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After 2014 In Afghanistan

Posted by on January 27th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

I wrote yesterday that all the happy talk on the war in Afghanistan is just that, and that 2014 is not the end of the story by a long chalk. It's a theme taken up by the respected expert Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network today in a talk at the Davos 2011 Open Forum. In a summary of her thinking, she writes:

International actors in Afghanistan have long been torn between negative trends, bleak assessments, ambitious strategies and ritualistic reports of hopeful developments. Their publics at home are uneasy about the lack of clarity on why their forces are in Afghanistan and what exactly they are achieving. Well-informed diplomats and policymakers are often very pessimistic in private, having seen the limitations of intervention from up-close, even though they cannot repeat their views in public. It is clear that international forces cannot stay indefinitely and that the current level of spending is unsustainable, but there are serious misgivings as to what might happen once they leave.

…Not enough thought has gone into what will remain once the numbers have been achieved and the narrative of success has been completed. At the moment the focus is clearly on the honourable retreat for the internationals.

…The military have also significantly ramped up their media and communication strategy, in an attempt to shape the narrative and perceptions of the transition process. Much of the current reporting on Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency, particularly in the major news outlets is based on briefings by military officers or ‘unnamed officials’. The coming years are probably, more than anything else, going to be a battle for perceptions –  focused on international audiences and aimed at bringing the troops home.

ISAF need a story that allows them to claim ‘mission accomplished’. But the Afghan population threatens to be left behind with a factionalised political arena, a well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are above the law, an insurgency that is likely to resurge, and a fragile government propped up by foreign funding and a limited military presence. Not despite our best efforts, but quite possibly because of them.

And in a companion piece for AAN:

It has been said many times before, but the gap between rhetoric and what people experience is mind-boggling and ultimately leaves you feeling speechless. How often do you want to keep pointing out that media reporting is being manipulated; that the gap between what policymakers believe privately and what they propagate in public is so vast that it must hurt their brains (not to mention their conscience); that the definitions of success are being defined by what can be achieved and measured, rather than by what could be relevant.

It is the gap between rhetoric and empirical experience which dictates that the US military will try to leave a rump presence in Afghanistan after 2014, to keep the cracks papered over. And we're already seeing the kind of government by elite that is likely to emerge there, propped up by the US presence.

Last year, I wrote that US policy on poppy eradication amounted to simply picking the winners of Afghanistan's drug trade and this year that has come to pass.

US embassy cables published recently by WikiLeaks expose the insider opinion that Afghan officials are using poppy eradication teams to weed out the competitors of major traffickers with whom they are linked.

The leaked cables follow previous observations, investigations, government reports and testimonials by former contractors that say eradication efforts have long been corrupted and misused, and that Afghan officials have consistently thwarted any serious attempts at stemming the heroin trade.

…US officials talk a good game to the public about the Taliban's links to heroin, but rarely do they admit the extent to which their closest allies are involved in the industry.

These cables show some of their real understandings, and what insiders, investigations and UN statistics have already suggested: that the Taliban is just one fish in a sea of heroin traffickers, and that when targeted eradication efforts are employed by the Afghan government, they increase the profits of major drug networks linked to those in power. This in turn increases the price of opium and heroin, bringing those networks huge profits.

Understanding such economic incentives suggests that those lobbying for eradication as a policy may be linked to those who benefit from the rising price. These lobbyists represent the world's largest heroin dealers.

The "well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are above the law" described by van Bijlert are drug dealers placed there by US policy. They are now so powerful that to go after them would utterly wreck the happy-talk narrative and show Afghanistan for the disaster in foreign adventurism that it truly is, so the US and its allies will do nothing…and eventually, will leave. At that point, this elite will be entirely in charge, with no brakes or balances. It's not going to be pretty.

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