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Clear, Hold, Build? Not in Afghanistan

Posted by Steve Hynd on July 15th, 2009

The Guardian’s foreign affairs editor, Peter Beaumont, has seen his share of conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East, including Iraq. Today, he writes of his misgivings about the counter-insurgency “clear, hold and build” plan which everyone from Petraeus and McChrystal on down are pinning their Afghan hopes on.


The problem, however, with the notion of “clearing” is that it assumes that the Taliban are somehow “other” to the rest of the population, not least in the Pashtun south. But the reality, whether we like it or not, is that the social and cultural values represented by the Taliban have large areas of cross-over with substantial sections of the rest of Afghanistan. That logically means that what is being earmarked for excision represents often commonly shared values – a policy that risks inflaming the conflict rather than “pacifying” it.

…it ignores the social organisation, cohesion and strong kinship relationships in Afghanistan, as well as the reciprocal obligations between members of a tribally based society in the midst of conflict. Equally problematic are the assumptions that the policy of clearing is based on. For over the last few years, US and UK estimates have proved to be consistently wrong about the numbers, concentrations in locations and levels of local support for Taliban fighters – and why people are supporting them. There has been a failure to grasp even why individuals are fighting.


After each campaign senior officials announce a victory in the face of a Taliban withdrawal to regroup elsewhere. And inevitably, the Taliban returns more determined, more knowledgeable about their enemy and with ever more effective weapons.

And given the increasingly wide distribution of the violence, the policy of holding requires ever greater troop levels, suggesting to the population an occupation ever more determined. And in doing so, it poses the risk of an ever more intensified resistance. Leading to the constantly unanswered questions – how long should that holding last and what conditions would allow for withdrawal?


If it is possible to imagine at least what “clear” and “hold” look like, the final part of the formula still remains almost impossible to visualise. While politicians and military alike talk about strengthening institutional capacity towards the purpose of building a strong, democratic state, it is hard to see what that state would look like, and how it should function. Eight years of largely wasted effort in Afghanistan have barely made an impact on its multiple conflicts and challenges – for which the coming elections will once again be presented as a fig leaf.

And what has that effort produced? A rump of a centralised state whose writ runs little further than Kabul, but has been unable to devolve power or resources – a critical requirement – to the provinces. It has permitted the emergence of a government based not on popular legitimacy but influence trading between the same people who once tore Afghanistan apart and have continued, on Karzai’s watch, to run their own individual fiefdoms.

Lacking a realistic picture of what Afghanistan should look like, and how its political settlement might work, trying to build is as pointless as trying to clear and hold.

These are compelling arguments, which COIN advocates are busily ignoring. They are the bedrock of the case for withdrawal, for ending the occupation, and for a policy of “over the horizon” containment and reconstruction aid as set out by Rory Stewart, a British ex-soldier and diplomat who is Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard.

The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

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