October 1, 2009  

No reason to quit

Afghanistan requires our greater effort and will, not less

Gen. George Marshall said it during World War II, but it has been true for over two centuries: “A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War.” As the pace of the war in Afghanistan quickens, we are reminded by the realities of blood and treasure that the war there has exceeded Marshall’s canonical limit.

The situation in Afghanistan according to Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “serious and deteriorating.” According to 2009 reports from Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, annual enemy attacks in Afghanistan doubled between 2004 and 2006 and then doubled again between 2006 and 2009. The U.S. has suffered more than 800 dead and 3,500 wounded. The British have lost more than 200 service members, and Canadian dead approach 130 soldiers. According to the Congressional Research Service, total U.S. costs for Afghanistan since 2001 have exceeded $220 billion. U.S. outlays for Afghanistan for fiscal 2009 may reach as much as $50 billion.

It is easy to see why the American people tire of this war. It appears that the more we do, the less we have to show for it. Americans are also concerned for their men and women in uniform, who have endured tour after tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. In August, the majority of Americans in an ABC News-Washington Post poll for the first time said that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.

The pundits and scholars are also restless. Columnist George Will has called for withdrawal and an “offshore” strategy. Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich questions the depth of our basic interests there. Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations despairs that Afghanistan, once a war of necessity, has become a war of choice superimposed on an Afghan civil war. Ralph Peters questions both the aim of the effort and the value of victory.

Even in the government, Washington insiders can perceive cracks in the government’s resolve. Polls show that Democrats, in particular, are skeptical about the war. While he quickly announced a new strategy and added troops, President Barack Obama appears distracted by health care and other domestic concerns. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rarely speaks about the war. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is clearly carrying the ball for both of them, but his travels prevent him from being a major force in the great debate here at home. A number of officials — including the national security adviser and the defense secretary-— have made statements that indicate reluctance within the administration to add more troops or resources to our efforts in Afghanistan.

While the U.S. and its allies have supported the elections, relations with the government of Hamid Karzai are also strained. Recriminations and complaints flow freely in both directions. Corruption and inefficiency are rampant. The validity of what may be the first round of the election is in doubt. Members of Karzai’s family and even his vice presidential running mate have been accused in the media of narcotics trafficking. For their part, the Afghans complain about civilian casualties and problems with performance on the part of some U.S. allies.

The U.S. has also lowered the pressure on its NATO allies. For now, commitments in accordance with individual national interests appear to be the rule of thumb. Alliance leaders proclaim their unending devotion to the cause, but most Europeans are disinterested. Only the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and a precious few other nations have made a serious effort at fighting. Few European nations have contributed economically at anywhere near the rate of the U.S. contributions.


The fabric of our collective will has begun to fray, weakened all the more by a series of pernicious myths that thicken the fog of war.

The first myth is the most powerful: Afghanistan is not a vital interest. We need to withdraw or curtail our expensive involvement there.

A vital interest is one of such grave importance that a nation must fight to secure it. After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. forces entered Afghanistan to destroy a terrorist stronghold and to take out al-Qaida and its allies, the Taliban. The U.S. and its hard-pressed Afghan allies quickly gained control of the major cities, but our enemies escaped to Pakistan to lick their wounds, rebuild their cadres, and after 2004, to reignite the war inside Afghanistan.

Our mission in Afghanistan remains what it was in the fall of 2001. We must prevent the re-establishment of a terrorist stronghold there and defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban, who, if anything, have moved closer together over the years. Our methods for achieving our objectives include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and state-building. All are necessary. Those who think we can ignore Afghan needs while we use their country as a counterterrorism platform are naïve or shortsighted. Unless we create a decent, stable country in Afghanistan — not a Utopia — it may again be conquered by an al-Qaida ally, and the need for counterterrorist operations there will never disappear.

Some who disparage the vital interest argument point out that fighting to forestall a new al-Qaida base in Afghanistan is a logic that would also send us to war in Yemen or Somalia. The difference is that the terrorists had such a base in Afghanistan and are fighting hard to get it back. No one can predict what will happen in Yemen and Somalia, but in Afghanistan, al-Qaida’s intentions are clear, and in the Taliban, they have thousands of Afghan agents working to turn the clock back to 2001.

A great power cannot afford to fight foolishly or forever, regardless of the stakes. At the same time, great power failures create serious ramifications, particularly when that power retreats under pressure from weak states or nonstate actors and abandons democratically elected governments in the process. A failure in Afghanistan will not only help al-Qaida, but it will also hurt Pakistan, now awash in its own troubles. If we leave Afghanistan with our tails between our legs, we will have added another defeat to the terrorists’ favorite litany: Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, Somalia, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, etc., ad nauseam.

The second myth encourages defeatism: The Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan. They can’t be stopped.

Among Taliban strengths are adequate funding from Persian Gulf “charities,” drugs and other criminal enterprises. They also have a good supply of motivated manpower and the protection of certain elements in Pakistan. They learn well. For example, they have become increasingly expert in the use of improvised explosive devices. They are also improving their information operations, often focused on civilian casualties and collateral damage from U.S. air strikes or commando raids. Adding to Taliban strengths are the corruption and inefficiency of the Afghan government. A few Taliban operatives in poorly administered government-controlled areas can exert influence way out of proportion to their size and capabilities.

Taliban weaknesses include a lack of firepower, a disastrous governing record and an absence of central unity. The Taliban and its associates — including the followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqani organization, al-Qaida affiliates and disaffected Pakistani extremists — fight decentralized campaigns. Indeed, individual commanders in all groups have a high degree of autonomy. They can be defeated in detail. Divide-and-conquer tactics can have a high payoff.

While the Taliban have some following among their Pashtun co-ethnics, especially in the southern part of the country, the Taliban are hated by the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazarra and other non-Pashtun groups that together make up a numerical majority in Afghanistan. The memory of Taliban persecution is fresh and motivational for all the non-Pashtun groups. Wherever they have gone since 2004, the Taliban have used barbaric tactics to win the obedience of the local populations. They win “hearts and minds” by murder, violence and coercion. Nearly all opinion polls indicate very little support for the Taliban.

The Taliban can be defeated and blocked by strategies that protect the population and build up the security capacity of the Afghan state, its provinces and its districts. Counter-sanctuary activities by Pakistani forces could easily disrupt their base areas and training grounds. Better coordination with Persian Gulf allies and stronger counternarcotics efforts could dry up their financial base. To win faster, we will have to fight harder and smarter, drastically increasing Afghanistan’s capacity to manage its own affairs. The truth is that Taliban forces have made great strides, but they can be stopped. The Taliban cannot win unless the West quits.

A third myth comes from a misinterpretation of Afghan history: Afghanistan has always been unstable and has never had an effective central government. Trying to build one is a waste of time and resources.

From the early 1900s to the Soviet invasion in 1978, Afghanistan was a poor, but relatively stable, developing country. The government writ large — national, provincial, district and at local levels —was in control at home and generally at peace with its neighbors. In the postwar era, the country was courted by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both of which during the Cold War provided significant foreign aid. It had a draft, a functioning Army and Air Force, as well as a significant Western presence. From the early 1960s onward, it had both a king and a functioning parliament.

Underneath the surface, however, the pressures for modernization and the pull of tradition and religion produced both leftist and religious extremists. In 1973, the king was deposed by his progressive cousin in a velvet coup. After a Soviet-backed, Marxist coup in 1978 — which the late anthropologist Louis Dupree characterized as “more Groucho than Karl” —the country spiraled rapidly downward. Even before the Soviet invasion in December 1979 to shore up its position on its southern border, the Afghan people were widely in revolt, energized by the need to deal with atheist invaders.

The departure of Soviet troops in 1989, after a decade of death and destruction, led to a civil war between contending factions, which was every bit as devastating as the war with the Soviet Union. The confusion and devastation that followed gave way to the advent of the Taliban — religious-based, Pashtun radicals supported by Pakistan. Even after they captured Kabul in 1996, the civil war continued. About the same time, al-Qaida elements came into Afghanistan and made common cause with the Taliban government.

Today, Afghanistan as a state is being reconstructed. It has a huge deficit in human capital and, by any measure, is still one of the least developed nations in the world. Our choice is to help to save it or to abandon it to the effects of 30 years of war. It will take more troops and resources from the West. It will require a stepped-up effort by Afghans. New initiatives are needed under three headings: building capacity, fighting together and unity of effort.


The biggest deficit in Afghanistan is human capital. Over 30 years of war, the educated and skilled people have left in great numbers. To help save Afghanistan, we must focus on the objective of building Afghan capacity in security, governance, rule of law and economic affairs. We have always saluted the notion that it was better to teach a man to fish than to provide him with fish. Sadly, as much as we have agreed with this thought, we are experts in providing military and economic aid, and have downplayed the devilishly difficult need to build capacity.

On the security line of operation, the U.S. is re-Americanizing combat operations. We have done a fair job of building the Afghan National Army, but much less so on building the Afghan police. We have picked up the pace on both fronts, but advisory efforts — not U.S. combat forces — must in the next few years become the main effort.

Operationally, U.S. combat efforts must give way to joint Afghan-American operations. We must also move to a joint Afghan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and American field command. Finally, as Afghan formations reach maturity, we should work toward limiting our efforts to advisory and training mission.

To make progress on other lines of operation, the president should endeavor to strengthen the link between the Afghan Army and our civil and military education systems in America. Rather than educating Afghan colonels in small numbers in U.S.-dominated, English-language classes, we should develop a combined war college and staff college course for dozens of Afghans in U.S. professional military institutions, teaching simultaneously in Dari and Pashto. This could be done at first in the U.S. on a train-the-trainer basis, but later, it could be replicated with Afghan and American faculties in Kabul.

While we have made a start on creating professional security, the most glaring human need in Afghanistan is for public- and private-sector managers to take their country forward. We have in the U.S. great institutions of learning for public administration and business administration. Surely, one of them would dearly love to win the contract to teach a part of their curriculum to Afghans, first here and then in Afghanistan. We must not let the military sector in Afghanistan have a monopoly on learning and modern higher education.

Under the heading of fighting together, another issue that must be tackled as soon as possible is the stationing and operation of the Afghan National Army. Permit me an analogy: In the late 1990s, New York was awash in crime. Under the leadership of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the police commissioner, William Bratton, used a program called Compstat, which combined command emphasis, computerized incident reporting and the assignment of police manpower. In short, police officers were no longer assigned in fixed numbers to traditional precincts, but instead were assigned where the crime was. The protection of the population improved, the number of arrests skyrocketed, and criminals went to jail.

Today, in Afghanistan, we have built the core of an effective Army, but, like the New York City Police before Compstat, it is not deployed where the action is and where the population most needs protection. For example, the Marines in Helmand province are undergoing some of the toughest fighting of the war, but are getting very little help from Afghan forces. The Afghan Army is being spread over the countryside, but it is not necessarily being assigned based on the need for forces defined by the level of active combat. A new combined American-ISAF-Afghan headquarters could best put the Afghan soldiers where the fighting is. “One team, one fight” should be our philosophy, domestically and internationally.

Under the heading of unity of effort, the Afghan government, the coalition, the United Nations and the international community, should establish a National Coordination Center to plan and manage counterinsurgency, counternarcotics, foreign aid and state-building activities. This center would bring all relevant actors to the table. Afghan government representatives would co-chair every aspect of the effort, and regional states and willing nongovernmental organizations could maintain liaison officers at both the planning and executive levels.

This center would have a full-time, operational level for planning and execution on various lines of operations, as well as a senior executive level that would meet periodically. In time, this center would move from information sharing to coordination to control over a wide range of activities. Finally, long-range planners in the coordination center would begin transition planning, and over the years, progressively put Afghans in the lead in every line of operation in their country.

We are at a crossroads. The press of time and the painful realities of our commitment to Afghanistan cannot be denied, nor can the importance of the enterprise. We must not fail in Afghanistan, but success, like the horizon, always seems to be far beyond our reach. We are at a point where we must improve the efficiency of our efforts and focus on the most important tasks. We will learn and adapt, or suffer the consequences. AFJ

JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or U.S. government.