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Afghanistan: The Case for Optimism

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
September 2, 2010


For General David Petraeus, the summer of 2010 must evoke eerie and unwelcome parallels to the summer of 2007. Once again he is presiding over a “surge” in a war that is increasingly seen back home as a lost cause. Once again the troops under his command are expending blood, sweat, and intellect to salvage a decent outcome on the ground while legions of critics offer “Plan B's” that will supposedly safeguard our vital interests at a much lower cost.

There is even a plan on the table to partition the country where our troops are fighting. Last time around, then-Senator Joseph Biden was proposing to divide Iraq into three parts. This time, Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, proposes to break up Afghanistan into two parts, with the Taliban being given control of the Pashtun-majority region in the south.

Few would go as far as Blackwill, just as few backed Biden's partition scheme in Iraq. But many have suggested downsizing our commitment and relying on negotiations with the Taliban, leading to the formation of some kind of “unity” government. There are also voices calling for NATO to give up the supposedly foolhardy project of trying to build democratic governance in Afghanistan and instead to strike deals with local leaders who will pledge to fight the Taliban on our behalf. And naturally, once again we hear much talk of a “regional diplomatic framework” that will somehow short-circuit the hard fighting that is normally required to prevail against a tenacious foe.

The assumption that underlies all these ideas is that the strategy currently being implemented has already failed. But is that really the case? Having spent the first half of July in Afghanistan along with other scholars at Petraeus's invitation, I am struck by how premature such judgments are—and how reminiscent of attempts to write off the surge in Iraq as a failure when it had barely begun. What I found is a strategy that is only beginning to be implemented, and one that has a good chance of working--provided more attention is paid to ameliorating Afghanistan's crippling governance woes. That will not be easy to do, but it offers a greater likelihood of an acceptable outcome than any realistic alternative.

Although U.S. and allied forces have been in Afghanistan for nine years as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it is only in the past year that they have begun to wage war in earnest. As recently as 2008, there were only 30,000 American troops in the country. By the end of August, there will be close to 100,000—a much greater increase in percentage terms than during the Iraq surge, when U.S. troop levels went from 130,000 to 160,000.

General Stanley McChrystal spent much of his year in charge (June 2009-June 2010) simply building up the infrastructure to command and support these forces—a formidable undertaking that involved everything from expanding bases and runways to creating an operational headquarters to manage the war on a daily basis. New command structures were needed to manage detentions and the training and equipping of Afghan security forces, as well as the buildup of top-tier Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs and Delta Force.

By the time he was fired in June, McChrystal had just begun to use this nascent infrastructure to carry out a concerted counterinsurgency campaign in key districts around the country. It is still too soon to draw any conclusions about these efforts, which will undergo inevitable adjustment and fine-tuning by Petraeus, because the full complement of surge forces is only now arriving. But early indications are relatively promising. Certainly, the initial operations are not the failure they have often been made out to be.

McChrystal's first major focus was in Marjah, a district in central Helmand Province that I visited in early July. Prior to the Marine-led assault that began in February, Marjah had been completely outside the control of the Afghan government and the international military force. The Taliban had been in charge, and they had used it as a staging ground for attacks elsewhere in southern Afghanistan. Marjah was also a center of the global opium trade, which helps fund the insurgency. Coalition aircraft had even been told not to fly over it because it was too dangerous.

Today, six months into Operation Moshtarak, the Marines and their Afghan partners are solidly established in the heart of Marjah and are gradually expanding their control outward. Marines continue to be attacked, but they have already managed to deny the Taliban the use of Marjah as a base. Attacks in neighboring districts, as a result, are down sharply.

The operation appears to be a bust only because of the exaggerated expectations of immediate success raised by commanders early on. McChrystal touted what he called “government-in-a box,” which was supposed to come in and instantly displace the Taliban, who had long dominated the area. The box, alas, proved mainly empty. Kabul failed to send enough ministry representatives; the district governor's job went to an illiterate official who had a criminal record in Germany and scant managerial experience; and the Afghan National Civil Order Police, brought in to provide law and order, fell short in discipline, armaments, and training.

These highly publicized setbacks created a lasting impression of failure that ignores the strides made since February—including the recent replacement of the first district governor, Haji Zahir, with a candidate who appears, at least on paper, to be better qualified. The Marines with whom I spoke believe that Marjah is on a positive trajectory but that it will require 18 months to become truly stable. That is hardly out of the norm for counterinsurgency operations, which always take time.

To see where Marjah may be heading, one needs to look at other districts in central Helmand that the Marines had entered earlier. I visited one such area, Nawa. It had been a virtual ghost town before the Marines arrived last summer. Now the district center is bustling and secure enough that it's possible to walk around without body armor. Other towns in central Helmand such as Garmsir and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, are also fairly peaceful. That's quite an achievement in a province that has long been the country's most dangerous.

Progress has been made possible not only by American and Afghan troops, who are able to beat the Taliban in any firefight, but also by Afghan officials, who, with considerable coalition help, have proved they can exceed the low expectations of the population. Nawa's district governor, Haji Abdul Manaf, gets high marks for being hard-working and responsive to the needs of the people. Helmand as a whole is governed by Gulab Mangal, who is rated by international officials as one of the most effective and honest provincial governors in the country. In 2008 he replaced a governor whose basement had been found to contain nine tons of opium and heroin. The British, who at the time provided the only substantial foreign military presence in Helmand, threatened to withdraw from Afghanistan unless that governor, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, was fired by President Hamid Karzai. He was, and this has made progress possible in Helmand: halting and slow progress, admittedly, but progress nonetheless.

Much has been written about Afghanistan's governance problems. Its government is said to be weak, ineffective, corrupt, predatory, and resistant to all attempts at improvement. The Washington Post has reported that the attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, has impeded attempts to prosecute politically connected malefactors. That is true, but Helmand's recent history shows that reform is possible even without legal action provided that the coalition applies sufficient political will and military muscle.

Kandahar Province, next door to Helmand, is the logical next focus of such action. Its capital, Kandahar, is not only one of Afghanistan's largest cities but also the traditional heart of the Taliban movement. I drove through Kandahar in an armored car and found it to be fairly peaceful; there are not many terrorist attacks within city limits. But the outward normality hides the widespread intimidation of the population—not only by the Taliban but also by the government.

Kandahar is dominated by Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's half brother. Like a big-city political boss of old, Ahmed Wali Karzai sits atop a powerful network of patronage posts and private companies linked to the state. He is generally believed to be complicit in the opium trade, land grabs, extortion, and other rackets. One of the major sources of his power is his relationship with the United States, Canada, and other Western countries.

American and Canadian troops have already been deployed to take control of Kandahar's outskirts away from the Taliban. McChrystal's plan within the city itself had been to avoid an all-out assault such as the one in Marjah. Instead he planned to increase the number of American military police, who are partnered with local police, from one company to five companies—a large jump in percentage terms but still fewer than 1,000 soldiers in a city of more than 500,000 people. This probably will not be sufficient to reduce Ahmed Wali's all-pervasive power, considering that the local police are widely believed to be in his pocket. More troops may have to be dispatched—and thanks to the surge, more troops should be available. Coalition forces must try to reduce Ahmed Wali's power and funding and, if possible, to remove him from office altogether as a way to build confidence among the people in their government. He may look unassailable today, but so did Sher Mohammad Akhundzada before his ouster.

If they are to succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, international forces will have to do more than simply spread out across the countryside. They will also have to be more careful about how they employ their resources to prevent their own largess from inadvertently fueling the insurgency. As General Petraeus said in his recently released Counterinsurgency Guidance: “Money is ammunition; don't put it in the wrong hands.”

Foreign aid is Afghanistan's chief source of revenue, amounting to an estimated $14 billion a year (out of a total GDP of $23 billion). But so much is currently being stolen and misspent that according to the Washington Post, more than $1 billion a year in cash is leaving Afghanistan via flights to Dubai. It may be impossible to stop the graft altogether, but it can certainly be reduced to less catastrophic proportions through simple steps such as building more accountability into Western contracts for logistics, construction, and other tasks.

These lucrative jobs are handed out to prime contractors who are able to navigate a Byzantine legal process and then hire shady subcontractor firms that give kickbacks to Afghan power brokers. This process has led to the proliferation of private security firms, which deploy veritable armies of gunmen to safeguard trucks carrying Western supplies. As noted in a June report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “A typical convoy of 300 supply trucks going from Kabul to Kandahar, for example, will travel with 400 to 500 guards in dozens of trucks armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).”

Often the contractors will attack people traveling on the highways or living around them to ensure safe passage of their goods. When the contractors can't fight their way through, they simply pay off the Taliban en route. The U.S. is happy not to deploy scarce soldiers for such assignments, but the cost is steep. This process, the House report noted, “fuels warlordism, extortion, and corruption, and it may be a significant source of funding for insurgents ... undercut[ting] efforts to establish popular confidence in a credible and sustainable Afghan government.”

As things stand, contractors provide precious little information about where their money goes. Before his dismissal, McChrystal set out to change this unacceptable situation by establishing two task forces to monitor coalition contracts and the local trucking firms that supply them. Petraeus is putting even more emphasis on this area by appointing Brigadier General H.R. McMaster—a brilliant and forceful officer who is famous for writing a popular book about Vietnam and for his success in pacifying Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005-2006—to take charge of anti-corruption efforts. He has only recently arrived but if given time and resources—and cooperation from civilian agencies—he should be able to reduce the funds flowing to malign power brokers and to the Taliban, who have a symbiotic relationship with them. It may also be necessary to redirect some American and Afghan troops to increase security on major roads so as to decrease reliance on private security contractors—something President Karzai has said he would support.

Nobody should be under any illusions that such efforts will transform Afghanistan into Switzerland. But that isn't the goal. Afghans, like residents of Illinois and New Jersey, will tolerate a certain degree of corruption. What they won't accept is the brazen, unconstrained thievery practiced by all too many government officials today, who demand a bribe to perform the simplest service, whether allowing a motorist to pass a checkpoint or a farmer to file a legal grievance against an interloper who has stolen his land. Bribes are also necessary to secure many government jobs—which in turn necessitates that officials collect more bribes to pay for the cost of office. A recent survey of 6,500 Afghans by the international group Integrity Watch Afghanistan found that 70 percent perceive corruption as a problem and that 50 percent “consider that corruption fosters the expansion of the Taliban.” The figures are even higher in Kandahar and other areas where, no coincidence, the Taliban have displayed the most strength.

If coalition forces, working with honest Afghans (yes, they do exist), can reduce the overall level of corruption, they can do much to reduce the insurgency's appeal. As things stand, the Taliban posture, rather hypocritically, as the incorruptible guardians of Islamic virtue fighting against the crooks who dominate the current government and against the foreign soldiers who are seen as their enablers. Reduce the level of corruption and popular anger will be directed where it belongs—against the Taliban, with their unpopular, antediluvian ideology and history of brutal, horrifying violence.

That is a difficult task, but it is no longer as unthinkable as it was when NATO had only 50,000 troops in the country. With 140,000 foreign troops—and 130,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, which is widely viewed as relatively clean—ISAF has newfound leverage to take on not only the Taliban but also the abusive practices that enhance their appeal. And in David Petraeus, ISAF has a commander uniquely skilled in the delicate art of fighting alongside a local government while working to reform it.

That is precisely what he did in Iraq, where the enemies were not only al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups but also Shiite death squads that operated from inside the Iraqi Security Forces. Senior officials in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, such as former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, were implicated in the worst Shiite excesses. In 2007, Petraeus worked closely with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to pressure Maliki to act against Shiite extremists, notwithstanding their connections to the highest levels of his own government. These efforts were so successful that in 2008 Maliki, on his own initiative, launched a successful military operation against the Shiite extremist stranglehold on Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Many of the erstwhile Shiite extremists remain on the scene today (indeed, Bayan Jabr himself is finance minister), but they are no longer engaged in murderous attacks, because the overall situation has become much more stable and peaceful.

There is no reason, in principle, why it shouldn't be possible to produce a similar transformation in Hamid Karzai's Afghanistan. Admittedly, Afghanistan is less developed than Iraq; literacy levels, for instance, are much lower. But there are plenty of Afghan technocrats, many of whom have lived abroad for long stretches and who would eagerly join the government if they could do so without becoming part of a culture of corruption. In some ways, the odds of success are actually better than they were in Iraq because the level of violence is so much lower. (Afghanistan experienced a record level of civilian casualties in 2010, but it was still 15 times less violent than Iraq in the pre-surge year of 2006.)

In fact, the greatest obstacle to victory in Afghanistan may not be the conduct of Afghanis but rather the perception that the Obama administration is headed out the door and that it won't take the time to carry out difficult, lengthy tasks such as governance reform.

This concern ignores the fact that three times since taking office—during his initial policy review in early 2009, then in the more prolonged review in the fall, and finally this June, when he appointed Petraeus to replace McChrystal—President Obama has affirmed his support for an ambitious war effort. Barring some catastrophic failure, it seems unlikely that he will pull the rug out from under his newly appointed four-star commander. Even Vice President Biden, the most vociferous advocate within the administration of a “small footprint” approach, now says that in July 2011, there will be a “transition” but not necessarily a massive withdrawal of forces—“It could be as few as a couple thousand troops,” he told one interviewer.

In all likelihood, then, Petraeus will have the time and political backing necessary to tackle the Taliban and the sources of their appeal in a serious, concerted way. That doesn't mean he will necessarily succeed, but his strategy offers a much greater likelihood of progress than any conceivable alternative.

The idea that we can strike an acceptable deal with the Taliban—one of the most popular Plan B's under discussion—is especially far-fetched. While talks are evidently going on between representatives of President Hamid Karzai and elements of the Taliban leadership, there is scant cause to think that the insurgents are willing to give up their arms or to become a peaceful opposition party. As CIA director Leon Panetta said on June 28: “We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part -of that society.”

And why should they? Since being chased out of power in the fall of 2001 by a combination of Northern Alliance foot soldiers and American bombs, the Taliban (along with associated groups such as the Haqqani network and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin) have staged an impressive resurgence with Pakistan's help. Although the tripling of NATO forces in the past year represents a serious impediment to their ultimate prospects for victory, they can take heart from evidence that the will of the foreign forces is weakening. The Dutch have already pulled out; the Canadians say they will follow suit next year; the Poles in 2012; the British by 2015. Under such circumstances, what incentive is there for the Taliban to compromise? As they like to say, you have the watches, but we have the time.

Getting a significant portion of the Taliban to give up their arms will require inflicting more military defeats on them. As one ISAF officer said to me, “First you have to knock them on their backs, then you can give them a hand up.” If the Taliban can be convinced that they have no prospect of winning, they might actually crumble with surprising speed, as they did in the fall of 2001. The only kind of deal the Taliban might accept while they are still standing strong would cede them dictatorial power across much of southern and eastern Afghanistan. They would then use this power base, as they did in the 1990s, to pursue what they view as Allah's will by mounting an assault on other parts of the country, starting with Kabul.

Some rural Pashtuns might see a return of the Taliban as an acceptable alternative to the kind of predatory misrule they suffer from today. But such a deal would be significantly less appealing for the vast majority of Afghans who take for granted freedoms that the Taliban would quickly quash—freedoms like flying kites, listening to music, and educating their daughters. The Taliban have no appreciable support among the 58 percent of Afghans who are not Pashtuns. Major ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks regard a return to Taliban rule much as Jews would regard a return to Nazism. They will not stand for it, and they will fight to stop it. Thus, making a deal with a still-undefeated Taliban is a recipe not for peace in our time but for a resurgence of the terrible civil war that tore the country apart in the 1990s.

Some imagine that the consequences of allowing the Taliban back into power could be mitigated by a small number of American Special Operations troops backed up by precision airpower. But air strikes did not prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist sanctuary prior to 9/11. Nor have they prevented the frontier regions of Pakistan or large swaths of Somalia from becoming a terrorist sanctuaries today. Special Operations raids are an integral part of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy (they are occurring every night in Afghanistan), but they are not a substitute for one.

In a chaotic environment that will likely resemble 1980s Lebanon on opium, how could American Special Forces gather the intelligence they need to strike effectively? And what targets would they hit anyway? The Taliban lack fixed assets such as tanks or factories and have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of leaders to replace those who are killed or captured. No one has offered a compelling explanation of how long a long-range, precision-strike option could credibly deter the Taliban from actions detrimental to American interests.

What about, alternatively, the idea of striking deals with local leaders—meaning, effectively, power brokers, drug dealers, and warlords—to fight the Taliban on our behalf? This strategy is superficially more attractive. It is, after all, a course of action we have followed before, starting with the decision by the Bush administration after 9/11 to make common cause with the Northern Alliance. This was seen as the height of pragmatism, allowing us to deploy relatively few troops to Afghanistan. But this approach failed before and it will fail again. Local strongmen do not have the same interest we have in creating a safe, secure Afghanistan that will be resistant to Taliban advances. They seek to loot as much money and accumulate as much power in their local fiefdoms as quickly as possible, the interests of the rest of the country (and of the West) be damned.

Supporting these men would be like paying off a mafia protection racket: it may deliver short-term results but only at the cost of making the situation worse in the long run. Nothing is more likely to cause another Taliban takeover than an American strategy that cedes even more power and authority to these widely despised power brokers.

There is nothing inevitable about such a dire outcome. Victory is still eminently achievable with a strategy that focuses not only on defeating the Taliban but also on reducing the abuses that fuel their movement. Such a strategy may appear to be overly ambitious, but it is the only way to keep the Taliban from returning to power—an eventuality that would make a mockery of Obama's commitment “to disrupt, dismantle, and to defeat al-Qaeda.” The Taliban and al-Qaeda are bound together tighter than ever. Only by defeating the former can Petraeus ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for the latter.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power and War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today, he is now writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism

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