Monday, January 26, 2009

How Not to Lose Afghanistan

U.S. Army soldiers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (Photo: Danfung Dennis for The New York Times)
Barack Obama has said that his priority in the war on terrorism is Afghanistan, and is poised to increase troop levels there, perhaps by as many as 30,000. How should the United States deal with growing strength of the Taliban? Is increasing troop levels enough? We asked some analysts for their thoughts on military and political strategy in the region.

Kori Schake, a former national security adviser on defense issues to President George W. Bush, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of international security studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

More American troops isn’t enough to succeed in Afghanistan. What else needs doing depends on why you think the Taliban have gained ground in the past 18 months. Is it because we have too few troops to hold areas that have been cleared of Taliban influence? Is it because Afghans are fundamentally sympathetic to Taliban aims? Or are Afghans so downtrodden from the terror and distrustful of American staying power they won’t stand up and help?

According to the United Nations, this is a country that stands second to last in the entire world in human development rankings. So the potential for rapid turn-around of Afghan society is low. The Taliban are increasingly targeting development workers and nongovernment organizations. They are destroying the schools and hospitals to crush hope for a better Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is also a country that has received a plethora of international assistance in the past eight years and hasn’t made particularly good use of the window of international interest.

Hamid Karzai. (Photo: Massoud Hossaini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

The United States is over-invested in the government of President Hamid Karzai, spending too little of its political heft diversifying the potential leadership and setting rules in the political domain that will produce a less corrupt, broader-based government. Democracies grow strong as the result of vibrant civil societies underpinning the political process. Afghanistan has little of that, and Afghans are fast losing confidence in their government.

If the United States is to succeed in Afghanistan, our military might, economic assistance and political attention should be tied to building the Afghan government. If you watch the migration of poppy-growing in Afghanistan, it does not follow areas of increased violence, it tracks to areas of corrupt governance. We need a governance strategy to which our military operations will be subordinate; we won’t succeed otherwise.

Will ‘Success’ Be Worth the Cost?

Andrew Exum served in Afghanistan in the United States Army in 2002 and 2004. He is the author of “This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Frontlines of the War on Terrorism” and edits the counter-insurgency blog Abu Muqawama.

Given the successes enjoyed by the United States military in implementing its new counter-insurgency doctrine in Iraq in 2007, one would expect proponents of the doctrine to be eager to attempt a similar effort in Afghanistan. But that’s not the case. Indeed, many of the military officers and theorists who championed this doctrine are divided over whether or not a similar approach would work in Afghanistan. For them, Afghanistan presents an especially difficult case study.

“The cost of success might involve another few thousand United States combat deaths and more than a trillion dollars in spending.”

First, the successes enjoyed in Iraq have been tactical, operational and even strategic in nature but have not led to the political reconciliation and compromises needed to stabilize that country over the long term. Whether Iraq’s political class “failed” to take advantage of the security window created by the “surge” or whether — as one United States Army officer I spoke to said — Iraq’s politicians are faithfully carrying out the sectarian wishes of their constituents, Iraq has demonstrated that even the most sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy has its limits. A successful counter-insurgency campaign might create the conditions for political success, but it cannot force indigenous decision-makers to take action to stabilize their countries.

There is little reason to believe that the current Afghan political class — even if provided with a window of security similar to that created in Iraq — would be able or willing to push through the necessary reforms to make Afghanistan a stable and secure place in which terrorist networks, including the Taliban, are incapable of presenting a threat or a safe haven for other groups.

Second, counter-insurgency theorists and practitioners worry that Afghanistan is a much more “wicked” problem than Iraq. “How many successful counter-insurgency campaigns in history have been carried out by a coalition?” one retired officer asked me recently. Indeed, the disjointed nature of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan is a problem that did not exist in Iraq in late 2006.

When confronted with a capable and resourceful enemy enjoying numerous safe havens in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is unclear how much more America’s European allies — some of whom already deploy to Afghanistan with caveats that virtually guarantee their soldiers see little, if any, combat — will stomach. We ourselves continue to lack the human resources necessary to really implement a coherent strategy in Afghanistan. For instance, although many Americans have been graduating from Arabic-language programs since 9/11, few United States military officers or civilian policymakers speak Dari or Pashto.

In the end, though, Gen. David Petraeus is correct when he says that “hard is not hopeless.” We can succeed in Afghanistan if we are willing to commit the resources necessary to do so. But the cost of success might involve another few thousand United States combat deaths and more than a trillion dollars in spending. And “success” means creating a country in Central Asia on par with Chad or Bangladesh in terms of development and stability. Will it be worth it?

Breaking the Taliban’s Momentum

Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Search for Al Qaeda.”

President Barack Obama is rightly sending thousands more American troops to Afghanistan to reverse the downward spiral in the country where the 9/11 plot was hatched. Seven years of a half-hearted effort by the Bush administration has left the country in a perilous state. Much of the country is now threatened by the resurgent Taliban. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, is confidently predicting the NATO forces will leave defeated within a few years, like the Soviets in 1989, and is even offering them “safe passage” out of the country.

The most immediate needs are near Kabul and in the south around Kandahar. The Taliban has staged increasingly bold attacks into the capital in the last year, almost killing President Hamid Karzai, and the surrounding provinces have seen mounting Taliban operations. If trends continue the capital could be increasingly cut off from the rest of the country.

(Click to enlarge.) Afghanistan. (Credit: The New York Times)

The south is in even worse shape. For the last two years, British, Canadian and Dutch troops have been fighting desperately to stabilize Kandahar, Helmand and Urzugan provinces against a determined Taliban based across the border in Pakistan. This is the Taliban’s traditional heartland where Omar first created the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

We should seek more troops from our NATO allies but also from Muslim allies like Morocco and Indonesia that have a common interest in defeating Al Qaeda. It can be done; already the United Arab Emirates has a few hundred troops in Afghanistan.

More troops must be accompanied by rapid economic development, especially road construction. Since 2001, 2,000 miles of road have been built or repaired but the Kabul government projects a need to build 11,000 miles more to bring security and modest prosperity to the country. Again it can be done; India has just finished a model $1 billion road project in the southwest opening a highway to link landlocked Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean via Iran.

The additional troops also need to train and build a stronger Afghan military. In the 1980s, Afghanistan had an army three times larger and an air force 10 times larger than what seven years of erratic Bush effort has produced. An open-ended large foreign military presence in Afghanistan is a mistake in a country with a history of defeating foreign invaders. Our goal should be a rapid reversal of the Taliban’s fortunes followed by turning responsibility over to a trained and equipped Afghan security force.

More Troops, and Lots of Them

John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.”

In 2007, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, was very blunt before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He admitted, “In Iraq, we do what we must.” Of America’s other war, he said, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can.”

Doing what we can has been insufficient in Afghanistan. Fortunately, an improving security situation and an increasingly capable Iraqi government now allow the United States to shift the balance of effort east, to America’s forgotten war.

This shift comes in the nick of time. The Taliban has been growing stronger in the poorly administered Pashtun tribal areas on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Last year was the bloodiest year on record for the international coalition, and service in Afghanistan is far more dangerous on a per-soldier basis than is service in Iraq. It is clearly time for a change in strategy.

“The additional 30,000 American forces on tap for deployment to Afghanistan over the next year are sorely needed, but obviously insufficient.”

The essence of success is counterinsurgency, which requires boots on the ground, and plenty of them — 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 people, or some 600,000 for all of Afghanistan, a country larger and more populous than Iraq. The additional 30,000 American forces on tap for deployment to Afghanistan over the next year are sorely needed, but obviously insufficient to protect all 30 million people in the country.

However, insurgencies are not defeated by foreign forces. They are defeated by the security services of the afflicted nation. Thus the long-term answer to the Taliban’s insurgency has to be a much expanded Afghan National Army. Currently 70,000 and projected to grow to 135,000, the Afghan army is the most respected institution in that troubled country. It may need to reach 250,000, and be supported by a similarly sized police force, to provide the security that will cause the Taliban to wither. Building such an Afghan Army will be a long-term effort that will require American equipment and advisers for many years, but since the Afghans can field about 70 troops for the cost of one deployed American soldier, there is no faster, cheaper or better way to win.

The Taliban Problem Crosses Borders

Parag Khanna, senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century.”

Even if an additional 30,000 American and NATO troops were deployed in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban problem would not be reduced. It would merely be pushed back over the Pakistan border, destabilizing Pakistan’s already volatile North-West Frontier Province, which itself is more populous than Iraq. This amounts to squeezing a balloon on one end to inflate it on the other.

The tribal militias, newly armed with Chinese AK-47s, will not be able to cope with that influx. Even now, the increase in attacks on NATO convoys in Peshawar and the Khyber Pass show how the Afghan front is seriously affected by American policies in Pakistan. Fewer arms from the United States (the Obama administration intends to emphasize civilian over military aid) have diminished the Pakistani military’s willingness to support American supply routes, forcing the U.S. military to scramble for new routes through Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. As was the case under the Musharraf regime, the Pakistan army is more interested in American planes than policies.

“Clearly, America cannot resolve the Afghan problem in isolation.”

Clearly, America cannot resolve the Afghan problem in isolation. South-Central Asia needs independent security institutions, beginning with a joint Afghan-Pakistan force empowered to conduct operations on both sides of the border, as recently proposed by Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s defense minister.

At the same time, America will have to accept Afghan and Pakistani negotiations with Taliban commanders, who have emerged from a deep Punjabi and Pashtun social base that cannot be eradicated anytime soon.

Just as needed are provisional reconstruction teams in Pakistan’s tribal areas, like those that have been established in parts of Afghanistan. These Pakistani-led teams should be provided with the cash and supplies to install power generators, to give local police officers more pay and to hire thousands of local Pashtun to build roads, hospitals and schools.

This process can begin from the Khyber agency outside Peshawar and spread north and west toward the Afghan border. The original reconstruction teams in Afghanistan also need more support — which should involve Arab, Turkish and Chinese participation. In other words, long-term stability depends on getting reconstruction right on both sides of the border.

Room For Debate


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