. Negotiations could ultimately lead to a power-sharing
agreement, but implementation would be highly challenging, especially
due to multifarious factional and other power struggles, at local,
national and regional levels. An agreement could involve constitutional
or legislative changes that jeopardise civil and political liberties,
and the rights of women and minorities. It could also provoke
a backlash by groups who fear losing their current power.
41. For legitimacy and viability, any settlement
must be both inclusive and just: it should therefore seek to reflect
the aspirations of Afghanistan's diverse society. It should also
seek to address underlying causes of the conflict, especially
the abuse of power. It must be reinforced by genuine peace-building
and reconciliation efforts to build better relations between hostile
42. Due to its latent conflict with India, parts
of the Pakistani military and ISI have long aspired to significant
influence, or "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. They
are anxious about what is perceived as a strong Indian presence
in the country and a Kabul-New Delhi alliance. This is reinforced
by concerns about the disputed Durand Line that divides Afghanistan
and Pakistan, along with an enduring insurgency in Balochistan.
They see the Taliban as an instrument of strategic influence,
and therefore provide them with sanctuary and significant support.
This puts Pakistan in the powerful position of a potential facilitator
or spoiler of negotiations.
43. In early 2010 the ISI arrested the Taliban's
supreme military commander, Mullah Baradarwho is believed
to have had independent contacts with the Karzai regimeas
well as other members of the Taliban leadership council, known
as the Quetta Shura. The arrests were a demonstration by Pakistani
officials that they would obstruct talks unless they were fully
involved in the process. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that negotiations
could succeed without Pakistan's backing.
44. There are indications that the ISI and military
are inclined to support negotiations in Afghanistan. They are
increasingly concerned about a possible future alliance between
Afghan insurgents and the Pakistani Taliban, who could benefit
from "reverse strategic depth" inside Afghanistan.
45. However, given the longstanding role of Pakistan's
military and ISI in supporting insurgents, especially the Haqqani
network, their inclusion in talks must be handled carefully. It
requires a difficult balance to be struck between expediency and
Afghan sovereignty. If Pakistan believes its influence is insufficient,
it will not support the process, yet the perception of excessive
influence could provoke opposition inside Afghanistan or countermeasures
by neighbouring countries.
46. The best means to bring about Pakistan's
constructive engagement is to address the underlying causes of
its conduct, especially the perceived threat from India. Ultimately,
this depends on improved relations between the two adversaries,
which requires persistent encouragement, pressure, and support
from the international community. It could be reinforced by more
effective use of US incentives and disincentives in Pakistan;
modifications and perhaps a diminution in the scope of India's
presence in Afghanistan; and, conceivably, Afghanistan's commitment
to geo-political nonalignment.
47. Equally, any negotiations process must involve
consultation and engagement with other states in the regionnot
least India, Iran, Russia, and Chinawho are manoeuvring
to protect their interests in anticipation of US withdrawal. It
will require concerted efforts to identify, and as far as reasonably
possible, accommodate their legitimate geo-political interests.
48. The outlook for coalition forces in Afghanistan
is worse than often portrayed by officials. There are major constraints
on existing strategies, especially counter-insurgency and transition,
the insurgency continues to grow, and some analysts fear a new
49. Too many western officials see the Afghan
conflict as a Manichean struggle. Neither side is benign. Arguably,
the repugnance of Taliban ideology is matched by the degeneracy
of the Government, and Taliban-al-Qaeda links are exaggerated.
50. Foreign powers should seek to improve state-building
and transition efforts, and maintain a robust military presence.
But they must also support direct or indirect talks with the insurgency,
as part of a wider, inclusive political process, reinforced by
efforts to mitigate Pakistan-India hostility. Negotiations and
prospective power-sharing in Afghanistan are fraught with risk,
but they constitute a narrow opportunity to resolve the core conflict.
Efforts to defeat the insurgents are highly unlikely to succeed,
and could pave the way to a more deadly, internecine war.
3 October 2010
13 Figures derived from the annual reports of the Afghan
NGO Safety Office (ANSO). Back
Figure derived from the reports of the ANSO. Back
Rob Nordland, "Security in Afghanistan Is Deteriorating,
Aid Groups Say", The New York Times, 11 September
Figures derived from iCasualties.org. Back
Figure derived from iCasualties.org. Back
Figures derived from UN reports. Back
ANSO Quarterly Data Report, June 2010. Back
See, for example, Elisabeth Bumiller, "US General Cites Goals
to Train Afghan Forces", The New York Times, 23 August
2010; and Brookings Institution, "Afghanistan Index",
31 August 2010. Back
See, for example: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Karzai seeks to
limit role of US corruption investigators", The Washington
Post, 9 September 2010. Back
See, for example: Greg Miller, "US effort to help Afghanistan
fight corruption has complicated ties", The Washington
Post, 10 September 2010. Back
Ray Furlong, "Knowledge of Afghanistan 'astonishingly thin'",
BBC Radio 4, Broadcasting House Programme, 31 July 2010. Back