November 1, 2006  

Challenges and choices

Since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, Afghan leaders and the international community have worked in concert to devise a political compact and an economic recovery strategy. So far, this has been successful in bringing stability to a large part of the country, particularly in the north and west, and in building the foundations for a modern economy. There are few foolish enough to claim that, overall, life and prospects are no better today than under the Taliban.

This progress is threatened, however, by a number of worrisome developments. Foremost among them is deteriorating security, measured in terms of the number of incidents and the increasingly aggressive modus operandi of the insurgents. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan estimates that it killed more than 1,000 insurgents over the course of the summer in the volatile south, but the Taliban resistance there is fiercer and more tenacious than anyone predicted. Equally troubling is the specter of more suicide attacks. Between 2002 and 2004, there were just five such attacks reported in Afghanistan; in the first six months of 2006, there were 38.

Also significant is the perceived failure by the Afghanistan government to meet the expectations of citizens and international players alike. This relates not only to security but also to the lack of faster progress in building the licit, nondrug economy and extending government services and authority.

Complicating matters further is the mismatch between ambitious local programs, mostly assiduously crafted, and the capacity and money of the government and the military, local and international. The latter has until now been hindered by the chronic problem of turnover and continuity. For example, every six to nine months, another ISAF mission has been born, so the learning process largely begins again, with each element having to adjust to new national operating styles and doctrinal guidelines.

It is, of course, necessary to put the security situation in context. The complex interplay among criminality, warlords, the drug trade and tribalism explains some of the violence. And most of the attacks this year have been confined to the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, which NATO took over from the U.S.-led coalition July 31. The sharp rise in violence there is due, at least in part, to a change in tactics: The coalition is taking the fight to the insurgents, ergo violent incidents occur with greater frequency. This new approach is epitomized by Operation Medusa, launched Sept. 1 by Afghan and NATO forces against several known Taliban strongholds in Kandahar’s Panjwayi district, with the explicit aim of driving Taliban fighters out and stabilizing the district.

The same is true of Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics and disarmament of illegally armed groups, or DIAG, initiatives. You cannot expect to take people’s livelihoods or their guns — particularly in Afghanistan — without some amount of violent resistance. Short-term instability might, therefore, be a necessary evil.

The Taliban offered war-weary Afghans a kind of peace — but it was, in the words of one regional diplomat, “the peace of the graveyard.” But the deteriorating security situation, coupled with the absence of development — the provision of electrical power, for example, is no better today in Kabul than it was three years ago — has undermined the authority of President Hamid Karzai’s government along with the image of those actors supporting it and of the public’s view of the value of democracy.

As ISAF struggles to secure parts of the south while taking over responsibility from the U.S.-led coalition in the east of the country and thereby significantly extending its role in Afghanistan, it has the opening to change gear and, in so doing, engage with six key challenges — or risk losing the country to warlords and resurgent Taliban, a risk that few should be willing to take just five years after Sept. 11. There are positive signs that ISAF’s new British leadership has seized this task and opportunity. The challenges ahead are:

1. Manage expectations

The lack of progress on development and governance is alarming. Four years into the occupation, a chasm has opened up between expectations and on-the-ground realities. ISAF and U.S. forces will continue to hammer the insurgents; that much is probably certain. But until Afghans see meaningful improvements to their lives, the country will remain unstable. Closing the expectations gap is challenge No. 1.

In getting their message across to local and international audiences, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have been most effective when operating in the virtual — rather than actual —– battle space. To challenge the insurgents’ position, ISAF will have to be more effective in the sociology and workings of this art. Careful targeting of regional and local populations and media with Muslim soldiers and native language speakers is an essential part. The coalition and ISAF message needs to enervate its overwhelmingly white, Christian tenor.

ISAF should not be shy about branding. The gratitude of local populations can be translated into vital political capital, which will be needed to expedite the more delicate integrated task of counter-narcotics, police and justice reform, and disarmament — which is challenge No. 2.

2. Security sector reform

The Japanese-funded initiative has set itself the benchmark of the end of 2007 for complete disarmament of illegally armed groups. No one believes that is possible, not least because the criterion for “illegal” is so pliable in the current political environment. DIAG is a failure waiting to happen.

The estimated number of illegally armed groups is around 1,800. Yet perhaps 80 percent of those perform largely benign, localized security functions for small communities, as they have done for decades, in some cases, centuries. In the short to medium term, there is little to gain by forcibly compelling these militias to disarm. Such efforts will only fuel resentment and resistance and threaten the relative stability in areas of the north and west. What’s more, the government and ISAF do not possess, at present, the capacity, governance and military to fill the security vacuum disarmament would create. Instead the government ought to focus on providing these militias with some form of legal status — perhaps as regional auxiliaries — and, by doing so, co-opt them under a broader umbrella of national security.

That leaves 360 or so groups that are cause for concern. Of these, roughly 30 have been identified as major players in narcotics and crime. Confronting these specific groups head-on should deliver maximum effect. But there is one huge problem: The militias’ tentacles reach into Karzai’s cabinet. He recently brought into government individuals implicated in the drug trade and other illicit activities, with strong links to regional warlords and their militias. So they can’t be touched, because DIAG is predicated on the government taking the direct lead with ISAF playing a supporting role.

Poppy production, disarmament and political power must, however, be seen in a holistic sense. A successful counter-narcotics strategy has to recognize that this sector drives Afghanistan’s political-economy, and dealing with it goes beyond providing sequenced alternatives to dynamic entrepreneurs. Blundering ahead on narcotics and DIAG will, assuredly, destabilize the government, not least since drugs make up more than half of its otherwise paltry $7 billion economy. Indeed, opium is the only commodity in which Afghanistan currently is globally competitive. But it also needs to be made clear to Kabul what the costs of deviancy are. Donor commitment to the Afghanistan government cannot be open-ended or unconditional, particularly when donors supply more than $3 billion annually.

3. Address corruption

The “guiding intent” of ISAF IX Commander British Gen. David Richards, in charge from May 2006 until February 2007, is “to focus on action that actively assists the Afghanistan government in nurturing and further developing the consent of the people to the government.” That consent will sag if government fails to deliver and is perceived as corrupt. As it is ISAF that is seen as underwriting Karzai’s administration, it risks being tainted with the same failures, diminishing a fragile legitimacy.

He who wields executive power in Afghanistan has an almost impossible task. For starters, it is open to debate whether there exists any binding sense of Afghan nationality. The lack of roads and communications has prevented people from developing any strong sense of connectedness with people in other parts of the country, whether between east and west or, in some mountainous regions, merely between valleys. The trauma of a quarter-century of civil war also has its costs to traditional and formal relationships, with more than 3 million Afghan refugees in neighboring Iran and Pakistan today. As the French writer and air-ace Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “A civil war is not a war but a sickness. The enemy is within. One fights almost against oneself.”

The acute complexity of Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal structures and the potential flashpoints for violence — not least against Karzai himself — require of the president immense political acumen and gymnastics as he strives to achieve the objective of all counterinsurgency campaigns: political accommodation and compromise. While ISAF’s challenge is to give an Afghan “face” to projects to instill a sense of local ownership, Afghans must take control of those things the government can do something about. First on the list should be corruption. If it does not clean up government and end what many see as a culture of impunity — and this includes key cabinet appointees, provincial governors and police chiefs — the government risks tainting not only the international community by the its failure, but also “democracy” itself. And this alienation is, to paraphrase Mao, the sea in which the Taliban and other more radical forces will swim.

At the same time, if the international community is serious when it claims that it is not neo-imperialist and thus recognizes that ultimately it is for Afghans to determine their own future, then we must accept the corollary: In finding their own way, Afghans should be allowed to fail. If otherwise, there is a real danger that ISAF and its intergovernmental and nongovernmental partners will be perceived as no different from the Soviet occupiers of the 1980s.

4. Devise an exit strategy

The torturous experience of external players in Afghanistan from Imperial Britain to Soviet Russia underlines the need to address challenge No. 4: devising an exit strategy. History suggests that external military forces can intervene to create the space for more open and nonviolent political competition, whether this is Sierra Leone, Iraq or Afghanistan. They can even offer a catalyst for economic growth, by spending on essential infrastructure projects and offering a relatively stable environment. They might also be able to improve governance by offering sound policy advice and technical support. Ultimately, however, external forces have to be directed by clear strategic purpose — of doing themselves out of a job through the development of the Afghan economy, without which no honorable international exit will ever be possible.

But at present there is no coherent strategy or timetable for ISAF’s exit from Afghanistan. The overriding assumption is that once ISAF achieves sufficient security for local officials and nongovernment organizations to work safely throughout the country, the military will gradually withdraw. But there is no effective coordination among the donors, the international agencies and the military. The latter would call it a lack of “jointness”; others might simply describe it as chaotic — less policy co-ordination than mechanism overload and personnel and policy pinball.

Outside the walls of ISAF’s headquarters in Kabul, its mission is not widely understood by ordinary Afghans. As for the U.N. and other international agencies, they are generally perplexed by ISAF’s deep involvement in reconstruction and development. That is their business, so many think.

Certainly the military cannot do it alone. The enormity of the reconstruction and security challenge in Afghanistan is such that only a combined approach stands any chance of sustainable success. That process of joining up the myriad agencies and interests would benefit immeasurably from the military element clarifying the terms and conditions of withdrawal. The rest of the international community might then be more confident about folding its efforts into the ISAF contribution, rather than being wary and standoffish.

One of the key areas where the nonmilitary contribution needs to be more integrated into the security effort is the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), which present challenge No. 5: how to turn PRTs into ink spots.

5. Spread ink spots

The ink-spot strategy, employed successfully by the British in Malaya 50 years ago and given more recent prominence by the former Army officer and American academic Andrew Krepenivich, involves focusing military effort not on hunting down the enemy, but instead securing key centers and improving conditions there so markedly that you eliminate support for the insurgency. Success then spreads slowly outward as if from an expanding ink spot.

Richards has seized on and energetically promoted the importance of filling the ungoverned spaces occupied by the Taliban by linking more closely with the Afghan government and focusing security and reconstruction efforts. ISAF and the coalition’s 23 PRTs (there are plans for four more to be introduced in the provinces of Nimroz, Logar, Maydan Wardak and Dai Kundi) dotted around the country are an important nib through which the ink can flow.

The garrison-style PRTs are emblematic of the vital link between security and development. Their guiding framework should be the government’s National Development Strategy (ANDS), to which the international organizations, including the U.N., are also signed up. In theory, the ANDS is eminently sensible and elegantly sequenced — “World Bank-style,” one might say. But when it confronts Afghanistan’s veneer-thin human resources, shifting political alliances and abject poverty, it’s dead on arrival. So we all have to get real. The ANDS’ high-altitude plans have to land — and benefit the population, not just international consultants and conference habitués. In a rural population heavily dependent on agriculture, doing so requires a narrowly targeted focus on projects with the greatest economic multiplier effect: roads, water and power. In the words of the Afghan minister of agriculture, “ISAF can help our economy through providing roads between villages, sponsoring veterinary clinics, repair karazes [traditional underground irrigation systems] and work with extension agents to increase yield.” Indeed, in rolling out development packages, the nationwide PRTs could offer a lifeline and catalyst for the ANDS.

Fewer than half of PRTs are under U.S. stewardship, though like those in the south which fell under ISAF control in July during the Stage Three expansion, these too will all fall under ISAF authority once the expansion to the east is complete. But whatever the nation in control, at present there is no coherence. This may be expected of a country where none of the security, democratic, economic and political circumstances of any of its 34 provinces is quite like any other. National directives and caveats mean that no two nations’ PRTs function in the same way — and even the operations of American PRTs differ from one another.

While certain PRTs have succeeded in sowing the seeds of development and bringing a modicum of stability in their areas, others are more akin to frontier outposts, manned by jittery soldiers with little concept of their purpose — other than manning the fort.

PRT activities have to reflect multinational — not national — direction if they hope to become the all-important ink spots. The aim is to expand government capacity and reach — governance — through nonviolent instruments. Military force will remain the spine of the U.S. and ISAF presence in Afghanistan for some time, but its face must rapidly transfer to the PRTs, which need to become synonymous with development, not aggression. Afghans are extraordinarily hospitable to foreigners, but they also have long memories. The PRTs don’t have much time to prove that their intent is humane and their duration finite — or they risk looking no different from the countless foreign aggressors that came before them.

This might require PRTs to concentrate in the short term on security and livelihoods at the expense of the renascent problem of poppy cultivation. Afghans need employment, but initially the PRTs’ job-creation capacity will be limited. Attempts to do away with what is the sole means of income for some communities, especially in the south, will doubtless inflame and mobilize anti-government support. Establishing security by building the police up and creating an enabling environment for economic growth now, affords a better chance of stamping out the narcotics trade later.

Overall, PRT coherence can be instilled by focusing their activities on removing the binding constraints to economic growth, including security and governance. This way the PRTs might be most easily aligned to the long-term objectives of the ANDS in building a self-sustaining economic base. The use of PRTs as a development tool — and an ANDS catalyst —depends, also, on close co-ordination and agreement with the international community, especially international and nongovernmental organizations. The latter, in particular, have to lose their often shrill criticism of all-things military and move their Dunantist romantic self-image more in line with the reality of doing development work in today’s hostile environments, where funding is more likely sourced from governments than independent sources.

6. Learn lessons, change prescription

The Sept. 11 attacks gave the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 a clear moral purpose. But five years on, the concept of the “war on terrorism” — or “Long War” — has become one of the greatest obstacles to progress in Afghanistan. In particular, its language — absolutist and exclusionary — continues to play right into the hands of the insurgents. Recently, President Bush apologized for his cowboy rhetoric over Iraq. Less swagger and more hearts and minds, if this can be done in Afghanistan, may turn the tide in the all-important virtual war.

No counterinsurgency campaign has been won by force alone. The solution has to rest, as in the British victory in Malaya and the American defeat in Vietnam, in the realm of politics, both inside Afghanistan and farther afield. In appealing to select domestic audiences, counterterrorism has become the least saleable feature of the information operations campaign. How can we dry up the support base of the insurgents and fragment their support and dilute their numbers? The answer in Afghanistan is through development and political accommodation, and in Pakistan — where insurgent groups are allegedly being trained — diplomacy. The creation and maintenance of trust is key, both of the oft-invaded and notoriously xenophobic Afghans in their international partners and of the 30 million population in its leadership, handicapped as it is by ethnic and regional divisions and a lack of capacity.

Nation-building in the context of counterinsurgency missions involves two additional elements that are central to the continuity of effort: the need for long-term commitment of time and resources, a formidable weapon against the insurgents; and the importance of institutionalizing and codifying doctrinal lessons and experiences to avoid having to relearn them next time round. Already the negative impact of the six- to nine-month rotations of ISAF has been recognized with the creation of a new composite headquarters, a rolling takeover system and yearlong tours. This should aim to reduce the effect of operating within a multinational environment with varying degrees of national political commitment, risk-aversion, resources and abilities.

The choices

The question of “what to do?” in Afghanistan boils down to two clear strategic choices. The U.S., NATO and its partners could decide to pack it in, as journalist Simon Jenkins recently advocated in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The likely cost would be state (re)failure, a return to power for the Taliban and the country transformed once again into a terrorist export service. But at least the West could boast that it wasn’t imperialist.

The other choice is to be involved, to play midwife to the emergence of a functioning, modern state: an economically and politically independent Afghanistan. If the former is unacceptable, then we have to own up to our own imperialism, however benign, and tackle the challenges of nation-building head-on.

Spreading Richards’ ink spots of stability and prosperity will require focus of effort and focus of force. Here, ISAF’s expansion to the east offers an opportunity to change gear rather than hunker down; to be known for development rather than aggression. Henry Kissinger once said, “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.” Successfully countering the Afghan insurgency has to involve much more than winning military skirmishes. After all, counterinsurgency campaigns are won not by body counts, but by the absence of killing and satisfying citizens’ hopes.

Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is on temporary duty as a special adviser to ISAF IX. Terence McNamee is editor of the RUSI Journal and director of publications at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and has been researching with ISAF in Kabul.