If past is prologue, the December 5 Bonn conference, which aims to shore up international support for Afghanistan, will conclude with promises that will almost certainly remain unfulfilled, like the Kabul and London conferences before it, and the barely noticed Istanbul conference last month.
The most important question about Afghanistan is one that must be answered in Washington, not Bonn: What is the size and nature of the military commitment that the United States is prepared to make in the coming years? That decision will in turn dramatically affect both the diplomatic prospects for negotiations and the funds available for ongoing assistance.
The Obama administration embarked on a "surge" of forces in 2009, raising the troop levels by thirty-three thousand as part of a full-spectrum counterinsurgency effort that has blunted the Taliban's momentum on the battlefield. But uncertainty over the United States' future course threatens to hand the psychological edge back to the insurgents.
Some decisions have been made: The United States and its allies have already embarked on a course of Afghanization, to use the formulation that President Richard Nixon applied in his policy of Vietnamization. The United States is reducing its troops from 101,000 to 68,000 by September 2012. The additional 40,000 coalition troops will also be reduced by an as-yet-to-be determined amount. Afghanistan and the coalition have agreed that Kabul will take the lead by the end of 2014. But the exact nature of the U.S. role going forward remains unclear. This decision needs to be taken, and the precious remaining time, attention and resources should be expended inside Afghanistan to ensure the best transition possible.
The United States faces a choice among three theoretical options. Only one gives Afghanistan a chance to bring its war to a successful conclusion.
Option 1: Big COIN
The first option, to continue a large-scale counterinsurgency effort, would maintain the sixty-eight thousand U.S. troops plus as many NATO troops as possible to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign with a large foreign footprint and a vast array of programs and initiatives. This approach, which can be described as "big COIN," has halted six years of deterioration in Afghanistan's stability (PDF), just as it helped pull Iraq out of a downward spiral in 2007-08. But continuing it is the least viable of the three options. The principal U.S. ally, NATO, has always been a reluctant partner, its effort hemmed in by numerous caveats on force deployment that limit the coalition's utility. For both Washington and NATO, continuing to fund a large-scale military effort in Afghanistan is neither politically nor fiscally feasible. Moreover, there is now a zero-sum environment: funds spent on military efforts will sap funding available for civilian development assistance.
Option 2: Counterterrorism
The second option, which enjoys great popularity in Washington at present, is to limit future U.S. involvement to a counterterrorism effort. This assumes that U.S. national security interests can be safeguarded by plinking away at high-value terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan with armed drones and counterterrorist special mission units. Its supporters believe this approach can permanently decapitate, degrade, and dismantle terrorist groups. Devotees of this view forecast the strategic defeat of al-Qaeda, once a few more top leaders have been killed. The theory is that the relentless targeting of terrorist groups eventually renders them too ineffective to pose a significant threat. But in fact, counterterrorism is rarely effective as a freestanding approach and tends to produce negative political effects when wielded unilaterally.
Afghanistan will take the lead by 2014, and the precious remaining time, attention, and resources should be expended inside Afghanistan to ensure the best transition possible.
The United States pursued primarily a counterterrorist approach in Afghanistan prior to 2009, only to see a resurgent Taliban. The terrorist threat in Pakistan has metastasized into more than a half-dozen virulent strains that all cooperate in recruiting, training, and launching ever-more-difficult to detect bombers. Core al-Qaeda may be less of a threat now, but its network of partners does pose a danger and many of them are still based in Pakistan. If the United States turns its gaze elsewhere, there is a good chance the moribund factions will regenerate, so long as the forces that generate recruits remain. (Those forces include the Pakistani intelligence service, which is as much a sponsor of terrorism as it is a counterterrorism partner.)
Option 3: Afghan-led Counterinsurgency
The most desirable approach is one that puts Afghanistan firmly in the lead of its own counterinsurgency and nation-building effort, with the United States and international partners and donors in support. The principal argument in favor is that counterinsurgencies are essentially contests for legitimacy that must be won by the government under threat. Afghanistan now has three hundred thousand soldiers and police, who should be put into the lead promptly, with U.S. combat advisers to assist them. U.S. logistical support will also be required. It is true that President Hamid Karzai's government suffers from a lack of credibility, but taking the lead will help it enormously. To paraphrase T.E. Lawrence, it is far better that those facing the insurgency do it themselves, however poorly. These are the key features of an Afghan-led approach:
What would an Afghan-led counterinsurgency campaign look like?
Afghan forces would take over in all but the most conflicted areas of the country. The U.S. and allied support to the Afghan counterinsurgency should be almost exclusively focused on the south and east where the Taliban insurgency is strong, and in particular Kandahar and the eastern "P2K" provinces (Paktia, Paktika, and especially Khost). A very small node can remain in the west in Shindand to deter any Iranian misadventures, and the same can be done in the critical Salang Tunnel corridor in the north.
Thousands of NATO and U.S. officers manning four large commands in Kabul can be reduced dramatically to a few high-level officers who will support the American and other ambassadors in engaging the national government and Karzai. The command for training Afghan security forces should be primarily manned by Afghan trainers.
Most of the troops would be embedded advisers, largely from the special operations community but augmented by conventional forces that are selected and trained for the mission. They would focus on supporting community defense and police, which have been egregiously neglected throughout the war. Eighty-eight of 265 Afghan police units in key areas (PDF) currently have no mentor at all.
How many U.S. forces would be required to support this "small COIN" option?
A robust effort could be mounted with forty thousand troops, declining to twenty thousand or fewer as the Afghans become more proficient. In addition to the embedded advisers, about half of the personnel would provide support. Distributed operations in Afghanistan require substantial air lift, combat aviation, ISR, and logistics support. The most challenging fact of COIN in Afghanistan is the rugged terrain, and Afghanistan has virtually no air force. Nonetheless, U.S. Special Forces operate with relatively few enablers in many places. They have found, for example, that the best way to defeat the ubiquitous buried bombs is foot patrols and Kawasaki all-terrain vehicles for off-road travel, rather than the seventy thousand-pound mine-resistant vehicles that cannot navigate the narrow mountain roads and have primarily stimulated insurgents to build bigger bombs.
The U.S. military lead for this effort should logically shift to special operations forces, which have supported other countries' counterinsurgencies and now have a host of qualified officers after a decade of leading country-wide SOF commands in both Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. conventional units have been operating successfully in SOF-led commands for several years.
How long would the United States have to support a twenty-thousand-strong COIN effort?
It is hard to say, but not longer than a decade, and the numbers would progressively decline to a few thousand as Afghans gain experience and as the insurgency shrinks. As the insurgency weakens, the current talks, best described as "pre-negotiations," are likely to gather steam as fighters realize the government will not collapse. The end of the war is likely to come a piece at a time, as insurgent factions peel off and reject the authority of Taliban leaders ensconced in Pakistan.
Is there a precedent for such an approach?
The United States supported other countries' successful counterinsurgency campaigns in El Salvador, Colombia, and the Philippines. It did so in tiny El Salvador in the 1980s with fifty-five Special Forces trainers plus a robust country team with USAID, State, and intelligence officials who were dispersed around the country. The United States has also supported counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia and the Philippines over the past decade with a few hundred mostly special operations forces. In all three countries, there were factors that made the job easier, but these case studies show that a small-footprint formula can work. It has a far better chance of stabilizing areas from which trouble has long emanated, at a bearable cost, than the alternatives.