Waging even one war and winning it is complicated enough. Not to mention waging three different wars and winning them. This is what faces the international forces in Afghanistan.
First, a war typical of the 21st century: small special forces teams with night vision and laser sights pursue Al Qaeda terrorists, with the help of pilotless drones, satellite-guided by operators on other continents. Three less cinema-presentable aspects of this war are beginning to come to light thanks to document leaks and investigations such as the most recent work of Bob Woodward: thousands of civilian casualties due to bombing mistakes; hundreds of millions of dollars handed out by the CIA with the aim of buying loyalties (including the recruitment and handling of a secret army of some three thousand Afghans); total permissiveness with a corrupt elite indifferent to the fate of the general population.
The second is a war typical of the 20th century, which is not faring much better. When, after Bush and Rumsfeld’s failure, NATO and the international community came forward, the objective changed: it was now a war to construct a functioning democratic state. Something akin to what was done, with notable success, in Germany and Japan after World War II. And like what the Soviets attempted in 1979, with a different (but equally ambitious) model in mind. This meant kicking out the Taliban; then installing highways; elections; independent judges; schooling for women — in short, all the stuff of liberal democracies. Few considered that doing all this would require a military presence and an expenditure far in excess of what the West was willing to put up. The international coalition never deployed enough troops or invested the sums remotely necessary to control the territory and set up a functioning state.
This is where the third war comes in, which looks a lot like another rebellion by the Pashtuns (the dominant ethnic group), not unlike the one the British faced in the 19th century. An essentially anti-colonial movement, in which the country’s traditional power structures rebel against foreign occupation and the Kabul government, which is perceived as ineffective, illegitimate and a puppet of foreigners. This rebellion, originating in the South of the country, has spread East and North, partly explaining the rising violence in traditionally quiet zones, such as that currently occupied by the Spanish.
These are the main three wars, but Afghanistan is like a Russian matrioshka, and there is always another war inside if you look hard enough. So one could think of a fourth latent war, the civil war between the pashtun and the other ethnic groups in the country; and a fifth war, the one quietly fought by India and Pakistan on Afghan soil; and even a sixth war; the very opaque war conducted in the FTA areas of north-west Pakistan by US special forces and the Pakistani army.
It is in this confluence of wars, going far back in time, where we begin to lose sight of the possibility of obtaining any clear victory. Al Qaeda may be contained or weakened, even displaced as a result of particularly acute pressure. Nor are the Taliban invincible, if they are seen as a foreign force that does not respect local traditions and power structures, and if these local powers enjoy autonomy and resources to win the support of the population. But if most of the Pashtun population stops trusting the Kabul government and the international forces, and, either out of fear of the Taliban or due to corruption, incompetence and civilian victims, holds aloof or seconds the Taliban, then there is little to be done. The recent legislative elections are worrying in this respect: a high abstention rate means that a great sector of the population is sitting back to see who wins (the Taliban or the international coalition), before taking sides.
At this stage there is little point to military operations, except as a way to weaken the Taliban, with an eye to future negotiations addressed to the Pashtun leaders. Afghanistan is not going to be an exemplary democracy in the near future, but nor do we wish to see it turned into another Somalia. In the meantime, there are many lesser (and greater) evils with which we shall have to live. Inevitably this is going to require an international presence on the ground for some time to come.