The long hot spring and summer in Afghanistan have brought mixed, and sometimes very bitter, news. United States forces have experienced some of the bloodiest months. This week Australia lost three soldiers and the British death toll reached 300. Other allies have experienced similar losses.
Insecurity continues to be very high in many parts of Afghanistan. The Marja operation to clear the Taliban from one of its strongholds seemed to go well during the initial operations, but insecurity has crept back, threatening the progress. In southern Afghanistan the Taliban are campaigning to assassinate government officials, and even ordinary Afghans who take part in programs sponsored by the international coalition, such as rural development.
Kandahar – the second-most strategic area after Kabul – was supposed to be the locus of the military push this summer. But Kandaharis have largely rejected strong military action, prompting strategy change to one of economic aid arriving first and buying political support for tougher security operations later.
Problematic and often rapacious warlords-cum-government officials abound, driven by power and profit, and undermine efforts to improve governance. The central government remains an uneasy partner, and President Hamid Karzai is often seen as unwilling to focus on service delivery and to combat pervasive corruption.
All this has many asking: why are we there? A key objective in Afghanistan is to make sure it does not again become a haven for virulent salafi groups – extremist Sunni religious groups that embrace violent jihad against apostates and infidels – like al-Qaeda. The September 11 attacks were perpetrated out of Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda – while now largely in Pakistan – has lost none of its zeal to strike Western countries and undermine governments in Asia and the Middle East.
If part of Afghanistan came to be controlled by salafi groups or the Taliban sympathetic to such groups, their capacity to increase the lethality and frequency of their terrorist attacks would only increase.
Nor can the counter-terrorism objective be easily accomplished from afar. Human intelligence and co-operation from on-the-ground local actors is often critical for the success of counter-terrorism operations. However, few Afghans, including the powerbrokers in charge of militias who co-operate with the international force, will have an interest in persisting in the effort if they believe it abandoned them to the mercy of the Taliban.
An equally important strategic reason for the sacrifices in Afghanistan is to prevent a further destabilisation of Pakistan and, as a result, the entire Central and South Asian region.
In Pakistan, its tribal areas and Baluchistan have been host to many of these salafi groups, and the Afghan Taliban uses them as safe havens. But while Pakistan’s co-operation in tackling these safe havens is important for the operations in Afghanistan, the reverse is also true. If Afghanistan is unstable and harbours salafi groups that leak into Pakistan, Pakistan becomes deeply destabilised.
Any collapse or internal fragmentation in Pakistan could set off one of the most dangerous security threats in Asia, and the world.
Pakistan is a large Muslim country with nuclear weapons, existing in a precarious peace with neighbouring India. The Pakistani state has been hollowed out, with its administrative structures in steady decline since its inception, major macro-economic deficiencies, deep poverty and marginalisation that persists amid a semi-feudal power distribution, often ineffective and corrupt political leadership, social and ethnic internal fragmentation, and challenged security forces.
The internal security challenge is far more insidious than recently experienced by the Pakistani military in the tribal and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa areas: far more than the Pashtun Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, it is the Punjabi groups – such as the Punjabi Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba – who pose a deep threat to Pakistan.
The more Pakistan feels threatened by a hostile government or instability in Afghanistan, the less likely it will be willing and able to take on these groups. A defeat in Afghanistan would greatly boost salafi groups throughout the world: a great power would, again, be seen as having been defeated by the salafists in Afghanistan.
The world has made a commitment to the Afghan people to help them improve their difficult conditions and not abandon them again. Although often caricatured as anti-Western, anti-government, anti-modern and stuck in medieval times, Afghans crave what others do – relief from violence and insecurity, and economic progress to relieve dire poverty.
But the world should not be fighting a difficult counter-insurgency there to bring Afghanistan democracy, human rights and women’s liberation. We cannot dispense these goods to others from abroad: the Afghans need to obtain them through their own social progress and struggles.
The ownership and commitment needs to be their own.