Robinson: A difficult line in Afghanistan

Now that Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has dropped out of the runoff election leaving the path clear for Hamid Karzai to remain President, the next major decision point on the Afghanistan war — whether the U.S. should pledge more troops — can be expected within weeks, if not days. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has stated that he requires 40,000 more U.S. soldiers to have even the potential of turning the tide in the war and has received some support from the Secretaries of State and Defense, but the Vice President and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are arguing for a reorientation of priorities in the region.

President Barack Obama has shown a remarkable and commendable willingness to hear all sides of the debate; his foreign policy team is one where no one opinion is clearly wrong. Discussion of options is essential and represents an intellectual honesty, which was sorely lacking in the previous administration. This is not “dithering” as former Vice President Cheney would call it; it is being responsible.

McChrystal’s argument for escalation carries a great deal of value. Afghanistan, in both population and geographic size, is enormous. Since 2001, there have been simply too few NATO soldiers in the country to approach anything meriting the name “counterinsurgency.” While no one wants to put more troops in harm’s way, NATO soldiers are essential at this point. The Afghan National Army is far too small and is mostly oriented toward a nonexistent “external” enemy, rather than an insurgency.

Accelerating training will not solve the problem either; properly trained soldiers and competent units take months, if not years, to create. Furthermore, the Afghan National Police are a catastrophe. Their literacy rate, pay scales, recruitment patterns, and involvement in drug abuse and the drug trade make their existence a propaganda victory for the Taliban-led insurgency. They are an ever-present example of the Karzai government’s failure to tame corruption and incompetence.

Given these weaknesses, only NATO forces, with mission-ready Afghan National Army units, are capable of establishing themselves in rural areas, developing relationships with local leadership and preventing violence against the population from insurgents. In this sense, McChrystal’s report is absolutely correct. To continue attempting counterinsurgency with the forces currently in place will simply not work.

On the other side, Biden provides an important analysis of the underlying assumptions behind the counterinsurgency plan. He views the conflict regionally — “AF/PAK” in the professional term — rather than two wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan separated by the Durand Line.

This analysis of a deep interrelationship between the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is correct. In this viewpoint, the war is not simply about leadership in Kabul and conflict around Khost and Kandahar; it is also about leadership in Islamabad and conflict around Miram Shah and Rawalpindi.

Given such a reality, NATO will be unable to wage a perennial counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and, likewise, the Zardari government is either incapable or unwilling to wage counterinsurgency perennially in Pakistan. The solution must then be to recognize a long-term state of instability in the Pashtun areas and seek to limit violence, though not by having American soldiers in every village across the Hindu Kush. Instead it must be done through massive development aid, the use of Special Operations Forces to target insurgent and terrorist leadership and the continued presence of NATO soldiers to train the Afghan National Security Forces, work with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, provide logistical support and protect key infrastructure.

Neither plan, however, is without potential for dire consequences, and both will be expensive and rely on assumptions that might not come to pass. While McChrystal’s option will increase exposure of NATO soldiers and will likely give rise to greater violence, the one supported by Biden suggests a state of permanent war in the region without real hopes for a long-term settlement. The commitment an escalation would require is not sustainable, and our policy-makers know it. So does Mullah Omar, the Quetta shura and elements within the Pakistani intelligence and military community. They assume they can wait NATO out. On the other hand, ceding territory to the Taliban-led insurgency assumes that sustained development can prevent grievances from becoming violent disputes and leaves regions to be forever lawless though it will require U.S.-initiated intervention.

While compromise — NATO forces securing cities but possibly ceding rural areas in the short-term — seems perhaps an easy middle option, this so-called “the oil spot” strategy has proved catastrophic in the past. The Soviet Union, in the 1980s, followed a very similar strategy in Afghanistan with no success; holding cities in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam before, is irrelevant.

While it is unknown which plan, or what hybrid of the two, the President will follow, the mere fact that he is listening to all the options is encouraging. It will not only likely lead to a better formulation of policy but demonstrates that he understands the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan.

Obama’s stance, however, should serve as a strong, sobering reminder about the precarious position the U.S. and world community is in. Despite the efforts of NATO, the international community and hundreds of thousands of Afghans who do not want a return of the Emirate, our military and political efforts may not succeed.

Ultimately, the key factor in counterinsurgency is the establishment of a legitimate, increasingly competent government which cooperates with international forces to reach the goal of limiting the insurgency to the point that it can no longer affect the function of the government. The current one is not it. Karzai’s government — as shown by the recent election debacle — is notoriously incompetent and corrupt. Moreover, it often at odds with NATO forces.

Eight years after the start of the war, it should pain all of us to admit that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — governed by the Taliban — may be providing better security and more legitimate governance than the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for which so much, by so many, has been sacrificed. This recognition should not lead to a clamor for withdrawal, however. Despite having fought the war poorly for the past eight years, it does not follow that it cannot be fought correctly now. Obama should both ensure a full, multinational commitment to the fight and ensure that the strategy — political, military, economic and social — behind the campaign is sound and a reflection of the values of the international community that has committed to this campaign. It is impossible to immediately repair the damage done by the previous administration in the AF/PAK region, yet this is the challenge before the current administration. Let us all hope that the man we elected this week one year ago sees himself fit for this task.

Eric Robinson is a first-year graduate student in international relations. He was the Civil-Military Operations officer for an Army Task Force in Khost Province, Afghanistan from March 2008 until March 2009.

Comments

  • toosinbeymen

    Obviously, Mr. Robinson did his homework on the various players in Afghanistan. However, IMO the original military approach to bringing the perpetrators of 9-11 to justice was wrong. Instead it should have been a police action: go in while the trail was still warm and capture perferably or kill bin Ladin, Zarwaheri and others suspected to be participants with an international coalition of police forces and then try them. The Bush approach of actually dithering in Afghanistan while sending many times more troops into Iraq allowed those behind 9-11 to go unpunished.

  • @#1

    Fine, but that is a sunk cost. The article is about going forward, not looking backwards.

  • Sidelined

    Hooah, Captain Robinson – nice to read an informed analysis. My original opinion on Afghanistan was that we should be committed there, and hard, but for those interested in getting different perspectives, the recent resignation (and reasoning) of Matthew Hoh, a USMC Captain and diplomat, is also interesting. Google is your friend.

    My thoughts are with all of those in theatre and their families and friends here at home. Stay safe, guys.