Yes, We Can
(Published in American Enterprise Institute, March 16, 2009)
If you believe the headlines, Afghanistan is 'the graveyard of empires,' a 'quagmire' and a 'fiasco,' the place where President Barack Obama will meet his 'Vietnam.' In the media's imagination, the Taliban are on the march, and Kabul is on the verge of falling to a resurgent insurgency that already controls much of the countryside. Increasing numbers of voices, on both the left and the right, counsel that the war is unwinnable and that we need to radically 'downsize' our objectives in order to salvage something from a failing war effort lest we go the way of the Russians or British, previous conquerors who foundered in this merciless land of violence and fanaticism.
Evidence to support the pessimists isn't hard to find. Violence has increased every year since 2001. The United Nations recently reported that there was an especially big jump last year, with civilian deaths up nearly 40 percent, from 1,523 in 2007 to 2,118 in 2008. Coalition deaths were up 27 percent, rising to 294 in 2008 from 232 in 2007. Because of the improving situation in Iraq, there have been a number of months when more U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the number of Afghans surveyed by ABC, the BBC, and the German network ARD who said that their country was headed in the right direction fell to 40 percent, down from 54 percent in 2007, with security rated as by far the worst problem, outpacing corruption and the economy.
The sense of doom is fed by news reports on spectacular attacks, such as the February 11 raid in which suicide bombers and gunmen attacked several government sites across Kabul, killing at least 20 people; the June 13, 2008, raid on the main prison in Kandahar, which freed 1,200 prisoners; and the April 27, 2008, attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai at a public ceremony.
Fears of impending disaster are hard to sustain, however, if you actually spend some time in Afghanistan, as we did recently at the invitation of General David Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command. Using helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and bone-jarring armored vehicles, we spent eight days traveling from the snow-capped peaks of Kunar province near the border with Pakistan in the east to the wind-blown deserts of Farah province in the west near the border with Iran. Along the way we talked with countless coalition soldiers, ranging from privates to a four-star general. We also attended a tribal shura or council--a fantastic affair straight out of an earlier century--to sample opinion among bearded Afghan elders. What we found is a situation that is cause for concern but far short of catastrophe-and one that is likely to improve before long.
To start with, much of the north, center, and west remains relatively secure. Attacks have increased in those areas but are still extremely low. Figures showing large increases are deceptive because the total numbers to begin with were so small and because most of the attacks produced few if any casualties. For instance, the Brookings Afghanistan Index shows a 48 percent increase in attacks last year in Regional Command-Capital, which encompasses Kabul and its environs and has a population of more than 4 million people. But the total (157 attacks in 2008) would have represented just four days of violence in Baghdad in the summer of 2006. (Overall civilian casualties in Afghanistan, while rising, are still 16 times lower than the comparable figure for Iraq in the pre-surge year of 2006.)
As these figures suggest, while the capital of Iraq was a war zone, the capital of Afghanistan is remarkably peaceful. Entire weeks go by without an insurgent attack, and the streets bustle with cars and pedestrians. Coalition officials drive around in lightly armored SUVs, something that would have been unthinkable in Baghdad. We asked officers at NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in the middle of Kabul whether they took any incoming rocket or mortar fire. Such attacks were an almost daily occurrence in the Green Zone in Baghdad for years, with numerous personnel being killed only yards away from the U.S. ambassador's office. But at ISAF they could remember only a single ineffectual attack back in September 2008.
The idea that Kabul is under siege is a figment of the news media's imagination based on hyped reporting of a few isolated attacks. ISAF officers suggested to us that the recent insurgent raids on three government buildings, which generated so much negative publicity, were actually good news, because Afghan security forces, who have assumed lead responsibility for operations in much of the capital, were able to handle the crisis on their own. Commandos from the Afghan National Police Crisis Response Team stormed into the Justice Ministry within hours and killed all the attackers, who had hoped to carry out a protracted Mumbai-style siege. Other would-be suicide bombers were rounded up before they could set off their explosives.
Equally impressive progress is being made in Jalalabad, a city of perhaps 400,000 in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province. Violence is low; U.S. troops don't even patrol the city, leaving that job to the Afghan National Security Forces. The Afghan army, police, and border police coordinate their activities through a 'fusion' center which responds to an emergency phone number that residents can call in case of trouble. Economic development is booming, spurred by 'Nangarhar Inc.,' a development plan overseen by a U.S.-run Provincial Reconstruction Team in cooperation with local officials. 'Nangarhar has progressed light years in the last six or seven years,' says Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Daniel, who commands a battalion based in Jalalabad.
Not all of Regional Command-East is as peaceful or prosperous. This remains the second-most violent region in the country, behind only Regional Command-South. This is hardly surprising since RC-East is located along the long, mountainous eastern border with Pakistan, which has become a safe haven for numerous Islamist terrorist groups. With rumored assistance from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, many of these groups are carrying out cross-border attacks in Afghanistan in pursuit of a bewildering array of strategies and objectives. Officers at the Bagram headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, who run RC-East from the site of one of Alexander the Great's base camps, have taken to speaking of an insurgent 'syndicate.' Their charts draw numerous intersecting lines between nine different groups which alternately compete and cooperate with one another.
The most famous of these is al Qaeda, but its strongholds are located in Pakistan, and it does not play a leading role in Afghanistan. The other groups are often colloquially referred to as the Taliban, but this catch-all phrase hardly does justice to--and can actually distort understanding of--a complex, multifaceted insurgency. The Taliban proper under the direction of Mullah Mohammad Omar ('One-Eye') are based in the city of Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, and their activities are largely confined to southern Afghanistan.
Other prominent insurgent groups include (bear with us) the Haqqani Network run by former mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin; the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), a party led by another former mujahedeen commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the Hezb-e Islami Khalisa, a breakaway faction of the Hezb-e Islami founded by the late Mohammad Yunus Khalis; the Tehrik-e Nefaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM), a group that is especially powerful in the Swat Valley and is run by Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of founder Sufi Muhammad; the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), commonly known as the Pakistan Taliban, who are headed by the notorious Baitullah Mehsud; the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Punjab-based terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai attacks as well as numerous attacks in Kashmir; and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was founded by a former Uzbek paratrooper, the late Jumaboi Khojayev, who was radicalized while fighting with the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The IMU has a pan-Central Asian focus, the TTP and TNSM are focused primarily on Pakistan, the LeT has a regional and even, increasingly, a global focus, while the Taliban and HiG are interested in taking over Afghanistan, and the Haqqani Network and HiK are thought to be primarily focused on seizing their traditional powerbases in eastern Afghanistan.
What unites these groups beyond a shared antipathy to the modern world, a propensity for violence, and a devotion to extremist forms of Islam? Some central direction is provided by three shuras or councils sitting in the western Pakistani cities of Quetta, Miram Shah, and Peshawar. (Baitullah Mehsud's TTP has its own shura in South Waziristan.) Connections with the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency also link most of these groups together. But the shuras provide only broad direction. Individual groups and subgroups act with considerable autonomy. That is a big advantage for the government of Afghanistan and its allies, since there is no Ho Chi Minh or Mao Zedong to knit together a far-flung insurgency into a cohesive movement.
Even without much central direction, however, these insurgent groups have been pursuing a loose-knit strategy whose contours are faintly discernible to ISAF. Some of the southern Taliban are pushing toward Kandahar, the central city of southern Afghanistan and a traditional Taliban stronghold. The northern groups are pushing toward Kabul. They are concentrating attacks on coalition and Afghan security forces in the countryside, hoping to drive them into the major cities and besiege them there. Eventually they hope to inflict enough pain on the coalition to force public opinion in Europe and North America to demand a withdrawal. Once the coalition is gone, they figure the government of Afghanistan will fall like rotten fruit.
In the meantime, to exert control of rural areas, they seek to intimidate anyone who dares to cooperate with the infidel 'occupiers.' The insurgents often post threatening 'night letters' warning those who work with the foreigners and sometimes follow up by beheading supposed collaborators. Through such actions they have created a feeling of insecurity even in areas of Afghanistan where the objective levels of violence are not that high.
Unlike in Iraq, the insurgents in Afghanistan are not indiscriminately slaughtering the civilian population. Some are making greater use of suicide bombers, but their targets are largely the Afghan National Security Forces, coalition forces, and government officials. Such attacks, however, can all too easily go wrong. We visited a district center, in the Mandozai District of Khost Province, that had been hit on December 28. Guards prevented a suicide bomber driving a car from entering the compound, so he blew himself up at the gate, killing 14 children and 2 adults. The rubble is still visible.
Whereas Iraqi insurgents might have reveled in such violence, their Afghan counterparts are more sensitive to the need to cultivate public opinion. They prefer for the coalition to kill civilians--something they make much more likely by hiding among civilians. The insurgents have made skillful use of collateral damage inflicted by the coalition, especially in air raids and what are known as 'night raids' when Special Operations Forces swoop down on insurgents' homes after dark. The guerrillas have done a brilliant job of trumpeting civilian casualties--usually exaggerated, sometimes invented--to accuse the coalition of brutality. Wittingly or not, President Hamid Karzai has helped the enemy by harping on coalition-caused casualties while all but ignoring in his public pronouncements mention of the far greater number of deaths inflicted by the guerrillas. Numerous coalition commanders complained to us that, as one of them put it, 'we are getting our ass whupped in the information war.'
As a first step in regaining the initiative, the coalition would be well advised to limit or adjust the tactics of the notorious 'night raids.' These operations should be more closely coordinated with village elders and Afghan security forces both before and after the 'kinetic' phase. (Elders at the Mandozai shura complained to us that such coordination is often lacking.) Otherwise, Special Operations units risk creating more enemies than they take off the battlefield.
When it comes to operations against coalition forces, the insurgents, like their Iraqi counterparts, rely primarily on improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The number set off increased from 2,569 in 2007 to 3,742 in 2008. The bombs employed in Afghanistan are, however, less sophisticated than in Iraq. So far Explosively Formed Penetrators, the armor-piercing munitions that Iran shipped to Iraqi terrorists, have not made an appearance in Afghanistan. So coalition troops have a fair degree of protection as long as they stay in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, 2,000 of which have been shipped to Afghanistan. Of course, sufficient quantities of explosives can penetrate any armor in the world, and some MRAPs have suffered terrible damage.
While not as sophisticated as Iraqi terrorists in the dark arts of the IED, Afghan insurgents are rated more proficient in light infantry tactics thanks to the training they have received in Pakistan. 'This is a capable opponent,' says Brigadier General Mark Milley, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Insurgents most often operate in groups of 5 to 15 but sometimes they can mass several hundred fighters. When they get into firefights, they sometimes draw close enough to use their weapons effectively, and they have shown the ability to fire and maneuver in squad-, platoon-, and even company-sized formations. 'We used to see sporadic RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] fire several years ago. This past year we have seen RPG volley fire,' Milley says. Often the insurgents will fight to the death, but they have a crude system of 'medevac,' with stretcher bearers organized to take casualties off the battlefield on foot.
In the east, the insurgents are helped immeasurably by the terrain--some of the world's tallest mountains split up the population into numerous small valleys that are cut off from one another, much less from the outside world. It has always been hard to establish any degree of central control in mountainous terrain from the Caucasus to Colombia, and Afghanistan is no exception. 'This is perfect guerrilla country,' Milley remarked as we flew with him in a Black Hawk helicopter over the snowy Hindu Kush.
In an attempt to control insurgent movements across a porous border, U.S. forces have established a number of small combat outposts in the hinterlands. Some are beyond the reach of Afghanistan's primitive road network and are dubbed 'air centric' because they can be supplied only from the air. Unfortunately some of these remote positions are so small that the troops inside have to devote most of their resources to defending themselves, and they have scant capability to project much combat power 'outside the wire.' Each has become, in military slang, a 'self-licking ice cream cone.' Some American units are in the process of pulling back some of those isolated bases and consolidating most of their troops into at least company-sized detachments (100 or more soldiers), the smallest number they believe can maneuver and safely sustain themselves in this dangerous environment. In Iraq, practicing the classic counterinsurgency tactic of positioning the troops among the population required taking them off giant Forward Operating Bases and putting them into smaller bases. In Afghanistan it may require slightly bigger bases, though still considerably smaller than mega-FOBs like Baghdad's Camp Victory, with its tens of thousands of inhabitants.
One should not exaggerate the combat prowess of the insurgents. Occasionally, it is true, they are able to catch a coalition unit off guard and inflict considerable casualties. Two such incidents occurred last year in RC-East when a newly arrived French detachment suffered nine killed in action and when a new, still-unfinished American outpost was hit so heavily that nine American soldiers were killed. But such incidents are the exception, not the rule. Most insurgent attacks inflict no casualties on coalition forces and result in devastating losses for the attackers when coalition troops call in air or artillery strikes. The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are less well armed and trained and so suffer more heavily, but the ANA, at least, has shown itself superior to the enemy in every major firefight. By coming out to fight in the open (which they do much more often than their Iraqi counterparts), insurgents actually play to the strengths of American troops and their allies.
More effective from the enemy standpoint have been attacks on coalition lines of communication. The Pakistan Taliban have been attacking private trucks hired to lug supplies from the port of Karachi, Pakistan, into Afghanistan. Their Afghan counterparts have also been mining roads and blowing up culverts and bridges, replicating tactics that the mujahedeen once used against the Red Army. The Russians have contributed to the coalition's difficulties by pressuring Kyrgyzstan to close the U.S. air base at Manas, which is a primary hub for aerial tankers supporting coalition aircraft as well as a transit point for troops flying in and out of Afghanistan.
Given the hyperbolic reporting on these supply woes, when we arrived we half expected to find troops cowering in unheated hovels without sufficient bullets to fire, fuel to move, or food to fill their bellies. Nothing could be further from the truth. U.S. forces in Afghanistan appear to be as well supplied as their counterparts in Iraq. Certainly there is no dearth of fresh eggs, cakes, ice cream, and other chow in the dining facilities we visited. The cappuccino is still flowing at numerous Green Beans coffee houses. At the main base in Kandahar, troops can eat at Pizza Hut, Subway, or the Canadian doughnut outlet Tim Horton's while surfing the Internet via Wi-Fi.
It turns out that the materiel flowing through Pakistan, which is the most vulnerable to interdiction, is mostly not critical to the coalition mission. Much of it is lower-priority goods such as building supplies to expand bases and Humvees to equip the Afghan Army. The most important stuff--everything from weapons and bullets to communications gear and MRAPs--is airlifted in. The coalition still gets 30 percent of its fuel through Pakistan, but 70 percent now comes via an alternative route running south from Turkmenistan. Senior commanders are now figuring out how to rejigger lines of communication to cope with potential disruptions. But supply difficulties are hardly a critical impediment to the coalition's future success, except insofar as they divert troops into endless highway patrols and thus fail to secure the most critical population centers.
Contrary to the gloomy impression prevalent back home, commanders on the ground expressed confidence that they would be able to beat back the insurgency with the additional U.S. troops now flowing in. The 38,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan will be joined by 17,000 more by this summer thanks to reinforcements wisely authorized by President Obama, and more may be coming later. One Brigade Combat Team, part of an earlier reinforcement authorized by President Bush, had just arrived in RC-East when we were visiting. With the addition of Polish and French forces-which come without any of the caveats that have hindered the effectiveness of most other NATO contingents--RC-East has seen a considerable boost in troop strength. Just a few weeks ago, Wardak and Logar provinces south of Kabul were garrisoned by only 400 U.S. troops. Now they will have more than 4,000, an entire brigade, and the two existing U.S. brigades in RC-East will be able to shrink their area of operations considerably, thus concentrating more troops in less 'battlespace.'
The transformation will be even more dramatic in RC-South, which General David McKiernan, the ISAF commander, currently describes as a 'stalemate.' An officer in the south told us, 'We've said we're doing counterinsurgency in the south but we've never resourced it.' That is about to change. This region will receive almost all of the 17,000 additional U.S. troops, including a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and an Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team, to reinforce the existing force of just 3,300 Americans. (There are also 20,000 other troops in RC-South from 16 nations, the biggest contingents being 8,200 Brits, 3,500 Canadians, 2,100 Dutch, and 1,050 Australians.) Beyond this ground combat power, there will be a major increase in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and a doubling of rotary airpower with the arrival of a whole new U.S. Army Combat Aviation Brigade to supplement the one already in Afghanistan.
This represents a significant change in the correlation of forces on the battlefield, and coalition commanders expect that it will allow them to take the fight to the enemy in ways that were impossible before. Their goal is to conduct 'shape, clear, hold, and build' operations in conjunction with Afghan allies. Their expectation is that the insurgents will violently contest their efforts, resulting in an increase in attacks and casualties during the summer fighting season. But coalition commanders are fully confident that before long, perhaps by the fall, insurgents will have taken a licking, forcing them to retreat. As one American officer put it to us, 'An awful lot of bad guys are going to get killed in the next four to six months.' They recall what happened last year in Garmsir District in Helmand Province, when the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in the spring. The 2,500 Marines faced a hard fight for a month, but gradually they drove out the enemy, allowing bazaars to reopen, shuras to be conducted, and development assistance to flow.
As coalition troops make progress this summer in RC-South, focusing in particular in Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul provinces, there is a danger that they may wind up pushing some of the insurgents farther west into Nimroz, Farah, and Herat provinces, where there are currently very few coalition troops. We traveled across Farah province and discovered a vast, ungoverned desert that just happens to be on the border with Iran. Published reports suggest that Iran's Quds Force is providing training and supplies to some of the insurgents inside Afghanistan. To avoid the risk that upcoming operations will destabilize western Afghanistan, it is imperative to put more U.S. troops into those areas as well, something that probably cannot be done before 2010. Even if 2 or 3 American brigades are dispatched to RC-West to go with the 7 likely to be in Afghanistan by the end of the year (2 of them on a training mission), that will still result in only 9 or 10 brigade combat teams (45,000 to 55,00 troops, plus enablers) in the country, fewer than half the 22 in Iraq at the height of the surge.
It is not, of course, anyone's intention that foreign forces carry the bulk of the fight in Afghanistan indefinitely. And they won't have to. The Afghan National Army has already established itself as the most trusted indigenous institution in the entire country. This ethnically balanced force has performed capably and bravely in battles too numerous to count. It has taken heavy losses, but it has not suffered heavy desertions. 'The enemy cannot fight us face to face,' Brigadier General Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of the ANA's 205th Corps based in Kandahar, told us proudly.
The problem is that the ANA is still far too small, numbering only 80,000 soldiers. The Afghan National Police, which is less effective and more corrupt, has another 70,000 personnel. That's 150,000 security personnel for a country of 30 million. By way of comparison, Iraq, which has a smaller population, has more than 500,000 men in its army and police forces. The current plan to expand the ANA--it is supposed to reach 134,000 men by the end of 2011--is completely inadequate to the size of the challenge. Since the government of Afghanistan lacks the money and resources to do the job itself, the United States and its allies will have to fund and support a much larger (and, if possible, much faster) expansion of the Afghan National Security Forces. We should immediately commit to the goal of a 250,000-strong ANA. Afghan troops also need better equipment--everything from armored vehicles and helicopters to night-vision devices--and they need it as soon as possible.
U.S. commanders plan to meet the needs of the growing Afghan forces by sending an entire brigade of the 82nd Airborne to Afghanistan to focus on the training mission. The tentative plan is to break up this force into embedded training teams. Trainers we spoke with, although desperate for reinforcements, expressed grave reservations about this scheme. The problem is that there are not enough senior officers and noncommissioned officers in a regular brigade to provide seasoned mentors for Afghan military leaders who have been fighting for decades. A veteran Afghan colonel is not likely to pay much heed to the pronouncements of a fresh-faced American captain who has never commanded a unit in battle. This is a society that values gray hair, and the U.S. armed forces will have to dig deep to provide the senior mentors necessary. This will be a painful process, but it will pay major dividends: It is much cheaper (in both dollars and lives) to stand up Afghan forces than to send more American combat troops into harm's way.
Since it will take years to create larger, more effective security forces, coalition officials are understandably looking for short cuts. Much hope is invested in a new program to create an Afghan Public Protection Force. Starting with a trial program in Wardak Province, the idea is to ask local leaders to select young men who will receive a few weeks of training and then will be sent back to their communities to act as a police auxiliary, protecting villages against insurgents. American officials stress that this is not meant to be a new tribal militia of the kind that has plagued Afghanistan in the past. The new force, they say, will be fully accountable to the interior ministry and to local police chiefs. If successful, the Afghan Public Protection Force could fill an important need--but that's a big if, since similar programs have foundered in the past.
No one claims that force alone can defeat the insurgents (General Petraeus recently told Time magazine that 'you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency'), but clearly a greater level of security in the east and south is essential for progress on political, social, or economic development. In that regard one of the biggest problems cited by Afghans is the corruption of their own government. The symbol of this problem is Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai, who is the head of the Kandahar Provincial Council and the most powerful man in this crucial southern province. Numerous reports link him to the drug trade, although no definitive evidence has ever been made public and he has denied the charges. Nevertheless there is a widespread impression that the president's brother is involved in narco-trafficking and that the president is running protection for him. Numerous other, lower-profile government officials (including a number of governors) are said to be connected with the illicit narcotics trade, which is Afghanistan's leading industry.
The drug business, centered in the southern provinces (Helmand is the biggest producer, but Farah is catching up), produces 90 percent of the world's opium, worth an estimated $4 billion a year. Of that total, the United Nations estimates $500 million goes into the hands of the insurgents, who provide protection for the narco-traffickers and collect taxes from poppy farmers. That makes the drug trade a major concern for the coalition. Yet NATO's mandate does not allow coalition troops to target the drug lords directly. That is a job reserved for Afghanistan's counternarcotics forces, which are advised by DynCorp contractors paid by the U.S. State Department, and which work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other law-enforcement agencies. But ISAF forces are starting to get into the anti-drug fight because the poppy-eradication forces are protected by Afghan Army troops who have with them embedded American advisers. When these forces are attacked on anti-drug missions, they can call in coalition support including quick-reaction forces, medevac, and airstrikes.
It makes sense for ISAF troops to take on the corrosive drug trade, which funds the insurgency and undermines governmental legitimacy, but doing it through this backdoor route carries a heavy cost in inefficiency. As things now stand, counter-drug efforts are poorly integrated with a larger counterinsurgency strategy in the south.
Developing such a strategy has been, to put it mildly, challenging given the competing demands of 41 countries that are represented in ISAF. Few of them will even admit that they are fighting a 'war,' a word that is not used in NATO's plans. Some of the foreign contingents--notably the British, Australians, Canadians, and French--are willing to fight, take risks, and suffer losses, but many others refuse to leave their bases. Even those troops who are willing to engage in combat are not well integrated with the overall effort. The British and Canadians, for example, operate in national task forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, respectively, and like other coalition units they have to check with their home governments before they can undertake certain missions.
Trying to bring some coherence to this unwieldy coalition is General McKiernan, an American four-star who is commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan as well as ISAF. (Almost all American forces are now under ISAF authority, the notable exceptions being a small number of Special Operations Forces and a larger number of trainers embedded with Afghan Army and police forces.)
McKiernan's task is made considerably more difficult by the polyglot nature of ISAF's headquarters in Kabul and Kandahar, which are designed to maximize coalition representation rather than military effectiveness. In the U.S. military, headquarters staff will train together for a year before deploying into a combat zone. In ISAF, headquarters staffs from many different nations assemble only a few weeks before heading to Afghanistan. Making the problem worse, while most Americans stay in Afghanistan for at least a year, most other NATO soldiers are on four- to six-month rotations, making it almost impossible to achieve any coherence or continuity. Even NATO officers privately admit that the resulting arrangement is, as one of them put it, 'partially dysfunctional.' Their American counterparts are more scathing. 'You couldn't pay someone to come up with a more screwed-up structure than we have here,' one colonel in Kabul told us. Yet as long as the top concern is to keep the coalition together, making significant changes involves a diplomatic nightmare.
The essential problem is that in Afghanistan there is nothing resembling the smooth-functioning arrangements that were in place in Iraq by 2007, with Multi-national Forces-Iraq under Petraeus overseeing the strategic framework, Multi-National Corps-Iraq under Lieutenant General Ray Odierno running day to day operations, and both in turn cooperating closely with the U.S. embassy led by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who had control of most civilian development efforts. There is no Odierno equivalent in Afghanistan since there is no corps headquarters. McKiernan has to act as both Petraeus and Odierno, while also dealing with tasks neither man faced in herding 41 coalition countries and a multitude of international organizations.
Some possible improvements in these schizophrenic command and control arrangements have been discussed, including creating a new corps headquarters in Kabul and an American division headquarters in RC-South. (There is already an American division headquarters in RC-East.) The problem is that it would be diplomatically difficult to make a corps headquarters or a division headquarters a purely American affair, and if it were another ISAF affair, it would likely prove more hindrance than help. As a result General McKiernan is implementing some clever work-arounds. To boost the effectiveness of ISAF, he has increased the number of American officers on its staff and created an entirely new command, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, whose job is, in part, to bolster the ISAF staff. As for the south, he has asked the British military, which is due to take command of the region in the fall, to send an existing division headquarters that has trained together for a full year rather than the usual coalition pick-up team.
Only time will tell whether these patches can fix the deep difficulties in ISAF's command structure. But at some point the United States will have to decide what price it is willing to pay for keeping all of the ISAF contributors happy, most of whom send contingents so small or so heavily limited by caveats that they contribute little or nothing to the success of the mission. A smaller coalition could actually be more effective. Thus the United States should not be afraid to make decisions that might lead some of the more faint-hearted contributors to pull out.
One of the top areas that needs to be addressed is the inability of ISAF forces under their NATO mandate to hold prisoners for more than 96 hours. This is driven by distaste among the Europeans and Canadians for getting involved in detention operations with their whiff of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. But the result is that it is self-defeatingly difficult to take enemy fighters off the battlefield. Detainees turned over to Afghan forces are liable to be released because the Afghan legal system has scant ability to process or hold insurgents. Those released include 37 of 41 detainees returned to Afghanistan from Guantánamo. Many of them are believed to have returned to fighting coalition forces. This 'catch and release' pattern not only undermines the morale of coalition and Afghan forces but also jeopardizes the willingness of villagers to cooperate with the coalition, because they know that terrorists they turn in could be back to wreak vengeance within weeks. 'We catch IED facilitators and release them,' one American officer in RC-South told us. 'We hope and pray they don't come back to hit our guys.'
The small number of U.S. forces still outside the NATO mandate do have the right to take prisoners, but they are holding only 620 detainees at the Theater Internment Facility located at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. Another 350 suspected insurgents are housed at the Afghan National Detention Facility, a wing at the Pul-e-Charkhi prison that has been built and supervised by American personnel but is operated by Afghans. By way of comparison, at the height of the surge in Iraq, U.S. forces were detaining 24,000 people. And no one suggests that Afghanistan's insurgents are 24 times fewer than Iraq's. Although counting the enemy is an inexact science in any counterinsurgency, the estimates we heard suggest that there are at least as many enemy fighters in Afghanistan as in Iraq. Some will be killed and others may be co-opted, but it will be hard to pacify the country until more of these terrorists are locked up.
For the long term, that will require putting more efforts into bolstering the rule of law in Afghanistan-building prisons and courts and training judges, lawyers, and prison guards. That is something that has not received nearly the priority it deserved, and it has created an opening for the Taliban who operate sharia courts to settle disputes that ought to be settled by tribal elders or government courts. But even with more resources being poured into this area, it will take years to build sufficient judicial capacity. In the meantime, defeating the insurgency will require the United States to expand its own detention facilities. (The Bagram facility is already being renovated to handle 1,200 prisoners by the fall, but there is room there to build cells for as many as 3,000 more.) Just as important, it will require the United States to push its allies to allow ISAF forces to detain terrorism suspects. Even if our allies balk at this (as most surely will), U.S. commanders should give U.S. troops wider detention authority than they currently enjoy under their NATO mandate.
Even under the best of circumstances, the coalition will face a long, difficult fight in Afghanistan. But it is hardly a mission impossible. It is not even as difficult as the war in Iraq, where the insurgents were better organized and more deadly. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that bringing a measure of stability to Afghanistan will require considerable expenditure of blood and treasure over a number of years. Is it worth it?
Those who answer in the negative point out that Afghanistan no longer hosts substantial concentrations of al Qaeda. They argue that it is these international terrorists who should be of concern to the United States and that we shouldn't waste our resources fighting the Taliban and assorted other local malefactors. It is true that today there are more al Qaeda fighters, to say nothing of leaders, in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. But the most effective steps we can take to target them, using Predators and other assets, are made possible by the coalition troop presence in Afghanistan. If coalition forces pull out of Afghanistan or substantially reduce their presence, the already limited willingness of the government of Pakistan to cooperate with the United States will evaporate. Pakistan will see that the Taliban are heading toward victory and will cut deals with them-something that is already happening but will accelerate if U.S. forces are seen as being on the way out.
A victory for the insurgents in Afghanistan would have baleful consequences on many levels. It would, first of all, be a major morale-boost to the terrorists and a devastating blow to American prestige and credibility. The mujahedeen victory over the Red Army led to the rise of al Qaeda and hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There is no doubt that al Qaeda would trumpet an insurgent victory in Afghanistan today as the defeat of another superpower by the jihadists. An insurgent victory would also surely lead to the establishment of major terrorist base camps in Afghanistan of the kind that existed prior to September 11, 2001. Finally, an insurgent victory in Afghanistan would significantly undermine the government in Pakistan. Many of the groups fighting in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan are as eager to topple the government in Islamabad as the one in Kabul, and victory on one side of the border would accelerate their efforts on the other side. Conversely, if the coalition could stabilize Afghanistan, that would provide a major boost to the government of Pakistan in its efforts to police its frontier districts.
Those who say that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan have it backwards. We cannot begin to improve the situation in Pakistan without improving Afghanistan, and it is possible to do that no matter what happens in Pakistan because, for all the cross-border support it receives, the Afghan insurgency remains largely home-grown.
While the United States is in Afghanistan to battle terrorism, it cannot define its mission in narrow 'counter-terrorism' terms. That is a term of art within the military for commando strikes carried out by Special Operations and CIA forces backed by precision airpower. Such strikes have to be an integral part of the American war effort, but they cannot be its sum total. We have been pursuing such actions for years in Afghanistan without significantly weakening the insurgency. As one senior American officer told us, 'I thought we could decapitate the insurgency. I was wrong. We've gone through 22 HVTs [high value targets] in this province, but they nominate someone new to take over leadership very fast. The duration of our success is no more than three to four weeks before the insurgents have a new leader, and often that person is younger and more brutal. Even if someone killed Baitullah Mehsud [head of the Pakistan Taliban], someone else will simply take over.'
Experience in Iraq showed that the only effective way to deny terrorists sanctuary is to pursue a full-spectrum counterinsurgency strategy that establishes governmental control of contested areas. That means putting coalition and local security forces into villages where they can gain the trust of the locals and thereby secure the intelligence needed to root out terrorists. Otherwise, if coalition forces are only a fleeting presence, locals will never rat out the terrorists for fear of retribution. The security 'line of operations' has to be coupled with efforts to promote better governance and economic and social development.
Those who claim that this is a fool's errand because Afghanistan has never had any effective governance only reveal their own ignorance of that country's long and proud history. For all its tribalism and internecine warfare, Afghanistan has been an independent country since the 18th century, with such strong monarchs as Dost Mohammad, who drove out a British incursion in 1842 and ruled for 33 years. Under King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, Afghanistan made considerable economic and political progress, including the adoption of a fairly democratic written constitution. It was relatively peaceful and stable before a Marxist coup in 1978 set off a long period of war and turmoil whose most consequential events were the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Soviets' departure in 1989, and the rise of the Taliban starting in 1994.
In seeking to repair Afghanistan's tattered social fabric, the coalition will have to foster the growth of representative government, which is hardly an alien import but rather comports neatly with Afghanistan's long tradition of tribal councils that rely on the consent of the community. That doesn't mean that the coalition should foster a rigidly centralized regime. In fact, a bit more decentralization could be a spur to progress. In particular, it is important to change the constitution to allow governors to be elected rather than appointed by the president in order to make them more accountable to those they are supposed to serve.
But the West would be making a big mistake if it were to give up on supporting the governmental system that it helped to midwife in 2002. That doesn't necessarily mean supporting Hamid Karzai--but neither does it mean pushing him out. Officials in the Obama administration, from Vice President Biden on down, have been publicly trashing the president of Afghanistan without grooming a viable alternative. This will only make our task more difficult if Karzai is reelected in the presidential election scheduled to be held in August. It is important to respect the wishes of the Afghan people, as expressed at the ballot box, while working to bolster the effectiveness of their anemic governmental institutions.
The greatest asset that the United States and its allies have in the battle for Afghanistan's future is the people of Afghanistan. In a recent poll conducted by ABC, the BBC, and ARD, only 4 percent of Afghans expressed a desire to be ruled by the Taliban. Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq enjoyed far higher levels of popular support in their respective communities at the height of the violence. For all their ferocity and cunning, the insurgents in Afghanistan do not offer a viable alternative that can win widespread acceptance. They can only take power if coalition forces give up the fight. To do so would hand Islamist terrorists their most significant-indeed, almost their only-victory since 9/11. It is fully in the power of coalition forces to prevent that dire outcome, but only if they have the popular support back home to finish what we started in 2001.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (forthcoming). He is grateful to Daniel Barnard for assistance with this article. Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War and the author of The Surge: A Military History.