August 1, 2010  

The way ahead in Afghanistan

U.S. must be ready to react to changes on the path to peace

U.S. efforts and prospects in Afghanistan stand at the intersection of five major vectors. These vectors are likely to bring about significant changes after “7/11” — the July 2011 start of what one day might be called “Afghanization.” Change in Afghanistan, however, may not follow a linear pattern. While the U.S. should seek to shape events, it needs to be ready to react to changes that originate from other sources.

U.S. objectives remain our guide and provide the first vector. Two successive presidents have declared that the war in Afghanistan is a vital interest. Long after 9/11, the administration is still rightfully focused on the defeat or degradation of al-Qaida and its associated movements, one of which is the Afghan Taliban. President Obama set the bar high in his West Point speech: “We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

Confounding those who doubted his will, Obama in the first 14 months of his administration has twice reinforced our Afghanistan contingent of now nearly 100,000 service members. He has also more than doubled the 2008 drone strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a May visit to Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai also received a promise from the White House for a deeper, long-term strategic relationship that will cement the U.S.-Afghan partnership beyond the sound of the guns. As the Iraq war fades, the “other war” in Afghanistan has become America’s main effort in the war on terrorism. It is impossible for any U.S. president to abandon or disregard such commitments.

Second, the costs of this war in time, blood and treasure have been high. For the U.S., the war has gone on for nearly nine years, longer than U.S. combat troops were in Vietnam. For Afghanistan, this spring marked 32 years of uninterrupted war. A thousand U.S. war dead, 700 fallen allies and tens of thousands of Afghan dead bear silent witness to the high cost of this protracted conflict. The month of June, with more than 100 allied deaths, was the worst month since the war started. Pakistan has suffered more than 30,000 casualties during the war on terrorism. In a recent visit here, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army chief, reminded his U.S. audiences that in 2009 alone, the Pakistani Army suffered 10,000 casualties in its battles against the Pakistani Taliban. Politically, most of the NATO nations, unaccustomed to war, are wavering. In Europe, their delicate coalition governments are dealing with serious fiscal problems and low public support for fighting in Afghanistan. American pleas for a larger European contribution have fallen on deaf ears, and most European combat contingents may be withdrawn within a year. War weariness among all combatants is likely to be a significant change agent in the next few years.

U.S. war expenditures in fiscal 2010 will likely exceed $80 billion. This enormous cost — on behalf of a country whose legal gross domestic product (GDP) is about a third of that total — comes at a time of high unemployment and rampant deficit spending in the U.S. As one wag told me, we aren’t yet at the bottom of our purse, but we can see it from here. In the midterm, budgetary constraints in the U.S. and Europe will begin to influence how the coalition pursues its objectives in Afghanistan.

Third, the enemy — generally successful from 2005 to 2009 — is beginning to feel the heat of the Obama surge. Pakistan is slowly awakening to the danger of harboring violent extremist groups in its territory. Its soldiers have fought a war in the North West Frontier Province and South Waziristan to make its point. In Afghanistan, major allied offensives in the Pashtun-dominated south and east highlight the coalition’s determination. U.S. Treasury experts on al-Qaida funding are turning their sharp eyes on the Taliban’s financiers. One of the three major elements of the Afghan Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami faction, has entered into direct talks with the Karzai government. A second part of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, with close connections to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and to al-Qaida, has begun exploratory talks using Pakistan as an intermediary. The Taliban is neither down nor out; it is still resilient and motivated, but for the first time, it is feeling serious pressure from both its enemies and its benefactors.

Fourth, Karzai’s government remains weak, corrupt, ineffective, and by far, the Taliban’s best talking point. The government that must win this war — if it is to be won — seems little more capable than it was in 2002. The Afghan government’s police are a hindrance, its bureaucrats inefficient and corrupt, and its ministries ineffective. The narcotics industry may be a third the size of the entire legal economy. The effect of narcotics trafficking on governmental corruption is profound.

The level of governmental corruption was evident in the recent presidential election. Only the withdrawal of Karzai’s most serious competitor, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, enabled the current president to be legitimately called the winner. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry famously told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama in November that Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner.” More recent bickering had U.S. officials publicly embarrassing Karzai by their public statements, while he bitterly denounced the U.S. and NATO for acting as occupiers, once even threatening to join the Taliban. The mid-May Karzai visit to Washington poured oil on these troubled waters, but it is not clear how long the calm seas will prevail. Friction among the U.S. team — the embassy, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke’s group and the military command — is evident and a key factor hobbling U.S. ability to shape the situation in Afghanistan. Indeed, this friction was a key factor in the inappropriate and ill-timed complaints by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff in a Rolling Stone magazine article that brought about his relief from command.

In all, according to the United Nations, despite much economic aid, Afghanistan in economic and social conditions remains one of the bottom 10 countries in the world. There are, however, a few economic bright spots: Legal GDP growth has been robust, and the Karzai government has increased revenue collection by 58 percent in the past year. It has also begun aggressively to license the development of what may amount to $3 trillion worth of mineral wealth.

Finally, the Afghan people are sick of war and tired of the intrusive presence of coalition forces. While civilian deaths and collateral damage involving the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are way down in the past year, growing coalition forces are hard to live with. Fortunately, for the most part, the Afghan people despise the Taliban more than they dislike the government and its coalition partners. In polls, the Taliban rarely poll higher than 10 percent. Most people seem able to remember how repressive and ineffective the Taliban was at ruling their country from 1996 to 2001. With 40 nations helping them today, the Afghan people also remember that the Taliban regime was officially recognized by only three other countries. The vast majority of Pashtuns who live in the most violent areas, however, fear Taliban terror and must sit on the fence for their own security.

Among the catalysts for strategic change in Afghanistan have been a surge of U.S. forces and civilian officials, increases in aid to the Afghans, and the president’s declaration that in July 2011, “our troops will begin to come home.” On that date, the coalition will begin to transition responsibility for security in selected areas to the Afghans. The president and the secretaries of state and defense have stressed that this withdrawal of combat forces will be “conditions based” and supplemented by a new strategic relationship for the long term.

The projected start of “Afghanization” in particular has caused uncertainty among friends and foes alike, but it has also created movement among key actors. As the promised surge progressed, Pakistan stepped up its pressure on the Taliban, and the Afghan president has bravely (and somewhat incredibly) declared that his country will be ready to take charge of its own security in 2014. One element of the Taliban has come forward to talk about reconciliation. Karzai held a late May “peace jirga” in Kabul to build public support for reintegration and reconciliation. In July, he will sponsor an international conference on future foreign assistance.


In December, the U.S. plans to take stock of its progress. It will assess the situation and begin to identify options for the post-July 2011 period. There will likely be three options that will dominate the minds of Holbrooke, Eikenberry and the new Afghanistan commander, Gen. David Petraeus.

First, there will no doubt be some key players who favor continuing with the U.S. plan that is still unfolding. Given the protracted nature of such conflicts, and barring unforeseen surprises, the battlefield situation in December is not likely to be radically different than it is now. Conservatives will prefer to keep up the full-blown counterinsurgency operation for a few more years and move slowly on the transition to Afghan responsibility for security.

This would give the best breathing space needed for building Afghan capacity, but it is expensive and plays into enemy propaganda about the coalition as an occupying force. Moreover, it will entail very high expenditures, with no guarantee of results. If its proponents succeed, it will probably be only for another six to 12 months. Whatever the selected option, one aspect of the current plan that should be maintained is the progress that ISAF has made in protecting the population and showing respect to Afghans on the roads and in their homes.

A second option would be to reduce over a year (July 2011-July 2012) most of the 30,000 soldiers and Marines in the surge combat forces and make security assistance and capacity building — not the provision of combat forces — ISAF’s top priority. Remaining ISAF combat units could further integrate with fielded Afghanistan National Army units. Maximum emphasis would be placed on quality training for soldiers and policemen. To build Afghan military capacity, ISAF commanders would also emphasize the development of Afghan combat enablers, such as logistics, transportation and aviation. In this option, the focal point of allied strategy would be on the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and not on allied combat forces.

This option would not be cheap, but it could gradually bring down costs and troop levels. Trading U.S. combat units for ANA or integrated formations, however, would result in some short-term security degradation, a real problem if negotiations are ongoing. On the other hand, the integration of ISAF combat units with ANA units could also pay great training dividends in a few years.

There are other challenges that may arise with this option: The Afghan government may resist integration and improvements in unity of command. U.S. and allied trainer/adviser shortages will have to be filled rapidly. This will be difficult. In a similar vein, the training and education of Afghan civil servants will need much more attention and additional trainer/advisers. In order to bring this about, we need also to reinforce support to the national government, its ministries and its local appointees.

The biggest obstacle to success is and will remain the Afghan police, who will be vital to success in defeating the insurgency. Our efforts to improve their training must be increased. Rule of law programs — courts, jails, legal services — must also be increased if this government will ever rival Taliban dispute resolution mechanisms. The Ministry of Interior may well have to be broken up to defeat its endemic corrupt practices and payoffs that go all the way to the top levels of the ministry, according to in-country observers.

For its part, the government of Afghanistan — which ultimately must win its own war — must work harder against corruption and redouble its efforts to develop its own capacity in every field of endeavor. Links between the center and the provinces must be strengthened. Coalition civilian advisers must become the norm in every ministry and throughout their subdivisions. The civilian part of the U.S. surge must clearly be maintained for a few more years.

A third option — compatible with the options noted above, either sequentially or concurrently — is for the Afghan government, with coalition and U.N. support, to move out smartly on reintegration of individuals and reconciliation with parts of or even the entire Afghan Taliban. To do this, Karzai first will have to win over the nearly 60 percent of the Afghan population that is not Pashtun. These groups — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazarras and others — were treated poorly by the Taliban and today often live in areas outside Taliban influence. They will want peace, but not at a price that threatens their regions or allows the “new” Taliban much latitude.

There should be limits to our flexibility. Reconciliation and reintegration are not for war criminals. The Afghan constitution can not be bargained away, and participants of all stripes must renounce violence, disavow al-Qaida and come home to Afghanistan without arms. One downside here is the potential for simultaneous talking and fighting to take place. This is hard for Westerners to tolerate; authoritarian entities, like the Taliban, often can manipulate talk-fight periods to their advantage. The best way to ensure Taliban sincerity is to keep up constant military pressure on their formations and their command cadres. The more they feel the heat from the coalition and Pakistan, the more likely they will be to embrace reconciliation.


In sterile decision-making exercises, teams might well decide that the clear way ahead here is to go through these options in numerical order, let security call the tune, with reintegration of individual belligerents coincident with option one. This would be followed by Afghanization, with reconciliation beginning only after option two is well underway. Life, however, tends often to defeat linear thinking and our best-laid plans. The coalition is in the same boat today as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was during the Cold War. When asked what his greatest challenges would be, Macmillan replied: “Events, my dear boy, events.”

Reconciliation may end up leading and not following developments on the battlefield. Counterinsurgency successes in Pakistan can change the battlefield dynamics in Afghanistan, and vice versa. Agreements among regional powers can affect military operations. The rapid exploitation of mineral wealth may provide great incentives for some insurgents to come home and improve their economic lot.

There is an understandable reluctance to move into negotiations while the war continues. Few wars, however, end with the unconditional surrender of your enemy on the deck of a battleship or with an evacuation of your diplomats as enemy tanks seize an ally’s capital city. Most irregular and civil wars end in some form of negotiation. The U.S. should not stand in the way of reconciliation with the Taliban. Rather, it should work for the best possible outcome, guided both by its objectives and available means.

The degree of help the coalition gets from Pakistan will be a key variable in any scenario. Indeed, increased Pakistani pressure on the Afghan Taliban could drastically speed up reconciliation. The U.S. must continue to insist that Pakistan take action against U.S. and Afghan enemies resident on its soil. To obtain the assistance of the regional powers, all of those powers must believe that a future Afghanistan will not work against their interests. To that end, an understanding between India and Pakistan on the future of Afghanistan will be critical to long-term stability in Afghanistan. Separate negotiations among regional powers may be as important as any of the above noted options. To facilitate these negotiations, Holbrooke and his team should be given expanded authorities to facilitate regional negotiations with all interested parties, to include India.

If the situation today in Afghanistan were a song, it would be a remake of the 1950s classic “Something’s Gotta Give.” The U.S. and its partners are approaching an inflection point, a major change of direction in this war. It will be important for the U.S. and allied governments to be on the same wavelength on all aspects of its Afghan policy. With an eye on their objectives and available means, they must remain as determined and flexible in their plans for peace as they have been in their prosecution of the war. AFJ

COL. JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army officer, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. He is a 30-year Afghanistan watcher, whose publications on the subject date back to 1980. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or government.