Controlled warlordism Afghans’ best hope

Max Hastings

Although the prognosis in Afghanistan is wretched, we must sustain military aid.

While most of the world spent the weekend Oct. 11-12 trembling for its wealth, in Afghanistan

the Taliban busied themselves dying in quite large numbers, during an ill-advised assault on Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gar. Around 50 insurgents were killed, for no loss to Nato and Afghan security forces.

This fits the war’s pattern. Almost every time the Taliban fights a battle, it loses to overwhelming firepower. Unfortunately, such western successes are strategically meaningless. Nato is absent from vast areas of this intractable country, where the insurgents prosper. There is greater gloom about the conflict than at any time since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

I spent a week in Afghanistan in September, and was shocked by the deterioration since my last visit two years ago. The British army, which justly prides itself on its “can-do” philosophy, has been sobered by recent experience. Its casualties are acceptable within a context of progress. But they become dismaying against a background of growing Taliban influence and slumping confidence in Kabul government.

President Bush has decreed an American troop “surge” in Afghanistan. Some 10,000 additional troops will be committed under General David Petraeus, the Iraq “miracle worker” who now runs US Central Command. Petraeus, the most impressive soldier America has produced since Colin Powell, is a clever and charismatic leader who might one day emerge as a presidential candidate. But he is well aware that Afghanistan is not Iraq.

It is a far more primitive society, whose people find it hard to perceive the merits of any central government — least of all one as corrupt as President Hamid Karzai’s — and which is now trapped in a narco-economy. It is almost impossible for westerners, military and civilian alike, to engage with Afghans. Almost none speak the language. It is only possible to travel outside fortified bases in helicopters or armoured vehicles.

Afghan gratitude for the creation of a few schools and hospitals is outweighed by the simple fact that, in a diplomat’s words: “Seven years ago most of the population felt safe. Now they don’t.” He added brutally: “The British army has been irresponsible in suggesting that it could do the business in Helmand. We should never have taken it on. It’s much more than we can handle.”

The Kabul regime is pitifully short of credible people to run the country. I met Barna Karimi, the deputy local government minister, a 34-year-old former exile who spent 17 years in California before returning here to work for Karzai. Unsurprisingly, he talks the language of US business schools: “We have developed a strategic framework,” he says. “We are constantly evaluating the performance of our governors and district governors. We have formulated a social outreach programme which revives the traditional role of the community. You guys” — he means westerners, of course — “don’t have the problem of lacking a system. I am trying to create a system without qualified people.”

The newish governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, is much more convincing. He is 52 years old and a former commissar in the Afghan army in Russian times; he was a businessman and ruler of two other provinces before he was transferred to Helmand during the summer. The British are much in love with Mangal, whom they perceive as one of the country’s only honest and able officials.

When I told Mangal how much his efforts are admired, he said wryly: “Nobody in Kabul seems to appreciate them.” He acknowledges that more than half of Helmand is today under Taliban control. “When government can’t deliver,” he said, “people think it better to have no government. We need to convince people that we are working for them. If we cannot do that, it would be better to go.” I found it easy to understand why foreigners are impressed by Mangal’s courage. There are few people in Afghanistan whom more people want to kill. Every time he goes out to walk, there is a real chance that he will come back dead.

The British are desperately impatient for the impending US change of government. They believe an Obama presidency will recognise the impossibility of military solutions. It might throw its weight behind finding a substitute for Karzai and talking a way out of this shambles. Simon Jenkins has said from the outset that the Afghan war is unwinnable. I have shared his dismay about western blundering. Yet it seems to me that we must try, though the odds against success are great. It is futile to escalate the Nato troop commitment.

The only slender chance of stabilising Afghanistan lies in sustaining military and economic aid for Afghans. The highest aspiration must be for controlled warlordism, not conventional democracy. A civil war may prove an essential preliminary before some crude equilibrium between factions can be achieved. If this sounds a wretched prognosis, it is hard to find informed westerners with higher expectations.