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What’s Missing From Miliband’s Afghanistan Speech

U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a speech to NATO headquarters in Brussels about the Afghanistan war, and it might be the most thorough and explicit explanation of coalition military and political strategy offered by a senior official of either the U.S. or U.K. government. There are just two big holes. First:

The Afghan government needs effective grass-roots initiatives to offer an alternative to fight or flight for the foot soldiers of the insurgency. Essentially this means a clear route for former insurgents to return to their villages and go back to farming the land, or a role for some of them within the legitimate Afghan security forces. Military pressure has an important role to play, it is complementary, not an alternative – these people must see the danger of remaining insurgents, but also believe that they will be protected from their former allies if they lay down their arms.

For higher-level commanders and their networks, we need to work with the Afghan government to separate the hard-line ideologues, who are essentially irreconcilable and violent and who must be pursued relentlessly, from those who can be drawn into domestic political processes.

So where are these Afghan officials to direct and coordinate distinctions between insurgent elements? What are the formal structures in place for identifying and exploiting divisions, or for inducing them? I can see an argument in place for why this has to wait until after the August presidential election sorts itself out, but the war has been going on for almost eight years.

Second issue:

In the face of this enemy, our ultimate objective in 2001 holds true for 2009: to protect our citizens from terrorist attacks by preventing Al Qaida having a safe haven in the tribal belt –in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

That’s one of only a handful of times Miliband mentions al-Qaeda. He donates a lot of effort to the question of the Taliban-led insurgent coalition and in drawing his distinctions he makes it clear that a great deal of the insurgency has peripheral connections to the terrorist entity we’re in Afghanistan to confront and defeat. Without a focus on how each step of the strategy contributes to that goal, the Afghanistan war described by the foreign secretary has something of a we’re-here-because-we’re-here-because-we’re-here-because-we’re-here quality.

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