The wrong kind of war

Does the war in Afghanistan keep our streets safe? Both the current and the previous government claim that it does, but the real answer is probably not. Every attack directed at the Taliban and al-Qaida, even precise drone attacks, provides a justification for mobilising more recruits.

But would withdrawal from Afghanistan be any better? That is what critics of the war propose. And again, the answer is probably not. Many Afghans fear that it could mean a return to civil war or a victory for the Taliban – at least in parts of the country – and that, in turn, would mean a base for al-Qaida.

So is there any other approach? I believe there is, through a transformation of how we do security. Instead of the classic national security approach aimed at protecting the state from attack using military force, there is a human security approach, based on protecting individuals worldwide from a range of risks (violence, natural disasters, famine or disease, for instance) using a mixture of military and civilian forces under international authorisation.

What would it mean to apply such an approach in Afghanistan? First, the effort would focus on the security of Afghans as well as British or Americans, rather than the defeat of an enemy. In fact, the strategy adopted by Barack Obama last autumn is based on "population security". But population security is seen as a means to an end, and the end is the defeat of US enemies. This matters in strategic terms since Afghans see themselves as pawns in a wider battle and cannot have confidence in the international presence; it is perhaps the biggest obstacle to human security.

And it matters in tactical terms. Even though the Americans have been ordered to minimise civilian casualties, Afghan lives are still sacrificed for the greater goal of defeating the Taliban or al-Qaida – an Afghan life is still not treated as equal to a British or American life. General Stanley McChrystal has ordered a reduction in air strikes to reduce "collateral" damage. But Afghan civilians are still being killed in night raids on suspected Taliban hideouts. Moreover the civilian effort, which is supposed to assist the daily lives of Afghans, is totally inadequate.

Human security in the long term can only be guaranteed by trusted political and legal authorities. The Karzai government lacks legitimacy, especially after last year's fraudulent elections, and has passed repressive legislation on women. Many Afghans seek Taliban protection because they experience the government as corrupt and predatory, and they fear nervy western soldiers.

Establishing trust is all about the relationship between government and governed. Even though the new strategy emphasises local governance, the fashionable tool is "government in a box" – a sort of technical imposition of state capacity from above. What is needed is the involvement of civil society in establishing a framework for a new, much more legitimate government.

Human security missions must operate within a multilateral framework. At present in Afghanistan, there are two commands – Nato, authorised by the UN, and Operation Enduring Freedom, under US command. Even though McChrystal has taken charge of both, these two commands epitomise the tension between the goal of protecting Afghans and the goal of defeating America's enemies. There should be a single UN command whose mandate is to protect Afghans. Moreover, there are huge numbers of badly co-ordinated agencies, governments and NGOs absorbing the aid that should go to Afghans. A human security approach would provide a commonly agreed narrative, which is impossible at present.

Finally, a human security approach has to be civilian-led. McChrystal's strategy was a big step forward, but the international effort is overly militarised. The UN special representative is squeezed between the government and the military effort, and the US special representative, Richard Holbrooke, is hardly visible.

These proposals are not just applicable to Afghanistan; they could be adopted in other dangerous places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia. Indeed elements of a human security approach have been developed within UN or EU missions – but not on a scale to address 21st-century security risks.

There are large parts of the world where people live intolerably insecure lives and face further threat from financial crises or climate change – and nor can the rich parts of the world any longer insulate themselves from insecurity elsewhere. No more can we afford to fritter away literally trillions on anachronistic fears.

Mary Kaldor, a professor of global governance and co-director of LSE Global Governance at the London School of Economics.