The international terrorist threat
At this point it is helpful to remind ourselves of why the west intervened in Afghanistan in the first place. Leaving aside what later became a confused set of multiple war aims, the primary reason for western military intervention was that a radical Islamist regime, ie the Taliban which has seized power, had invited an international terrorist organisation, ie al Qaeda, to set up a base there from whence to plan terrorist attacks on the west as part of global jihad to impose Islamic government and sharia on the entire world.
There was a secondary aim of western intervention – namely, that there was a risk of the Taliban obtaining nuclear and other material enabling them to make a crude radioactive "dirty bomb" as nuclear and other materials from the former Soviet Union were being smuggled through Afghanistan. To an extent, these aims have been achieved – al Qaeda has been denied an effective base in Afghanistan to which it had moved after being evicted from Sudan. Al Qaeda’s Afghan base had allowed it to plan and train for large scale terrorist attacks such as 9/11 that took years of planning and preparation.
However, al Qaeda now appears to have spread and spawned offspring in a number of other locations including Yemen, the Horn of Africa, North Africa and northern Nigeria. There is the potential for any of these areas to become a terrorist planning and training base for attacks on the west. There is also the potential, if the Taliban were able to seize control of Kabul again, for Afghanistan to revert to being such a terrorist host country. That would necessitate western military intervention again, if we are not to face a significantly increased number of major terrorist attacks planned against the west. There must however be a very real question as to whether western governments would have the political willpower, courage and foresight to see the implications of not undertaking another military intervention. So the question we must ask is…
Will a radical Islamist group control Afghanistan again?
Whilst most western attention has been focused on the Taliban – with talk even of negotiating with the Taliban to bring them into a future government, the biggest threat that has largely been ignored is, I would suggest, from a lesser known group – the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, who I would argue is more brutal and ruthless than the Taliban, has been quietly biding his time, letting the Taliban take on coalition forces. However, he harbours one massive overriding ambition, which is to rule Afghanistan, and history has shown that he is prepared literally to destroy anything and everything that gets in his way to achieve this.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing of bin Laden, I wrote an article for ConservativeHome posing the question: "Post bin Laden – Which way will Pakistan slide in the fight against Islamist terrorism?" The assassination on Pakistani soil by American troops without the Pakistani government’s prior knowledge or agreement sent shock waves through a country where the maintenance of personal honour (izzat) is a matter of daily importance. Before 9/11, the Pakistani military was covertly helping various radical Islamist groups including the Taliban, as they saw them as strategic allies in the Kashmir dispute and in countering the wider perceived threat from India. After 9/11, this policy changed in relation to the Taliban, though links do not appear to have been cut with other Islamist groups in the same way. The impact of bin Laden’s assassination on Pakistani soil appears to be sending it in the opposite direction, away from the west.
One should not underestimate how difficult it is for any Islamic country to be seen to be siding with a non-Muslim country against a fellow Muslim country. Public opinion plays a crucial, though not necessarily determining, role in this. As in many Muslim majority countries, the number of radical Muslims may not be many more than 15%, but many more of the other 85% or so of traditionalist Muslims can be swayed either towards radicalism or towards the west, by what they see the west doing in the Islamic world. To this extent – in the medium term the end of overt western military action in Afghanistan may provide some breathing space for the Pakistani government. However, the spawning of a Pakistani Taliban, which has now become a potent political force in Pakistan itself, means that any gains made by the Taliban there, particularly in the border areas of the largely lawless tribal zone and nearby North West Frontier Pr ovince, will make it easier for the Taliban to gain power again in Afghanistan. British foreign policy must therefore focus as much on Pakistan as it does on Afghanistan.
British foreign policy
So what should British foreign policy be as the move up to and beyond the projected end of western combat operations in 2014? In the light of what has been outlined above, and in part 1 of this article, I offer ten suggestions for British foreign policy towards Afghanistan:
1. We must hold our nerve and avoid the political temptation to bring forward the withdrawal date as attacks on western forces, including green on blue ones by renegade soldiers and police, increase – as they are likely to do in the run up to a pre-announced withdrawal. Announcing an even earlier withdrawal date is likely to make matters worse and less likely to hold after 2014.
2. The basing of UK and other special forces in Afghanistan supported with western air power by agreement with the Afghan government is likely to be necessary considerably beyond the end of 2014, in order to prevent the re-establishment of Islamist terrorist groups there.
3. Our long term strategy in Afghanistan needs to focus on seeking to educate and encourage liberal reforms with the aim of them spreading out from the elite in Kabul to wider society and the rest of the country. Historically, this is the approach that over the last 50 years has paid biggest dividends, with the most liberal members of society being senior civil servants and university professors who were educated at western universities and are now themselves able to discreetly influence society in a more liberal direction. This is a long term strategy, but it is probably the only effective one.
4. Prior to the 2001 western military intervention, most battles between Afghan warlords were won not so much by major battles as by smaller battles in which a key factor was that an opposition commander had been bribed to defect. Similarly, in a country with almost no stable jobs outside of aid agencies, the different mujahhadin groups recruited part-time soldiers by paying a salary. Similarly, a key factor in the Taliban’s rise to power was that they were bankrolled by bin Laden. Cutting off the money supply to such groups will therefore be crucial to helping Afghanistan's transition to a peaceful future. Conversely, any suggestion that we should "bribe" the Taliban to defect must be resisted, as its effects will only be likely to last until they are bribed to defect back to another side, such is the history of Afghan politics!
5. British policy towards Afghanistan, and the wider region including Pakistan, needs to be part of a wider strategy of seeking to stop the spread of sharia enforcement being imposed around the world. We cannot tackle violent jihadists who want to achieve this ultimate aim, if we do not also tackle those seeking to achieve the same ends by non violent means. That is why we cannot negotiate to allow the Taliban to be part of the government in Afghanistan. Their aim is very clear – to impose their own harsh interpretation of sharia and Islamic government on Afghanistan and work with others who wish to do the same elsewhere in the world. It must be clearly understood by western governments that sharia does not have any concept of a peace treaty – merely that of a "truce". As I have outlined previously, the model of a "treaty" followed by Islamist groups is the "Truce of Hudabiya" a truce signed by Muhammad with the pagans of Mecca that enabled him to regroup and come back at a later date with a stronger and ultimately victorious force to conquer Mecca.
6. However, negotiation with individual members of the Taliban may be possible on an individual basis. As well as hard core ideological Taliban, there are others who have been persuaded to join either by propaganda, money or forced to fight after having been defeated by the Taliban.
7. The British government must not assume that the Taliban are the main threat to peace to Afghanistan. There are others, particularly the Hezb-I-Islami faction of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who
appear to have simply lain low allowing the Taliban to bear the brunt of casualties with coalition forces, who may yet emerge as the most serious challenges to peace and freedom in Afghanistan.
8. There is going to be a need for long term nation building and development, particularly in developing an economic base from which tax revenues can ultimately fund government infrastructure and basic health care.
9. We must endeavour to get Pakistan back on board as fully as possible in the fight against international Islamist terrorism. Without Pakistan on board, Afghanistan will always be unstable and an opportunity for Isamists similar to the Taliban to regain control.
10. The reason we intervened in Afghanistan was to prevent it being used as a base to train and plan for terrorist attacks on the west. So far, that has been successful. HOWEVER, IF that situation reoccurs, a radical Islamist government providing a base for an international terrorist organisation either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the west must be prepared to intervene again. If we do not clearly signal this now, then we send a green light to al Qaeda and similar minded international Islamist terrorists that if they only wait a year or so then they could re-establish their bases and training camps in Afghanistan or elsewhere with relative impunity.