Tag: kabul

Attack on U.S. Embassy Highlights Need to Exit Afghanistan

Political leaders and military commanders will dismiss the Taliban’s recent coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul as a “one-off” incident. But the attack is a vivid reminder of how poorly things are going, and why America needs to leave.

By every measure, violence is higher than ever. The coalition and civilian casualty rate for this year is on pace to break the record for last year, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2009, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2008. Spiraling violence came after significant increases in troops and resources. Defiant optimists have claimed that with more troops comes more combat and naturally, more casualties. But to accept that things will get worse before they get better is also a slippery slope: never giving up, no matter the cost, discourages a dispassionate assessment of whether a continued investment is justified. In turn, the longer we stay and the more money we spend, the more we feel compelled to remain to validate our investment. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom, as expressed by President Obama in March 2009, is that “If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban…that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” We are also told that if America and its allies fail to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will collapse and its nuclear weapons will fall to the Taliban.

These claims of falling dominoes are all wrong.

First, if Afghanistan were to fall to the Taliban, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow. Besides, targeted counterterrorism measures would be sufficient in the unlikely event that the Taliban were to provide shelter to al Qaeda. Moreover, to declare that Afghanistan can never again be a base for terrorists justifies indefinite war, which does less to serve the American public and more to benefit the private industries that profit from conflict and nation-building. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent, and over 1,600 American lives lost, the United States can still be attacked by terrorists. This creates a humiliating situation in which our Afghanistan policy weakens the U.S. militarily and economically and fails to advance its vital national interests.

Second, an endless war of whack-a-mole does far more to inspire terrorists “to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” In this respect, our political leaders seem to have learned little from 9/11. The unintended consequence of U.S. intervention and meddling is that it serves as a radicalizing impetus. Regardless of what percentage of the Afghan population wants us to rebuild their country, our presence, however noble our intentions, can serve as both a method to combat insurgents and as the insurgents’ most effective recruiting tool. Aside from that “mobilizing militants” dilemma, our elimination of Taliban figures (including shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators) may very well weaken the Taliban’s chain of command, but it hasn’t resulted in a decrease of Taliban activity. Indeed, the use of IEDs has reached record highs. Worse, the insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer, with stabilization and reconstruction money often being diverted to insurgents to pay them to ensure security. Of course, they then use U.S. taxpayer money to buy bombs and explosives to kill American troops and Afghan civilians.

Finally, U.S. officials are playing with fire if they think these conditions help strengthen neighboring Pakistan. Certainly, Rawalpindi’s self-defeating support of Islamist proxies has not done its country any favors—but neither has the coalition’s presence next door. Continuing to stay the course in Afghanistan inspires the worst strategic tendencies among Pakistani military planners. It also encourages militants to attack NATO supply vehicles entering Afghanistan (nothing new), and has inadvertently contributed to the very instability that leaders in Washington ostensibly seek to forestall. As Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, and current developments are doing more to push militants from Pakistan’s rural hinterland and into its major cities. Lastly, despite Washington’s nuclear obsessions, a large-scale foreign troop presence in Afghanistan does not resolve the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. In fact, Pakistan has been accelerating its production of nuclear material for bombs and their ability to delivery them over the past several years.

In the end, the current scale and scope of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan (over 100,000 troops and $120 billion per year from the U.S. alone) stems from overstated fears about what will follow if we fail. Luckily, America and its allies do not have to build a legitimate and stable Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. Al Qaeda is a manageable threat, and a conventional, definitive “victory” against them was never possible. Rather than drawing out our withdrawal and fighting an insurgency on behalf of an incompetent and illegitimate puppet regime in Kabul, American leaders should declare “mission accomplished.”

Afghanistan: Complicated, Confusing, and Tragic

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have been interviewing a range of people in Afghanistan’s capital.  Getting around isn’t easy.  The traffic is horrendous: automobile ownership has grown on roads built for a different era.  Street upkeep is not one of the city government’s strong suits.  Police checkpoints and traffic barriers dot Kabul.

Arriving at your destination is merely the start.  Military bases, government ministries, Western embassies, luxury hotels, and large businesses are fortified with tall walls, barbed wire, concrete barriers, reinforced gates, and guard posts.  Armed personnel man entrances and patrol grounds. 

As so often is the case, it quickly becomes evident on the ground that foreign conflicts are far more complicated than commonly advertised.  Afghanistan is a diverse and complex land.  Parts of it are stable and peaceful.  Ethnic and tribal divisions run deep, but vary around the country.  Although rural illiteracy is high, many urban Afghans are as educated and sophisticated as the Westerners who have flocked to Kabul.  And most everyone evinces a desperate desire for peace and security.

An overwhelming sense of tragedy hangs over this beautiful land.  The evidence of war and instability is everywhere.  The old royal palace still stands, abandoned and wrecked years ago.  The casualties of endless conflict are visible—adults and children hobbling along on only one leg, legless beggars by the road.  “Poppy palaces,” many constructed with drug money, continue to rise while the streets teem with people struggling to find work.  Afghan women covered by burqas walking outside of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol to foreigners.  Westerners abound, fighting the war, running NGOs, advising government ministries, and otherwise attempting to re-engineer Afghan society.

Individual stories remind us how blessed we are to live in America.  As frustrated as we might grow with U.S. government policy, we live in a nation that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, stable, and still relatively free.  One 27-year-old Afghan, who currently works for a government ministry, told us about how his family decided to flee Kabul after his neighborhood was bombarded as the city was being fought over by various mujahedeen factions.  They returned home from Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban; now he worries about the future.

The overwhelming message that we have heard so far is that the Afghan government is incompetent and corrupt; as such, it is a poor partner to Western nations seeking to create a functioning state.  Moreover, Western nations, and especially the U.S., are commonly unrealistic in their assumptions, objectives, and tactics.  We have yet to encounter many optimists about allied policy.

Although many foreigners of good intentions are working in Kabul, the flood of money to consultants and NGOs is often wasted or misspent.  Afghans themselves have grown cynical after decades of war; many focus on the short-term and are happy to manipulate Western aid agencies and militaries alike.  At the same time, those who have come forward to idealistically work for a better future are vulnerable and worry about the consequences of an allied retreat.

Every conversation makes it more evident how little we know and hard it is to understand this complex society and conflict.  Malou and I don’t expect our time here to turn us into experts.  But we do hope that we will learn enough to better participate in the Washington debate over U.S. and allied policy towards Afghanistan.

Matthew Hoh: A Great American Patriot

HohFormer Marine captain Matthew Hoh became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. His letter of resignation echoes some arguments I have made earlier this year, namely, that what we are witnessing is a local and regional ethnic Pashtun population fighting against what they perceive to be a foreign occupation of their region; that our current strategy does not answer why and to what end we are pursuing  this war; and that Afghanistan holds little intrinsic strategic value to the security of the United States.

In his own words:

The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified….I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategy message of the Pashtun insurgency.

Click here to read the entire letter.

So, what’s the situations like now? Afghanistan’s second-round presidential elections scheduled for early November will do little to change realities on the ground. Counterinsurgency–the U.S. military’s present strategy–requires a legitimate host nation government, which we will not see for the foreseeable future regardless of who’s president.

What’s the political strategy? President Obama has painted himself into a rhetorical corner. He’s called Afghanistan the “necessary war,” even though stabilizing Afghanistan is not a precondition for keeping America safe. We must remember that al Qaeda is a global network, so in the unlikely event that America did bring security to Afghanistan, al Qaeda could reposition its presence into other regions of the world.

Should we stay or should we go? The United States must begin to narrow its objectives. If we begin to broaden the number of enemies to include indigenous insurgent groups, we could see U.S. troops fighting in perpetuity. The president has surged once into the region this year. He does not need to do so again.

This is the deadliest month so far, thoughts? Eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan still struggles to survive under the most brutal circumstances: corrupt and ineffective state institutions; thousands of miles of unguarded borders; pervasive illiteracy among a largely rural and decentralized population; a weak president; and a dysfunctional international alliance. As if that weren’t enough, some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have incentives to foment instability there. An infusion of 40,000 more troops, as advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium-term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross-border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.

Exiting the Afghan Quagmire

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, and Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London, discuss in the Financial Times how we can exit the Afghan quagmire:

The west should therefore pursue a political solution, open negotiations with the Taliban and offer a timetable for a phased withdrawal in return for a ceasefire. This should begin with the military pulling out of specific areas in return for Taliban guarantees not to attack western bases and Afghan authorities in those areas. If the Taliban refuses such terms, then military pressure should continue. The point should not be to eliminate the Taliban – which is impossible – but to persuade it to agree to a deal.

Lodhi and Lieven’s argument echoes one that David Axe, Jason Reich, and I made yesterday on ForeignPolicy.com.

… regime change, and democracy, are not necessary for counterterrorism. Propping up President Hamid Karzai’s Western-style government in Kabul does not make operations against al Qaeda any easier or more successful. If anything, it distracts from the conceptually simpler task of finding and killing terrorists. Without U.S. and NATO protection, Karzai’s regime would, sooner or later, probably fall to the Taliban. But U.S. observers should not equate that eventuality with “losing” the war. The war is against terrorists, not Islamist governments. The United States should be prepared to make peace, and amends, with a resurgent Taliban – and to encourage the group to excise its more extreme elements.

I admit talking to the Taliban sounds weird and scary. But my contention is that there is no shortage of Pashtun militants willing to fight against what they perceive to be a foreign occupation of their region. Certainly the Taliban does not enjoy support among the majority of Pashtuns—as Lodhi and Lieven point out—but neither did the IRA in Northern Ireland or the FLN in Algeria. The point is not exclusively about popularity (although that’s a critical component, along with local legitimacy), but the fact that these indigenous groups are willing to fight the United States and NATO indefinitely. Indeed, it is the western military presence that is driving support for the Taliban both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Moreover, the notion that we must protect Pakistan from the Taliban is ludicrous. Pakistan’s intelligence service helped create the Taliban and they continue to protect the Afghan Taliban to keep India at bay. From this point of view, deploying more troops would be irrelevant to the fight against al Qaeda and counterproductive in our attempts to pacify the region. For more on what we should do, check this out.

McChrystal’s Assessment

General-Stanley-McChrysta-001In his review of the war in Afghanistan,  states that “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

I would hope that Congress and the American people hold McChrystal to his “12 month” prediction, because if President Obama sticks to McChrystal’s ambitious strategy, U.S. forces could remain in Central Asia for decades.

McChrystal argues that the U.S. military must devote more effort to interacting with the local population and elevating the importance of governance. How? Does America defeat the Taliban in order to build an Afghan state, or does America build an Afghan state in order to defeat the Taliban? Winning the support of the population through a substantial investment in civilian reconstruction cannot take place without some semblance of stability on the ground. The mission’s multi-disciplinary approach (“an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign”) is understandable, but oftentimes its feasibility is simply assumed.

Unfortunately, the United States has drifted into an amorphous nation building mission with unlimited scope and unlimited duration. Our objective must be narrowed to disrupting al Qaeda. To accomplish that goal, America does not need to transform Afghanistan into a stable, modern, democratic society with a strong central government in Kabul—or forcibly democratize the country, as our current mission would have us do, or as McChrystal states “Elevat[ing] the importance of governance.” These goals cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost in blood and treasure in a reasonable amount of time—let alone the next 12 months.

Growing and improving the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) seems limited and feasible. A focused mission of training the ANSF means America must support, rather than supplant, indigenous security efforts. Training should be tied to clear metrics, such as assessing whether some Afghan units can operate independent of coalition forces and can take the lead in operations against insurgents. Training the ANSF is not a panacea, and I go through its potential problems here in a Cato white paper.

Denying a sanctuary to terrorists who seek to attack the United States does not require Washington to pacify the entire country or sustain a long-term, large-scale military presence in Central Asia. Today, we can target al Qaeda where they do emerge via air strikes and covert raids. The group poses a manageable security problem, not an existential threat to America. Committing still more troops would feed the perception of a foreign occupation, weaken the authority of Afghan leaders, and undermine the U.S.’s ability to deal with security challenges elsewhere in the world.

Sticking Around Afghanistan Forever?

I’ll confess one of the arguments that I’ve never understood is the claim that the U.S. “abandoned” Afghanistan after aiding the Mujahadeen in the latter’s battle against the Soviet Union.  Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently is the latest proponent of this view.

Reports the Washington Post:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast this week that the United States would not repeat the mistake of abandoning Afghanistan, vowing that “both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.”

Just what does he believe we should have done?  Obviously, the Afghans didn’t want us to try to govern them.  Any attempt to impose a regime on them through Kabul would have met the same resistance that defeated the Soviets.  Backing a favored warlord or two would have just involved America in the ensuing conflict. 

Nor would carpet-bombing Afghanistan with dollar bills starting in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew have led to enlightened, liberal Western governance and social transformation.  Humanitarian aid sounds good, but as we’ve (re)discovered recently, building schools doesn’t get you far if there’s little or no security and kids are afraid to attend.  And a half century of foreign experience has demonstrated that recipients almost always take the money and do what they want – principally maintaining power by rewarding friends and punishing enemies.  The likelihood of the U.S doing any better in tribal Afghanistan as its varied peoples shifted from resisting outsiders to fighting each other is a fantasy.

The best thing the U.S. government could do for the long-term is get out of the way.  Washington has eliminated al-Qaeda as an effective transnational terrorist force.  The U.S. should leave nation-building to others, namely the Afghans and Pakistanis.  Only Afghanistan and Pakistan can confront the overwhelming challenges facing both nations.

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.