Foreign interventions, higher expectations, and the ability to be cautious
It would be interesting to explore the extent to which Western policy-makers believed their own statements about Afghanistan's future right after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But leaving the unknowns aside, we certainly remember the high expectations that were raised by publicly demanding and proclaiming freedom, democracy, and a functioning market economy for a country most of us had never thought about before 9/11. Within a few months, the official goal of 'fighting international terrorism' had broadened to 'building a functioning nation-state'. Everyone agreed it was time to do some good (for the Afghans, who had suffered so much).
The problem with expectations is that they can hardly be met. Whatever we make of the situation in Afghanistan today, NATO, which has been given the task of installing security, finds itself in the unenviable position of having to tell a story that is both coherent and politically acceptable. It must be clear that Afghanistan will be better off thanks to ISAF. Otherwise there would have been no point to the mission in the first place. One element of getting that story across is inviting future decision-makers to events that serve as a platform for discussion. And that is what happened at the "NATO Young Leaders Forum on Afghanistan" in Bratislava in December 2012, organized by the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA).
NATO brought in some of its people, who tried to stress the positive aspects of foreign intervention in Afghanistan. The audience – mostly civilian representatives from NATO countries and partner states – confronted them with their own critical assessments and personal experiences. While they appreciated NATO's intention to get rid of the trouble-makers in Afghanistan, they also questioned the positive outlooks given by some of the presenters. At the end of the conference, the participants agreed on some of the more general aspects and drafted a memorandum of understanding.
So, what should we make of forums like the one mentioned? Is there something we can learn from what has been said, and from what has not been said?
Many experts' recommendations still focus on establishing a stable and more prosperous Afghanistan. Yet these have to be mirrored against what is happening on the ground and measured against the international community's capacity and will to keep investing in Afghanistan. For now it seems as if the West will not leave the Afghans completely on their own, as has happened before. And there is a good reason to do so. There are certainly some pockets where the situation has improved.
But after all we have seen since 2001, taking into account what triggered the intervention, and the rhetoric among the political elite who followed George W. Bush's "dead or alive" approach towards Osama bin Laden – the guy who sought refuge in Mullah Omar's Afghanistan after he had been expelled from Sudan – I think it is worth briefly linking the foreign engagement in Afghanistan to more recent interventions.
In Libya, NATO not only contributed to the fall of the Gaddafi regime (who are we going to talk to now?), but also created a vacuum that empowered militant Islamists and criminals alike. Arsenals were plundered and weapons were delivered to the north of Mali, where Islamists aim to build their own state or at least expand and consolidate their control over a territory approximately the size of France. French soldiers have been sucked in to push back the militants into the desert. We see short-term success in this endavor, which at the same time sets the perfect conditions for a long and costly guerilla-war in the narrow streets of the ancients Mali cities. So, from a realist point of view, it all does not go too well.
Then there is Syria. Western media plus a rather large number of politicians argue it is time to do some good (for the Syrians, who have suffered so much) and launch some form of United Nations engagement to "support the opposition against the Assad-regime, and end the civil war". But these efforts have been blocked by the evil twins: Russia and China, which are clearly evil with regard to Syria – but not in general (export markets, cheap commodities, energy). Some Western politicians seem to be so desperate to intervene, they regard Syrian expatriates – sitting in hotels and television studios in London – as the legitimate opposition to Assad. Why is it, then, that the Syrians fighting in their home country do not have a positive word to say about them?
Taking into account the strategic repercussions of Western troop deployments to faraway lands – where life is quite different to, let's say, Germany – I think politicians would be well advised to exercise more caution before putting boots on the ground. Remember, you might end up with something you like even less than what you had before. Please, consider the likely consequences for the country in the medium term, and for the region in the long term – and be clear about when and how you want to get your troops out. It all costs a lot of money, you know. And lives. With this in mind, it would be very helpful to seriously consult a significant number of critical experts on the matter. Foreign countries are mostly far away; we know much too little about them, and people there tend to become angry if you stay too long or support a rival faction.
And please, define a realistic goal for the intervention! Of course democracy is good and people like to have a say in shaping the future of their country. But security must be the top priority – in terms of money, manpower, and strategic direction of the whole project. Democracy cannot blossom if a nation is thrown back into conflict as soon as foreign stabilisation forces have left the country. Stability and sustainability should be the benchmark. Not nice pictures of smiling children in a Powerpoint slide-show.
The discussion in Bratislava brought together young people who share a positive image of NATO, its capabilities, and its values. But after ISAF, one cannot help but wonder what was the point of the whole endeavor? What has been achieved? What has been lost? And what will remain? The Western public likes dishing out blame. NATO cannot allow itself to be trapped in a second Afghanistan in another faraway land. Our politicians should remember that before scheduling their next interview or promising more troops.