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Hindsight in action: my 2008 paper – Where will Afghanistan be in 1, 5 and 10 years?

April 20, 2012

Where will Afghanistan be in 1, 5 and 10 years time?

By Tim Foxley

One of the (dis)advantages of making a long-term predictive assessment in 2008 is that years later it can be stood up against the current situation to see how it fares.  Here are the conclusions from the 50-page paper.  I don’t think this was that bad a call…


We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal.

US Senator John McCain, 2003.

Ironically, Senator McCain’s assessment on Vietnam’s past looks like it may well serve to describe Afghanistan’s future. At time of writing there has been an unprecedented media and analytical shift towards seeing the war as ‘unwinnable’ and that talks with the Taliban are the only solution. This shift in perception is probably more damaging than the Taliban. Every year it seems that new debates work over old issues concerning who the Taliban are, what they want and how best to deal with them—with strategies ranging from troop surges to political agreements. Shortages of funding, troops and, crucially, human resources and expertise remain limited or at least only increase in small amounts from year to year.

The perception being created is that of inevitable defeat. Without any convincing arguments to the contrary, or some good news to compensate, this could well be the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure. Nations looking to withdraw their commitments will take such pronouncements as their cue to leave. Afghans will pragmatically, and with by now carefully honed survival instincts, re-examine which direction the wind is blowing, warlords will start re-arming and neighbouring countries will resume meddling—if they ever stopped.

What continues to confuse and distract populations and politicians alike is the idea that a “new strategy” will necessarily solve things. Wiser analysts will caution that it is not so much a new strategy that is needed, but a more coherent and consistent application of existing ideas and efforts.

Anthony Cordesman, CSIS: We have a flood of ideas, concepts, Powerpoint oversimplifications, and supposed “strategies”. In practise, most of them range from well-meaning nonsense to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…“Winning” does not require new ideas as much as sorting out the flood of existing ideas to see what can actually be done in the field in 2009 and 2010.

At any rate, after seven years of going in what is increasingly perceived as a flawed direction, it may prove difficult to convince the Afghan populace that the West can be trusted to find and deliver new solutions, let alone sell this to the international community. In a sense, the international community is confronted by a dilemma that  Shakespeare would have recognised:

Shakespeare: ‘I am in blood, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

It is true that the situation for Afghanistan looks extremely bleak at present and will continue to look bleak over the ten years of this report. It seems that, increasingly, the international community definition of ‘long-term commitment’ is approximately ten years. Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper noted in September 2008: ‘You have to put an end date on these things.’. He added that while Canada’s military leaders have not acknowledged it publicly, a decade of war is enough.’

Canada is unlikely to be the only country to think this way. In the most optimistic scenario, the conditions of government and security in Afghanistan in ten years time will be flawed and fragile with all the very familiar problems currently in evidence still significant problems in 2018.

There is unlikely to be any defining year or event where the situation becomes irretrievable (although the assassination of Karzai, a major shift in allegiances of key warlords or the shooting down of an ISAF troop-laden transport aircraft would probably fit the bill). The years 2009 and 2010 will see renewed (and increasingly US-driven) efforts from the international community, a function of the arrival of a new US administration and the need to ensure that Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections take place and can be declared broadly free and fair.

The impact of Afghan and US elections will do much to distract and there is a lot of dust that will need to settle before clarity returns. However, by approximately 2011–2013 it is likely to be clear whether Afghanistan is to resume a slow decline into some form of fragmentation or whether—probably more by luck than any structured international community effort—some of the developmental seeds currently being somewhat randomly scattered begin to take political and economic root.

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