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New Afghan Strategy: From the Ground Up

The current strategy for Afghanistan is not working. It can not. It is too big.

While General Petraeus can tick off signs of progress, including expanded American control farther outside of Kandahar, this does not make any difference. Even if such assessments are accurate, they only measure success in terms of Afghanistan itself, not in terms of total challenges facing the nation. International challenges include relationships with China and Russia, dealing with failed states, population pressures on water and food resources, and impacts of global warming; closer to home, Mexico and Cuba are both facing possible collapse, not to mention Haiti and the growth of repressive regimes. On the domestic side, health, education and infrastructure challenges are complicated by immigration and prison issues as well as stubborn unemployment from the ongoing recession.

Moreover, the accuracy of optimistic projections is widely questioned. Just recently, officials were regretting early optimism on Marjah. The most recent survey by ICOS showed abysmal levels of public support there. Both a recent commentary from the US Army's Strategic Studies Institute and a detailed report by the Afghanistan Study Group of the New America Foundation come to this same conclusion. So does an assessment by a Carnegie specialist who has widely traveled in Afghanistan.

The US military effort is self-defeating. It plays into the Taliban propaganda on foreign invaders. Its long logistics tail cannot be sustained without supporting corrupt officials in Afghanistan, as well as in surrounding countries; transit payments even help support the Taliban. The contract economy which supports the military effort drains away educated Afghans and severely distorts the Afghan economy. It undermines efforts to develop the independent market economy which would undergird real development and it forces US units to rely on some of the worst government officials.

The formidable language gap and the unavoidable cultural insensitivity of many US soldiers along with frustrations at being unable to distinguish friend and foe inevitably generate frictions, particularly since many aspects of Western culture are contrary or even offensive to Afghan sensibilities. Supporting the soldiers, including providing as many comforts of home as possible, only intensifies the logistic requirements. Constant personnel turnover precludes the establishment of any lasting relationships. Fighting also unavoidably brings on civilian casualties. Whether or not they are directly caused by the US forces, they are often blamed on the United States since it has typically been US forces that initiated the military operations which caused them. The problem is only exacerbated by the occasional and inevitable bad apples, such as five soldiers now accused of deliberately killing Afghans for sport.

The entire effort focuses on supporting an ineffectual central government. Afghanistan has never had a central government controlling the nation. In good times, a central government could coordinate provinces and build consensus. The present government exercises nominal control over the entire nation; regional officials vary in how much individual autonomy they can exercise. Elections have provided a questionable sheen of democracy when what is needed more is government competence. The Taliban have a good measure of effective control over broad areas. It is unlikely they will soon be vanquished or that they would again be able to control the entire country, though it is possible that political agreements might give them recognized control of specific areas. The United States has no choice but to deal with a fragmented political system; it must emphasize dealing with competent local leaders. In fact, there have been a number of proposals to treat Afghanistan in a more fragmented approach, including stronger development of local defense forces.

Overall, the US strategy for Afghanistan is failing. Regardless of results inside Afghanistan - which are questionable - the military operations there make no sense in terms of the US strategic situation: how to best allocate limited national resources to address the wide range of foreign and domestic challenges facing the nation. The costs of military operations in Afghanistan are simply far out of proportion to possible security benefits. These costs include not only the direct costs of Afghanistan, but the opportunity costs of having so many military and strategic assets tied down and the indirect costs at home of wounded warriors, mental health problems, and tens of thousands of lives disrupted. The counterinsurgency strategy being pursued is a long-term strategy incompatible with the far shorter US political time line. Pacification achievements are inevitably superficial. The simple reality is that the United States has neither the time nor the resources to eliminate the Taliban in fundamentalist areas that support them. At the same time, neglecting the north and west is allowing Taliban infiltration to destabilize formerly quiet areas.

Nonetheless, the United States has an important stake in stabilizing Afghanistan. The core strategic challenge facing the United States in the XXI Century is avoiding global turmoil. Globalization makes US prosperity dependent on global stability. The United States is the only nation capable of providing the leadership crucial to achieve this stability and Afghanistan has become a test case. It is important not only for development in general, but for demonstrating to the Muslim world that the United States supports its development and for demonstrating globally that the United States is a reliable and steadfast partner and ally. The United States has always prided itself on helping downtrodden people; this is the best face of America, to promote freedom and basic human rights. Defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan is far down the list of strategic challenges facing the nation. Indeed, Afghanistan would be a very inadequate base for al Qaeda to implement the only strategic threat it poses, the use of weapons of mass destruction.

US strategy in Afghanistan cries for a basic realignment from military operations in the the south to development activities in the north, not suppressing insurgents from the top down, but stabilizing Afghanistan from the ground up. It is not military operations that will sweep the Taliban away, but the impact of modernization. The south is the most difficult and expensive area to operate in - expensive in terms of costs, expensive in terms of blood, and expensive in terms of the extended logistics tail and the graft it inevitably supports. The massive US effort there fuels the very corruption which undermines the government we are trying to support.

So the immediate need is for a broad debate on how to best proceed, how to develop a well reasoned alternative to what we are doing now, realistic approaches that sketch out a way forward. In complex situations like this, there is no solution. At best, there are approaches which can improve the situation and these need to be continuously modified to adapt to changing realities. So a realigned strategy has to be flexible and continuously adapted to changing situations.

Some kind of middle course is imperative: retaining a modest active combat role in Afghanistan for years, rejecting permanent Taliban control of the south, but focusing on developing the northern and western regions. One recent commentary outlined possible ways that regional governments could be strengthened. Similarly, the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies has just completed its own review recommending de-emphasis of operations in the south.

The best hope for the years immediately ahead is a fragmented Afghanistan with some areas stable and moving strongly toward development, setting an example for others. The Taliban will undoubtedly remain a major force in the Pashtun areas for a long time to come; we can continue to contain and wear them down. Ideally, the more militant elements would be suppressed or at least minimized. A re-aligned commitment that projects indefinite efforts - emphasizing development and reducing military operations - can encourage everyday Afghans and undermine any Taliban expectations that the country, or at least major parts of it, will soon be left to them.

The strategy has to focus efforts in relatively quieter areas where local authorities are more or less competent and are respected. It has to continually pressure leaders in other areas to build support from their entire constituency. These efforts have to minimize military operations and focus on areas where we can get the maximum benefit for the minimum cost. We need to build in areas where they want us, instead of trying to force our way into areas where they do not want us. Above all the contract economy has to be reduced, it badly undermines the very development we are trying to promote.

The strategy must also integrate operations with neighboring countries. One specific area of proposals has centered on re-energizing traditional Silk Road transportation networks between Central and South Asia. Pakistan remains a particular challenge, with its military-dominated and unstable political system, nuclear capabilities, long-standing ties to Taliban elements, and widespread distrust of the United States. In this case, major military options are not even available, so development remains the only viable option. Now, with the nation wracked by floods, US assistance offers an opportunity to demonstrate US support to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the last time the United States responded to a disaster in Pakistan (the 2005 Kashmir earthquake), it ended without any effective follow up and radical groups remained to solidify their presence in this vital region. More recently, Iran has also expressed interest in cooperation on Afghanistan.

A realigned strategy must be based on realistic principles for development activities, an alternative focus that can build commitment and enthusiasm among Afghans, as well as a much wider awareness in the West of the aspirations and achievements of everyday Afghans. Some important elements of such a re-assessment are:

  • A recognition that Afghanistan is politically fragmented and will remain so for a long time. The central government can help to coordinate regions but is not able to direct them. So there is a necessity to work with the better local leaders - the ones that are more competent and less corrupt. NATO forces need to go where they want us and be used in a secondary role, supporting local development, not vice versa. And we need to keep persistent pressure on local leaders to provide better government. It is imperative that the West insist on transparency.
  • Reduction of logistic operations. Gen. Petraeus has spurred efforts to study more closely how US logistics contracts are awarded and plans to publish more open contracting rules. This recognizes a problem, but the oversized logistics effort itself is the real problem; it can simply overwhelm any such minor adjustments. The only solution is to drastically reduce the contract economy.
  • Establishing local development councils to get more grass roots involvement. The New World Strategies Coalition, for example, has been promoting a Biz-Jirgah to Biz-Jirgah concept. Likewise, the Distributed Essential Services program in Nangarhar province bases its efforts on local councils. Local development councils could be a real check on corruption as well as a good point of contact for the civilian surge
  • Wider press and media development. An active press and radio coverage can help minimize corruption and build confidence and even enthusiasm internally. Internationally it can build support within Western publics and the Muslim world. This has to highlight Taliban breaches of traditional Islamic norms, as well as positive developments within Afghan society.
  • Strengthened local security. There is an acknowledgment that operations in Kandahar will succeed only if local leaders "take risks" and brave the intimidation. An obvious point, and just as obvious they are very unlikely to do this if the source of their security is foreign troops who are scheduled to depart. Security has to come from local elements. Whatever the local security force is, it has to be tied into a local reporting network, a "neighborhood watch" where people report suspicious activities (preferably quickly and anonymously) AND the security force responds. Almost certainly there will have to be different approaches in different locations.
  • Economics has to focus on getting the most development for the least cost. Creating local jobs is a top priority and using some kind of local business or development councils can help. Promoting traditional products (wheat, nuts, fruit, etc.) is a good starting point, new crops appropriate to the specific areas also need to be introduced. The Department of Defense just recently initiated a program to energize traditional rug production. Helping to add value is important, so efforts like flour milling and oilseed oil production could be attractive. The recently announced mineral potentials could certainly help and it seems absolutely essential that this be done as transparently as possible, with an emphasis on creating local jobs. There have been several other efforts other focusing on work, including Jobs for Afghans and the Afghan Business Network

South Korea can be a model. US forces have helped to protect the country for 60 years and are still doing so. They have provided the screen behind which the nation has transformed itself from a backward, war-torn country into a dynamic and prosperous democracy. Western publics will support a long-term and even open-ended commitment if the costs are proportional to the gains and if there is obvious progress. The US and Western publics are repulsed by Taliban brutality, reinforced byTime magazine's recent cover of an Afghan woman whose nose had been cut off. Yet they see Afghanistan as a black hole, incapable of reform and impervious to US development effort. So whatever we do, we need to promote a lot broader awareness in the Western publics of positive actions to support commitments to continuing, long-term development efforts.

This can only begin with development of a new strategy that starts from the bottom up.

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