When it comes to Afghanistan, mixing military might with diplomatic talk is easier said than done.
In the wake of the London conference on Afghanistan two weeks ago, there has been much speculation about whether or not we have rounded a corner in our approach to the conflict. Does the strategic balance now favour talking over fighting en route to the withdrawal of foreign troops?
In order to understand and contextualize recent developments, it may be useful to highlight some of the important differences between hard and soft power. In terms of international policy instruments, the former is associated principally with the armed forces, and the latter with diplomacy, specifically public diplomacy.
When the two are compared, the constraints on their effective combination may become clearer. Here are some of the basic distinctions:
* Definitions: Hard power is about compelling your adversary to comply with your will through the threat or use of force. Soft power is about attracting your partner to share your goals through dialogue and exchange.
* Objectives: Hard power seeks to kill, capture, or defeat an enemy. Soft power seeks to influence through understanding and the identification of common ground.
* Techniques: Hard power relies ultimately on sanctions and flows from the barrel of a gun. Soft power is rooted in meaningful exchange and the art of persuasion.
* Values: Hard power is macho, absolute, and zero sum. Soft power is supple, subtle, and win/win.
* Ethos: Hard power engenders fear, anguish, and suspicion. Soft power flourishes in an atmosphere of confidence, trust, and respect.
These distinctions can become divisive when placed in an institutional setting or applied in the field. While significant enough in themselves, the disconnects between the two are exacerbated by the differences within and between the bureaucratic cultures of the military and civilian agencies such as foreign ministries and international organizations.
Hierarchy, obedience, and control are part of the DNA of military hard power. An institution designed primarily for fighting is not well-suited for talking.
Public diplomacy, by contrast, turns on relationships, lateral connectivity, and the construction and maintenance of collaborative networks. These tasks are better left to diplomats than soldiers, especially in a place like Afghanistan where the sheer complexity is staggering.
Yet NATO has been relying primarily on hard power in its mission there. ISAF diplomats, particularly those working with provincial reconstruction teams outside of Kabul, spend much of their time inside heavily guarded compounds, venturing outside the wire mainly in armoured convoys and never for protracted periods. This obviously does not position NATO representatives to effectively engage the population.
The issues sketched above touch on several of the highly problematic aspects inherent in the smart power formula, which seeks to combine hard and soft power.
There are also a number of questions and issues particular to Afghanistan that remain unaddressed. If the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan has come to be seen by a significant amount of the population as an occupying force, does it not follow that the surge will only make matters worse?
With the highly decentralized and far from monolithic Taliban by most accounts ascendant on the ground at this time, will they be likely to respond favourably to an invitation to negotiate in good faith and make the concessions necessary if any form of compromise is to prevail? With the political popularity of the war slipping in most ISAF member states, would it not make more strategic sense for the Taliban simply to step back and wait until the majority of foreign troops depart?
Given Afghanistan’s long history as a graveyard of imperial ambitions, and after incurring – and imposing – such high human and economic costs, why did it take NATO planners eight years to arrive at this juncture?
Stability in Afghanistan, to the extent that it has ever been enjoyed, tends to feature a weak political centre governing lightly through complex and constantly shifting alliances with various tribal powers on the periphery.
It is very likely that this pattern will re-assert itself. Whether or not this is achieved through a resumption of the civil war which ISAF intervened in on the side of the Northern Alliance (who, for all intents and purposes, had been defeated by the Taliban) or can be accomplished through the careful orchestration of some kind of peace remains to be seen. Based on performance to date, skepticism seems warranted.
When this latest, sorry chapter in the long history of Western powers trying to have their way with Afghanistan is finally completed, it will likely be judged as having been ineptly managed since the day the Taliban were driven from power. Throughout the interim period, Afghanistan has been allowed to swing like a pendulum, alternating back and forth from centre stage to sideshow in the global war on terror.
Under such circumstances, any attempt to combine hard and soft power in Afghanistan will necessarily be fraught, both morally and strategically.
On one hand, it is hard to imagine that NATO’s performance might worsen. On the other, if one side is headed for the exit and the other prepared to bide its time, the best that might be expected is a Vietnam style peace with honour that will similarly run its short course before the inevitable occurs.
Should that scenario play out, the really difficult questions will surely follow.