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Fear and Uncertainty in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 18, 2010

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Senior military officials appeared before Congress this week urging patience and support for their operations in Afghanistan, including a planned summer offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar that has been delayed. The Afghanistan situation is "uncertain" and hard to evaluate, says CFR defense expert Stephen Biddle. Kandaharis are worried about Taliban intimidation and the prospect of urban warfare that would result from battles between the Taliban and U.S. forces, Biddle says. Adding to the uncertainty are questions about whether or not the United States will start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in July 2011, as President Barack Obama promised in his Afghan policy speech at West Point in December. Biddle says that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "not sure what the future holds," and he and most of his fellow of Afghans are aggressively hedging their bets on whether the United States will stay.

Among the flurry of largely negative articles about the way the war is going in Afghanistan, some focus on the delays in starting the Kandahar offensive, which U.S. Commander General Stanley McChrystal had planned to launch by now. What's your feeling about this situation?

We're at one of those moments where it's very hard to tell whether things are going well or badly. Counterinsurgency always has this "darkest before the dawn" quality.  When you start with a tough situation, you introduce reinforcements and you begin to contest insurgent control of population areas they now control, violence then rises. Enemy causalities go up, causalities to your own forces rise, casualties to civilians increase, general mayhem rises. If you succeed, you gain political control of these populations and violence eventually comes down. From an early increase in violence, you can't deduce that you're winning or that you're losing because you would see exactly the same thing either way at this point in the war.

I heard a report recently on NPR about how the U.S. military was working with Afghan military in villages outside of Kandahar trying to get the local population to cooperate. Is getting more enthusiasm by the population to join in the fight against the Taliban a key element right now?

The political alignment of the population is ultimately what the whole war is about. That's what determines victory or defeat in counterinsurgencies. I'm very skeptical, though, that in threatened parts of the country we can get the alignment first and provide the security second. The idea that the population will demand that we come in and provide security against the Taliban before we actually show up and do it strikes me as problematic. It's tremendously risky for the people to do that. The whole thrust of insurgent strategy in this kind of war is that they try to intimidate civilians through a shadow presence that the government and the Americans can't protect. And they use that intimidation of civilians to get the civilians to reject the government and align with the Taliban. At that point, the Taliban presence can become more and more persistent, permanent, and visible.

We believe that there's a shadow Taliban presence [in Kandahar] that's intimidating people. It's probably unrealistic to expect civilians who are being intimidated and threatened to stand up and publicly request that the government and the Americans come bail them out.

In an environment where we're worried about Kandahar in the first place because we believe that there's a shadow Taliban presence that's intimidating people, it's probably unrealistic to expect civilians who are being intimidated and threatened to stand up and publicly request that the government and the Americans come bail them out. Normally it works the other way around. You provide a security presence, you drive out the visible insurgency, and then by staying for the long haul and visibly killing or capturing insurgents who continue to terrorize the public, you eventually persuade the civilian population that it's safe for them to align with you, and then they start to tip you off and provide you with assistance, and then the thing snowballs and produces security and the favorable alignment of the public.

Why did General McChrystal announce recently that he's going to slow down the planned offensive until at least September?

One thing the Kandahari population has visibly expressed concern about is the introduction of Western troops and the violence that's likely to cause. Among a variety of factors that enter into General McChrystal's decision-making, one of them is presumably the expressed ambivalence of the local population in Kandahar about having a big battle going on in their homes and neighborhoods.

Is it because the people in Kandahar make a living, in a way, out of illegal trafficking? Hasn't the leadership in Kandahar has been accused of corruption?

There's a lot of corruption in the leadership in Kandahar, but I don't know that the average Kandaharis are benefiting much from that. The average Kandahari is largely the victim. They're the people providing shakedown payments, for example, to local police as a form of extortion, and so on. My guess is that the problem for the average Kandahari is that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The whole point of what the Taliban is trying to do is to threaten the civilian population with violence if they don't align with the Taliban. And one thing that happens when Western forces show up in an area that is increasingly Taliban-controlled is you get violence. The Taliban contests your attempt to switch the political controls, the area, and its population. So if the United States were to introduce large military forces into Kandahar, the Taliban would probably fight them, and the result would be an urban battle in and around people's homes and neighborhoods. The population of Kandahar in all probability, if they had a free choice, would not choose the Taliban.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan The way the decision looks to the average Kandahari presumably is, Option A: No American introduction of combat forces into Kandahar city, and the Taliban are intimidating people, but if I play by their rules, nothing will happen to me. If I keep the Americans out, I at least don't get killed. I get stuck with this Taliban overlordship that I don't want because it's better than dying. Option B: The Americans come in and introduce large military forces and there's an urban war in my neighborhood. If the Americans win that war, I get a government formed that I would prefer, but I might get killed, because there's going to be all sorts of ammunition flying around as the Taliban sets up IEDs [improvised explosive devices], sniper positions, ambushes, and the Americans and the Afghan government forces fight back.

The whole point of insurgent strategy is to coerce the civilians into rejecting the government through a threat of violence. Typically, what counterinsurgents do is march in anyway, and they establish positive military control of the situation. This drives out the insurgency and its ability to threaten people progressively over time. It communicates to the civilian population that it's safe to act in accordance with its political preference and this is the government security force. But it's fairly unusual for the government to take a survey and a poll before entering the area with a clearing operation and ask the public: Do you want a clearance operation? And then decline to do it if the public says no.

President Karzai showed up in Kandahar recently and spoke against the Taliban and seemed to be behind the counterinsurgency operation, but a lot of people seem to have doubts whether his heart is really in it. What's your guess?

My guess is that like every body else in this situation, he's not sure what the future holds, and he's hedging his bets.

How much of this is due to the July 2011 pullout date that President Obama announced would mark the beginning of the U.S. force withdrawal?

The July 2011 date takes what was already ambiguity in the minds of people in the area, and it weighs one side of the ambiguity more heavily than it would have been otherwise. A rational observer in Afghanistan or Pakistan would look at this and say, "I'm not certain what the result is going to be either way."

An announcement has complex effects, some of which help but many of which hurt. One way in which it hurts is it reduces the credibility of American promises to prevail to stay long enough to beat the enemy. The speech didn't create this problem; it exacerbates it, but the problem is inherent in the situation in the area. Any non-American looking in at this situation from South Asia, whether they're Afghan or Pakistani or a Taliban or whoever, has to look at this and wonder: Will the American people and American Congress support massive sacrifice which will be necessary to succeed in Afghanistan? And they would wonder about that with or without the president's announcement of the July 2011 date.

What the July 2011 date does is take what was already ambiguity in the minds of people in the area, and it weighs one side of the ambiguity more heavily than it would have been otherwise. But a rational observer in Afghanistan or Pakistan would look at this and say, "I'm not certain what the result is going to be either way. There's some possibility that the Americans might stay; there's some possibility that the Americans might leave."

The "rational observer" would say that "the probability that the Americans will leave looks higher to me now than it did before the West Point speech," but the rock bottom reality is he doesn't know. When you don't know, most people hedge their bets. I think what the date does is it causes them to hedge their bets more aggressively, and to shift their behavior in the direction of whatever looks best should the Americans leave.

Will there be pressure on the president, when he looks up from the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, to try to be clearer on this whole policy?  We've had many officials saying, "That July date doesn't really mean much, it was just a symbolic statement."

There are a lot of people that want to pin the administration down on this. The hearings in the Senate the last couple of days have been the latest example. The hearings right after the West Point speech were an earlier example. Lots of people are confused and want more clarity. They want more clarity for widely divergent motivation. Typically, progressive Democrats want it made very clear that there's going to be a big, fast withdrawal. Conservative Republicans want the perception that there's going to be a big, fast withdrawal to be explicitly denied by the administration in order to increase the likelihood that we're going to stay. So lots of people want more clarity. My guess is that they may not get it. We'll see what happens with this upcoming December review [Obama in the speech also said the Afghan policy would be reviewed in December].

Are they going to have that review in December? With the Kandahar invasion put off a few months, that might delay things, wouldn't it?

They committed themselves to a December review, and the testimony before the Senate maintained that commitment. Neither Michèle A. Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, nor General [David] Petraeus backed away from a December review. What they did do was downplay the importance of the December review, but they didn't say there wouldn't be one.

Petraeus supports the July withdrawal right?

He supports the July withdrawal, but of course none of us know exactly what the July withdrawal means, so what he's supporting isn't as clear as it might be.

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