U.S. Needs a Stronger Commitment to Improving Afghan Governance

As military planners review strategy in the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says victory will be dependent on improving the capacity of the beleaguered Afghan government.

July 29, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Military planners at all levels are reviewing how best to utilize new assets directed at the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle spent the last month in Afghanistan tackling that question as a member of Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s strategic assessment group. Biddle says he returns optimistic that victory is achievable in Afghanistan, but only if certain steps are taken to improve the capabilities of the Afghan government. "We can keep the patient on life support by providing security assistance indefinitely," Biddle says, "but if you don’t get an improvement in governance, you’ll never be able to take the patient off the ventilator."

You’ve just returned from a month as a member of Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s strategic assessment group. Talk a little bit about what you did, what you saw, who you were with, where you went, and how the observations of the group will be put to use.

Gen. McChrystal was instructed by the secretary of defense to produce a review of the situation, the strategy, and the way forward, to be completed within sixty days of taking command. Gen. McChrystal organized that assessment as a series of teams or committees of members of his staff to work subtopics. But to work the overall question of how things are going--can we succeed, [and] if so how are we to do it?--he brought in a team of outside nongovernmental analysts to advise him.

We spent about the first week to ten days of the project in familiarization travel. We were then briefed very extensively by the key elements of the headquarter staff on the situation as they saw it, on the existing plans, on their current plans, and expectations for looking forward. And we then spent a substantial amount of time deliberating among ourselves and coming up with a draft written document that will eventually, assuming that Gen. McChrystal ultimately agrees, come out as the overall assessment [made] to the secretary of defense and to the secretary general of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. That transmission is expected to occur on or about August 15.

We can keep the patient on life support by providing security assistance indefinitely, but if you don’t get an improvement in governance, you’ll never be able to take the patient off the ventilator.

Some of the experts who traveled with you on the assessment group have already written about their observations. Anthony Cordesman [from the Center for Strategic and International Studies] believes victory is possible if the parameters of victory are properly defined. Did you come away convinced that victory is possible?

It is possible, and certainly, the "graveyard of empires" school [referring to the many previous military efforts in Afghanistan that have failed] overstates the degree of difficulty involved. We have some important advantages in this war relative to other counterinsurgents in Afghanistan, especially the Soviet Union. I do think it’s possible to succeed. [But] there are two very different requirements for success. One is providing security; the other is providing enough of an improvement in Afghan governance to enable the country to function without us. We can keep the patient on life support by providing security assistance indefinitely, but if you don’t get an improvement in governance, you’ll never be able to take the patient off the ventilator.

Of those two challenges, providing security we know how to do: It’s expensive, it’s hard, it takes a long time, but if we invest the resources there’s a substantial probability that we can provide security through our assistance. Governance improvement is a more uncertain undertaking. There are a lot of things we can do that we have not yet done to improve governance, but ultimately the more uncertain of the two requirements is the governance part.

There is a growing debate among analysts as to the benefits of staying versus the drawbacks of leaving. Before you departed for Afghanistan you wrote a piece in the American Interest that suggested the case for staying was stronger than the case for leaving. Did you see anything during your trip that either changed your mind or solidified your perceptions?

My sense of the situation is stronger now than it was certainly before leaving. My basic view remains, however, that the case for making a go at this is stronger than that for cutting our losses and withdrawing. But the argument I made in the American Interest article was that it was a fairly close call, that this wasn’t a slam dunk either way, that there were significant problems and risks with either course of action, and that neither one of them was without significant downside problems. And I certainly continue to think that either course of action--staying or withdrawing--has important problems. On balance staying is the better course, but only if we’re prepared to resource it correctly. The weakest argument is staying and under-resourcing it. That creates the opportunity to lose slowly, which is the worst of the three possible approaches.

Let’s get granular on current combat operations. United States military veterans of the Iraq war are reporting that the enemy they are facing in Afghanistan is even more tenacious (NYT), technically savvy, more resilient, and in some regards better resourced. Why is this?

The nature of the opponent varies enormously from place to place within Afghanistan. Any assessment of the enemy and how they fight is specific to a particular faction, and sometimes to a particular element of a particular faction. For example, the Quetta Shura Taliban maintains a cadre of full-time soldiers that spend a good deal of time in Pakistan and enter Afghanistan. [They] are substantially better trained, better equipped, and better motivated than the rest of the force, which is often a local levy drawn from the residents in a particular valley, or a particular village, or a particular province. Any given firefight will vary enormously as a function of whether or not you’re fighting this full-time cadre, or people under their direct command, or whether you’re fighting local levies who have substantially less training, equipment, and motivation. And the Quetta Shura Taliban fights differently than other factions within the Taliban coalition.

There are also various reasons why the enemy is fighting--be it ideological, financial, or the quest for power, correct?

That’s right. The leadership of the Quetta Shura Taliban are ideologically motivated. The leadership of many other factions, the Haqqani network [based in the city of Khost and led by a popular warlord, Jalaluddin Haqqani] for example, is interested in much more local stakes having to do with power, authority, and influence in their home province. Elements of the Quetta Shura Taliban have different motivations. The local fighters in some cases are fighting for the ability to feed their families in the form of what the Taliban will pay them. The leadership is in it for ideology; some of the foot soldiers are not. This is a highly differentiated collection of factions that have different reasons for fighting, different motivations, different interests, and which have in the past had a great deal of difficulty cooperating with each other because of that.

As long as the general perception is that the Taliban are ascendant and their fortunes are improving, the prospects for reconciliation…or for splitting the hostile coalition…are very very limited.

So how do we develop a strategy that deals with all of these different elements?

The heterogeneity of the enemy creates an opportunity, unlike Nazi Germany, for instance, or unlike the Viet Cong, [which were] much more monolithic opponents. Because [the Taliban] in Afghanistan is so heterogeneous, there are opportunities to try and drive wedges between elements of that coalition and split it, and peel [off] particular factions, or particular warlords, or particular leaders. That’s not probable in the near term, however. Right now the general perception--increasingly on both sides of this war, but especially on the Taliban side--is that the Taliban are winning. Nobody on the Taliban side is going to switch sides to align themselves with what they view to be a likely loser in the war. [That would mean] setting yourself up to hang from a noose in a few years when Mullah Omar takes over.

So as long as the general perception is that the Taliban are ascendant and their fortunes are improving, the prospects for reconciliation, if you like, or for splitting the hostile coalition, if you prefer, are very, very limited.

What do we need to do tactically to win? A new study from the Institute for the Study of War in Washington suggests that the United States needs to focus more on winning the high ground, getting out of these hostile valleys, and conducting more patrols while engaging in mountain warfare. Your thoughts on this approach? Other ideas?

One of the central issues for near-term strategy in Afghanistan is even if the administration substantially increases the number of troops they want in this theater, it’s going to be a while before they can build up to those counts. So for a while to come, we’re going to be stuck with too few troops to provide security everywhere. And that means you’ve got to triage and you have to decide that some parts of the country are where you’re going to put your effort and you’re just going to allow others to become what the military calls "economy of force." And in all likelihood, much of eastern Afghanistan in my view should end up as an economy of force area. The United States has tended to put a lot of effort there heretofore because we thought that the reason to be there was to go hunt al-Qaeda, which was thought to be hiding in the mountainous areas along the border. That’s about the only thing that area has going for it strategically. There are many other parts of the country that are more important and for that reason, I would make much of the eastern part of Afghanistan into an economy of force sector where I’m not sure I would be contesting the high ground very aggressively either.

So your recommendation would be to cede certain parts of the country until we get troop numbers up?

We’re going to have to cede significant parts of the country for the next twelve to twenty-four months as we build up troops and as the Afghan national security forces become larger and more capable. You’re going to have to make the hard choice about where you’re going to contest the ground and where you’re not. And I’m not sure that I would choose to contest isolated, extraordinarily rugged mountain valleys in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan.

Next month’s presidential elections are seen as a litmus test, both for the U.S.-led coalition’s willingness to stay, and for restoring the confidence of the Afghan public. How do you see the broader governance issue playing out?

The key issue is whether or not the governance reform campaign can succeed. I tend to think that’s co-equal with security provision. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient for success. At the moment, I don’t think any of us can know whether or not we understand enough about this society, whether we have enough leverage, whether we have the capacity to improve governance enough to succeed. That is the big question mark in the campaign for me. What I would like to see us do for the next twelve to twenty-four months is to make a serious run at trying to improve Afghan governance as forcefully as we can. If we decide at the end of twelve to twenty-four months that we’ve made no meaningful headway or that our efforts have made things worse rather than better, that’s a substantial indicator that the prognosis is more negative than we had hoped. But we need to make a much more forceful effort in this area in part to find out.