Blog AnalysisAsia

A timetable for withdrawal: the only way to win the war in Afghanistan?

(B2 / analysis) After the bombing of Kunduz, an “unacceptable” bombing according to several EU foreign ministers, we should perhaps begin a debate on the Western military presence in Afghanistan. A presence which must still last for many years, the main European officials regularly remind us

We will also have to break with what remains unsaid in Afghanistan: we are at war. What happened in Kunduz is not a mistake, it is war. Where there are deaths, not only Taliban or rebels but also our soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire, or who support one side or the other. It's inevitable... The question shouldn't really be there. But why this war? For what purpose. And until when?

'We are at war'

No need to beat around the bush and use other words, as the French did some time ago and as the Germans or Italians seem to continue to do, the war is very present. And all the countries – or almost – of the European Union are involved. The armies of the EU Member States contribute as many men to IFAS as the United States! A little less than 30 men. If we take 000 rotations per year as a factor, that's nearly 3 men that EU countries will have sent to the region in 100.

This war is not without damage, military

European military losses are far from negligible. According to the website icasualties, the armies of the EU have suffered, since the beginning of the intervention, 407 dead (half of them British), that is to say one third of the total losses or half of the US losses during the same period. The number of injured is not given. But it is about three times more numerous than the number of deceased. On the US side, there were indeed 2400 seriously injured on September 10, 2009 (that is to say, not returned to combat after 72 hours) for just over 800 dead. And, on the British side, there are 822 wounded, 250 of them serious, as well as nearly 2000 hospitalizations for illness or injury not related to combat, for just over 200 dead (as of August 15, 2009). This shows the weight of the veterans of Afghanistan in the future. Not to mention the ravages of drugs which remain a taboo. The leaders of the armies know it well who repatriate, discreetly, soldiers who have become addicted

Civilian casualties are inevitable

A war is not fought in socks. When there are well-trained and heavily armed soldiers, as well as bombers in action, a priori, there will be damage. Dead and wounded. Not just soldiers. But also civilians. And mechanical burrs. Asking soldiers to be killed without reacting is rather inadequate and inconsistent. This war does not fail in these principles. The proportion of civilians killed for those of the military and the rebels seems to remain overall in the range of 1 in 10. The political leaders who woke up the day after Kunduz proclaiming their refusal of the unacceptable do not therefore seem to me really very consistent .

This war seeks a goal

At the beginning, it was the hunt for terrorists (an objective still regularly invoked to justify the commitment), then the stabilization of the country, the fight against drugs and the reestablishment of the State (of law), more generally of “ our security”, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled, considering that the German military presence is “in the urgent interest of the security of our country. (…) “The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were organized from an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. (…) The terror came from there and not the opposite” .

But is it really with 100.000 heavily armed men and their maintenance in the country for several years that we reestablish the rule of law, hunt terrorists, fight against drugs and strengthen “our security? ”? Why not intervene in Sudan, Somalia, Iran, North Korea... Countries which also threaten our security. Asking the question is already answering it.

Isn't the objective of this war rather the stabilization of an allied government (a sort of application of the extra-territorial solidarity clause) and the fight against radical Islamism? In this way, this war then resembles, if not in its precise objectives, at least in its foundations and even in its means, the war that the USSR led twenty years ago precisely in Afghanistan. And this modern “crusade” brings with it a series of problems: political – Islam being the religion of Afghanistan, the war targets part of the population – legal and ethical: this is not quite the mandate given by the United Nations. We are neither aiming to maintain peace nor to return to peace. But the elimination of an opponent.

The failure of the headlong flight

Being present “for years” seems like a headlong rush as well as a cause of failure in the long term. Indeed, the accumulated weight of military losses, the cost of the operation (direct and indirect), all the more difficult to assume as the economic and budgetary crisis makes its effects felt, and the absence of justification specific to causing the public support is strengthening. Despite all NATO communication efforts. And if “blunders” like those in Kunduz multiply, our democracies will not endure this war for very long. They can end up leading to a rupture between opinions and their governments. Which would be the worst...

The current strategy is a dead end

In the coming months will be the test of truth. Everyone recognizes it. But the current strategy, even reviewed and corrected by General McCrystal, does not seem to offer a better future within reach. Recognizing that for eight years, this war has been badly started, badly deployed, and that many mistakes have been made, is not enough. Regaining the confidence of the Afghan population just with a few less bombardments and two or three more civil-military actions seems difficult.

scheduled withdrawal

The solution – contrary to what some US soldiers advocate – is it not then not to increase the troops but to reduce them. And announce it. With a proven withdrawal schedule, province by province.

1) Tactically, the enemy will be offered fewer holds, fewer possibilities of action. And we will have more troops available for the main purpose that should guide them: to train and assist the Afghan army. The operation will cost less in human lives and financially, therefore will be sustainable.

2) Having a timetable for withdrawal means that there is a necessary assumption by the Afghans of their destiny after the deadline. Afghanizing the conflict is not just about training a few thousand more police and soldiers, it also means giving back to the Afghans tactical mastery and the keys to their country. At their own risk!

3) It also removes an argument for rebellion. The withdrawal of “foreign troops” no longer becomes the justification for “their” war. Incidentally, this forces “the enemy” to control more territories, therefore being able to be the victim of reactions and counter-attacks, from the Afghans themselves.

4) The exit strategy is all the more necessary since by 2010-12, several large contingents should leave Afghanistan: Canada and the Netherlands in particular (1), even Germany (if the Bundestag refuses to vote for the extension of the mission, the call from the CSU conservatives for a withdrawal timetable is not a sign to be ignored). Better an organized, planned withdrawal than a scattered withdrawal, which would resemble a stampede...

This is not a good solution – I am aware of that –, the least worst solution…

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).