25 February 2009

Afghanistan: Ramp up the tactics, Scale back the strategy

In the last few days, a number of articles have been written about the future of US efforts in Afghanistan, and also highlighting a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan--a surging Taliban insurgency, tightening of supply lines, and a thriving opium trade.  Many in political and military circles have called for a re-assessment of NATO's goals for Afghanistan, and ultimately, a counter-insurgency strategy.  

First is David Kilcullen, the author of The Accidental Guerilla:  Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One.  Kilcullen is a retired Australian Army officer and holds a PhD in politics.  He has served as a counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.  He notes the following in an interview with NPR, which should sound familiar to any counter-insurgency theorist:

Kilcullen says the current U.S. approach is "enemy-centric."

"We are chasing the bad guys around Afghanistan, and that leaves the population feeling unprotected and insecure," he says.

Kilcullen says the militants are elusive, and don't have to hold and defend territory. He says that instead of hunting the extremists, the U.S. would do better to focus its efforts on providing the local population with better security as a way to gain their cooperation and trust.

"It's slightly counterintuitive, but if you want to make the population feel safe, striking the enemy doesn't actually help you that much," he says.

Kilcullen uses the example of the U.S. dropping a huge bomb in the middle of night a mile from someone's house.

After they've been awoken by the explosion, it's not particularly comforting to be told that the bomb was intended for a "bad guy," Kilcullen says. "[It] doesn't make them feel safe."

Kilcullen says the U.S. needs to isolate the militants from the rest of the population — in large part by creating links with the local people by learning their ways, their relations with other tribes and trying to provide justice. He says that often it is the Taliban that has filled that vacuum. The best way to build those links, Kilcullen says, is to deploy in the communities.

Locals will begin to feel safe, he says, if there is a unit that lives in their village that they see every day, that they know will protect them and ensure that assistance programs work.

But wait, there's more:  

"If we don't provide security and turn things around this year, then we've lost. If we do succeed in turning it around, all we will have done is like in Iraq — we'll have hit the political reset button, and we're in a position to start pursuing a political agenda," he says.

In short, Kilcullen is promoting a plan similar to, but not exactly like, the Surge of 2007:  pushing large numbers of troops off of massive bases and into the communities.  This plan takes time, and it is effective in fighting insurgents and general stability operations, to be certain, but it does little to confront the some of the massive problems which face Afghanistan, most namely, government corruption, opium trading, and the challenges of trying to establish a stable government in one of the poorest nations on the Earth.  

Ralph Peters, most notable for well-thought out plans such as whipping out a crayon and re-drawing the borders of the Middle East, actually makes sense for once in this article from USA Today:  he recognizes the futility of attempting to transform Afghanistan into a modern, secular liberal democracy.   However, he gets the tactics wrong.  He advocates a de-escalation of troop levels, consolidating American troops into fewer and fewer mega-bases, from which they launch an increasing number of airstrikes against the enemy.  The same airstrikes that have been emboldening the Taliban insurgency in the first place and have caused Secretary Gates to claim that, if they don't cease, the war is lost.  His rationale is that, since nation-building isn't the goal, destruction of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban should, then, be.  However, consolidating on mega-bases and rarely venturing outside won't provide the vital human intelligence necessary in order to succeed in the highly xenophobic tribal communities of the Afghan/Pakistan border region.  

A troop surge strategy, as advocated by David Kilcullen, is the best course of action for pursuing the Taliban and Al-Qaida, but it must have a realistic stopping point.  While population security should be an essential part of our counterinsurgency strategy, nation building must be realistically limited.  No one should expect Afghanistan to become a miniature America.  It is one of the poorest, most rural countries in the world, and will probably remain that way for centuries to come.  With ethnic tribalism rampant, democracy might not be the most viable alternative either.  Additionally, with an unassailable base of operations in Pakistan, it is likely that neither of these organizations will ever be effectively destroyed.  And if they were to be destroyed, they represent just two of dozens of violent terror networks in the region.

There are no easy answers to this situation, and no clear end state for Afghanistan.  A troop surge strategy, of limited duration, should be conducted with the following goals:

A first priority would be to use a population-centric surge strategy in order to facilitate a stable government with a strong police force and military, in order to prevent the failed state haven that permits further instability (look at piracy in Somalia).  Note that I didn't say democratic government--any strong governing institution will do.  (John Nagl notes that liberal democracy isn't likely in Afghanistan any time soon.  The rampant illiteracy and poverty is likely to prevent a democracy from taking hold.)  Nevertheless, a stable and secure Afghanistan is somewhat useless if the border region of Pakistan remains a lawless haven for terrorists. 

A lower, but nevertheless important priority--if only for the symbolic factor--would be the killing or capturing of the original high-value targets of this campaign:  namely, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar.  The only way to gain the human intelligence necessary to accomplish this would be to gain the trust of the local population of the border region through a troop surge, as the intelligence is not likely to come from satellites or target drones.  Unfortunately, given the culture of Afghanistan, it could be difficult to gain this information from the population, and downright impossible if these targets were across the border in Pakistan.

Anyone still want some soup?  I have plenty of knives...


Anonymous said...

My non-professional opinion:

ISAF's biggest mistake in Afghanistan has been in placing all our eggs in the "central gov't" basket and expecting power and democracy to radiate outwardly from Kabul. Note: Karzai's gov't has done some noteworthy things but basically outside of the capital area is mostly non-existent.

Afghanistan is an incredibly complex place - a patchwork quilt of many distinct ethnic groups laid out over one of he most mountainous places on earth, and has always been best ruled by a collection of tribal lords who at times fight among each other but are also able to establish and maintain, without outside meddling, peace and stability. The ISAF has broken up (better said, "pacified") these tribal lords over the past 7 yrs in its mission to establish centralized control in support of Karzai's gov't in Kabul. So that left a power vacuum in which the Taliban filled - most notably in co-opting the lucrative opium trade (record high levels of production now!) and establishing greater operational capabilities along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Our biggest wake up in 2008? The Taliban aren't the uneducated Islamic rednecks we thought they were...

Greg in Mexico

Starbuck said...

There's also little which connects a person in an outlying village to the main central government. It's difficult to recognize the legitimacy of a government when no institution in Kabul can provide power, water, food, etc. to outlying villages in Afghanistan.

Anonymous said...

So we need to re-visit the idea of supporting strong regional tribal lords (I don't like the term "warlord" but that's basically what they are). The majority of them are surprisingly practical and non-political - as long as their people are happy they'll back you but try and screw them over and you enter their turf at your own risk. So, to me, a national order tenuously maintained by a collection of tribal lords beats a weak, centralized "democratically elected" gov't. This won't happen until we scrap the illusion that Afghanistan can function as a democratic state.

The twist in the plot is that, to effectively maintain this national balance of order & security, we'll have to look the other way in the main source of income of many of these tribal lords - the drug trade. These aren't narco cartels like in Mexico - the Afghan narco profits pale in comparison to Mexico - but I wonder if the State Dept can stomach ignoring that factor of the equation.

Greg in Narco-Infested Mexico