January 1, 2009  

Transition strategy: Regaining the initiative

Afghanistan: Faltered but not fallen

Recent assessments of the war in Afghanistan are awash in pessimism. Reports have the Taliban setting up courts and shadow governments in some areas in southern Afghanistan. Infiltration in cities and major attacks along the “ring road” highway between Kabul and Kandahar are further signs that the coalition has lost the initiative in Afghanistan.

Taliban-inspired violence has worsened each year since 2004. According to Afghan and U.N. data, from 2003 to 2007, there was a 13-fold increase in the average number of attacks or violent incidents per month. By September, attacks in Afghanistan had already exceeded all of 2007, which had previously been the worst year on record. Eighty percent of all incidents took place in the 13 (of 34) provinces that make up the southern and the eastern portion of the country, the areas where most Pashtuns live. More than 14,500 people, including a few hundred coalition troops, have been killed since 2006. Total coalition military deaths since 2001 now exceed 1,000.

We are clearly losing our grip on Afghanistan, despite nearly $3 billion per month in U.S. expenditures, and the best efforts of 146,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen, 33,000 U.S. military personnel, and nearly 35,000 other NATO-affiliated forces in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Estimates of enemy full-time forces rarely exceed 11,000 fighters, but they are able to recruit a large number of part-time fighters/mercenaries wherever they move in strength.

Polls in Afghanistan show that President Hamid Karzai and the coalition are losing the support of the people. In the summer of 2008, 38 percent of Afghans said they believe that the country is moving in the right direction.

Despite these negative trends, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan is not inevitable or even probable. They had a disastrous record of governance from 1996-2001. They not only mismanaged an impoverished country, but they also earned a well-deserved reputation for human rights violations. In addition to the repression of its citizenry — no kites, no music, no female education, executions at soccer matches etc. — thousands of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras were slaughtered by the Taliban. Today, split into four contending movements, the Taliban have no serious political program and have alienated many people by their terror tactics.

At the same time, we should not underestimate the power of their terror. When Taliban terror fills a governance vacuum, they can gain the grudging obedience and support of locals. Over time, fighting coalition forces has also grown more attractive, especially as collateral damage and unwanted civilian casualties have muddied the waters. Governmental inefficiency and corruption in Afghanistan has also brought some misplaced nostalgia for the good old days of Taliban “order.” Though the Taliban clearly believe that they can outwait the coalition in this game of protracted warfare, they can only win if the coalition decides to quit.

Opposing the Taliban’s barbarity is a resolute international coalition with a strong fundraising base. There has been some important progress in reconstruction. In the mid-term, military commitments from the NATO nations range from strong (U.S., U.K., Canada, others) to salvageable among many of the Europeans. In the U.S., the president-elect seems determined to make Afghanistan the spot where he proves his national security bona fides. All is not lost in Afghanistan; the sky over Kabul is not falling, but the ceiling is pretty low.

Opportunities lost

To regain the initiative in Afghanistan, it is important, even if depressing, to review how the war spiraled downward. First, our military strength and activity did not keep pace with the increased enemy activity. In the beginning, the Taliban were reeling from their beating in the fall of 2001. From 2002 to 2004, exploiting a “fur-lined” sanctuary in a permissive Pakistan, they grew stronger and repaired their formations. Our subsequent troop increases did not keep pace with their growing strength.

Second, our efforts to build Afghan security forces have been checkered. While the development of the Afghan National Army merits at least a grade of “B,” our work on the all-important Afghan National Police has been atrocious. We have increased their numbers, but they are poorly equipped, often corrupt and disorganized. The prosecutorial service, the courts and the prisons all are in worse shape than the police force itself.

Third, we have allowed the production of narcotics to get out of control. The coalition downplayed this problem because we did not want to bother the farmers whose support we needed. Today, taxes collected from narcotics traffickers have become the lead funding source for the insurgency and the corruption of government officials and police officers. A tough counternarcotics program in the midst of an insurgency still presents risks, but an effective counternarcotics policy, focused on the kingpins and their facilities, must be an essential component of counterinsurgency policy.

Fourth, the coalition has failed to build government capacity in Afghanistan, and that has perpetuated a vicious cycle. Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years. Most of its educated elite, the managers and the skilled workers, have left or been killed. Because of incredible poverty and the shortage of human capital, the government was in bad shape in 2002. Because the government had little capacity, aid agencies and partners bypassed it without addressing the government’s lack of capacity. The more you needed something done fast the more you tended to avoid the Afghan government and depend on donors, NGOs, and foreign firms to do the work. Some areas received little assistance and in others, the local population had no sense of participation in the reconstruction effort.

From 2002 to 2005, the Afghan government made some major gains with international help: the restoration the Kabul-Kandahar ring road, the creation of a new and stable currency, the start of a new Afghan National Army, and the creation of a nationwide telecommunications system. The currency swap and telecommunications projects were highly effective partnerships between the Afghan government and the private sector. Nationwide loya jirga assemblies and elections for executive and legislative offices were held. A new, democratic constitution was also developed and implemented. While much good governmental and international work has continued, the offensives of 2006-08 and the re-emergence of widespread corruption have put a cloud over these major accomplishments.

The blessing of many aid donors — countries, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations — has created a coordination nightmare. The sovereign government of Afghanistan remains nominally in charge, but it can’t get the job done. Other national or international actors — for lack of sovereignty — cannot fill the gap. For its part, the Afghan government after 2005 has not shown great initiative or daring, and corruption at all levels is widespread. In all, the United States and its coalition partners along with the UN and the NGOs have done a fair job of providing “fish” to the hungry Afghans, but a lousy job of teaching the Afghans how to “fish.” For their part, the Afghan government has been slow to pick-up the “nets” that have been provided.

This failure to build governmental capacity encompasses every sector. Even in the relatively high-performing military sector, the U.S. and its partners have not gained maximum benefit from the Afghan National Army. For example, we have not harnessed our professional military education and training organizations in the U.S. to the task of training Afghan officers and noncommissioned officers in large numbers in their own languages. The U.S. and its coalition partners have concentrated on fighting the enemy and have allowed advising the Afghan National Army to become a subsidiary effort. Having built a tough, ethnically balanced national army, we have suboptimized it by underequipping it and failing to advise it adequately.

Halfhearted support

Fifth, the allied military effort is complex and disunited. Our European coalition partners — while adequate in peacekeeping duties and some aspects of economic aid — have been halfhearted in their support of combat operations. NATO’s ISAF took over the whole military effort in 2006. It has done well in the calmer areas, but it has been a serious disappointment in the areas where combat is active and harsh.

Further complicating matters, we now have an ISAF/NATO chain of command and a separate U.S. headquarters that commands most air force, special operations, and training/advising elements. Army Gen. David McKiernan, the ISAF commander, now also commands all U.S. forces, but he must answer, depending on the issue, to NATO, U.S. Central Command or the Pentagon. NATO thus has control over combat operations, where many of its continental members are “AWOL,” but is not fully integrated into training and advising the ANA, where it could make a greater commitment.

These problems have caused a crisis of confidence among coalition members. Some analysts favor negotiation, but that would be done today from a position of weakness. Moreover, Karzai would have to lead such a process. Inside his house, he would have to manage his Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek partners who fear and revile the Taliban much more than he does. Outside his house, his Taliban interlocutors would come in four separate entities: the Taliban proper in the south, the Hezbi Islami Gulbuddin in the north, the Haqqani network in the east, and the fractious Pakistani Taliban, some of whom work closely with their Afghan cousins. Interestingly, the Taliban are sufficiently cocky that they have declared that they will not negotiate with Karzai until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

Other Western analysts want to turn their backs on democracy and central government and deal primarily with tribal elements and local leaders. This has some merit, but carried to its logical conclusion, it would result in a warlord state, a seedbed for renewed civil war and another safe haven for international terrorism. A modern Afghanistan needs a decent, effective central government.

The coalition goal in Afghanistan should remain the development of a law-abiding, representative state, a partner in the greater war on terrorism, a state at peace with its neighbors and within its own borders. In other words, we should aim for democracy with an Afghan face, a state that exploits the power of the local tribes and councils, but at the same time has enough power and authority at the center to hold the nation together. A modern Afghanistan without a strong center will mean inviting terrorists and extremists back into Afghanistan. To work toward this goal, we will have to make progress in security, stabilization activities, reconstruction and governance. Finally, the coalition will have to tackle the issue of sanctuary and outside influence.

Security is not an end in itself, but all other ends depend on it. It is job No. 1, the enabler for stabilization, reconstruction and governance. Gen. David Petraeus is correct: we cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan, but the Coalition can seriously weaken the Taliban, if we defeat them on the battlefield and threaten their base areas. While Beltway savants may conjure up ways to do more with less resources, in the short run, more Afghan and NATO troops, as well as more aid money, will be essential to regaining the initiative.

Holding and building

Improving security in Afghanistan will, for a time, require a few more coalition combat brigades. At first, their mission will be to defeat the next set of Taliban offensives and ensure that the 2009 election takes place nationwide. In the mid-term, however, the balance of our security efforts should shift rapidly to training and advising Afghan units — not with leftover, pick-up teams of soldiers or Marines, but with the best of U.S. and allied ground forces. We have done well at clearing enemy forces, and now we must work harder on the holding and building tasks. Holding and building is where the ANA must take a more prominent role.

Rather than the current plan of drastically increasing the size of the Afghan National Army, and thus creating an organization that the Afghan government will not be able to afford, the coalition should shift ANA operations directly into protecting the population and organizing a local National Guard. With U.S. and coalition advisers, the ANA’s best kandaks (battalions) should move into local areas and train the people there to defend themselves. As State Department counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has noted, the more government-supervised guardsmen in an area, the greater the local security force presence and the fewer potential Taliban recruits there will be in that area. Each supervised guardsman would thus be a “twofer”: one for us, and one unavailable to the Taliban recruiters.

The coalition effort needs to work on command, control and coordination in every sphere. On the military side of the house, there is now a single commander for ISAF and NATO forces, but we can do more to integrate the U.S. and NATO commands. For example, European nations could help more on the advisory end. The training and advisory command could also be brought under NATO auspices, which would give the Europeans a chance also to share more of the enormous costs of this endeavor. On the combat mission, the Europeans — especially Germany, Italy, and Spain — will either have to step up to the plate or redefine their role. In the mid-term, the future non-U.S. contribution to the combat mission is in doubt.

It may well be time for a new alliancewide division of labor in Afghanistan. If the major European powers do not want to fight, NATO’s command of all military operations may be a bridge too far. To accelerate progress, the coalition may have to turn back the clock back to the time where the Europeans did peacekeeping and related activities while U.S.-controlled, multinational forces carried out combat missions in the south and the east under a streamlined chain of command, one with far fewer restrictions and national caveats.

Stabilization depends on competent police. We are beginning to make progress in professionalizing this force. That work must be continued and expanded. Taking a leaf from the ANA, the Afghan National Police command structures and the Ministry of Interior need much more attention. U.S. and NATO authorities should also increase priority for courts, prosecutors and prisons. Local courts and tribal justice can supplement these national assets, as has always been the case in Afghanistan.

Coalition military forces should make counternarcotics operations a high military priority. If we dry up the supply of narcotics, we can eliminate up to half of the Taliban’s financial support. Coalition forces should be given the mission to gather intelligence and then strike major drug lords and their warehouses and laboratories. These military forces should not engage in retail counternarcotics operations, such as destruction of poppy in the fields. This work should be left to Afghans, advised by appropriate police authorities. This is also an area where Europe — the target of most opium-based exports from Afghanistan — has a greater interest than the U.S. The Europeans should increase their support to the retail enterprise here.

In the area of reconstruction, we need to emphasize Afghan participation. The National Solidarity Program — which involves Afghan ministries, NGO partners, and local councils of men and women — is the most promising vehicle for effectiveness and accountability. Thousands of village councils are now being funded to design and build their own projects.

ISAF’s 26 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) should tap into this process and increase local Afghan participation in all of their activities. Over time, the U.S. and ISAF should expand the PRTs and, in the long run, “Afghanize” them until coalition presence is the exception, not the rule.

The emphasis in governance should be on building capacity. Increasing military and civilian education opportunities for Afghan officials in the U.S. would be a great start. For example, the cadre of trained governmental administrators in Afghanistan could be multiplied many times over if U.S. public policy schools or military staff colleges conducted courses for administrators with simultaneous translation into Dari and Pashto.

On a more pressing issue, the mid-2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan will require a tremendous international effort. Free and fair elections across the entire nation are essential and must be the top Afghan-U.N.-NATO priority in the coming year. At the same time, we can expect the Taliban to disrupt the elections. In the last elections, security forces did not have to fight to conduct the vote. They will not be as lucky this time.

The Pakistan problem

All of these measures will come to naught if we don’t comprehend problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of a whole. While Pakistan has squandered much U.S. aid since 2001, the U.S. and its allies will have to help Pakistan more on issues of counterinsurgency and economic development. Aid to education nationwide, but especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, will be essential. At the same time, the new, democratic government of Pakistan will have to find ways to restrict Taliban activities and control its own borders.

In all matters concerning Pakistan and Afghanistan, the elephant in the room is India. Pakistan sees India as its principal threat, and its entire security policy is carried out with India in mind. To bring Pakistan around on the issue of Afghanistan, it would help immeasurably to lower threat perceptions on the subcontinent, especially after the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The new administration in Washington should make confidence building and threat reduction in South Asia a top priority. Helping to solve the long-standing India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir is as important as working on the Israel-Palestine problem set.

In a similar vein, a strategic dialog with Iran — a natural enemy of the Shiite-hating Taliban — might also boost stability in Afghanistan. The U.S. also needs to ask the Gulf states to crack down on charity toward Taliban-affiliated groups. Charity, drug money and other protection payments are paying Taliban bills. If we dry up their funds, we weaken Taliban military capabilities and starve their operations.

In all, the focal point of the war on terrorism has shifted from the Euphrates to the Durand Line, and the war in Afghanistan should take top priority in the new administration’s policy planning. The coalition has faltered in Afghanistan, but it has not fallen. We regained the political-military initiative in Iraq. We can do it again in Afghanistan.

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was the first 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 Army, Defense Department or U.S. government.