Tag: Taliban

Washington Keeps Picking Inept Foreign Clients

Yet another U.S. nation-building venture appears to be on the brink of failure.  Earlier this month, Taliban forces overran much of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.  Although government troops eventually retook most of the city, they were able to do so only with substantial assistance from the U.S. combat units still in the country. 

General John Campbell, the U.S. commander, then urged President Obama to delay the planned withdrawal of the remaining 9,800 American troops and to keep a permanent garrison that is much larger than the president’s original plan for 1,000 military personnel, mostly operating out of the U.S. embassy in Kabul.   The president has now unwisely complied with that request, deciding to keep at least 5,500 troops past the original 2016 deadline. As I argue in a new article in the National Interest Online, Afghanistan threatens to become an endless nation-building quagmire for Washington.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has asked the question that occurs to many Americans: why are we still in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the initial invasion in response to the Taliban regime’s decision to shelter al Qaeda?  There is almost no al Qaeda presence in that country any longer, and U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden more than four years ago.  Yet Washington continues to cite an alleged need to prop-up the Kabul government against the Taliban.  Senator Paul is absolutely correct that it is well past time for anti-Taliban Afghans to step up and defend their own country without relying on the United States.

Unfortunately, what is happening in Afghanistan is typical of the results of U.S. foreign policy initiatives over the past half century.  U.S. administrations seem to have a knack for picking corrupt, unmotivated foreign clients who crumble in the face of determined domestic adversaries.  The Obama administration’s fiasco of trying to train a cadre of “moderate” Syrian rebels to counter both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS is only the most recent example.  Despite spending more than $400 million, the scheme produced only a handful of trainees—many of whom defected to ISIS or at least turned over many of their weapons to the terrorist group or to al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. That embarrassing training debacle, now wisely abandoned by the Obama administration, may well set a new record for expensive, ineffectual government boondoggles.

The events in Syria, though, were similar to the earlier fiasco next door in Iraq.  The United States spent a decade training and equipping a new Iraqi army at great expense (more than $25 billion) to American taxpayers. Yet when ISIS launched its offensive last year to capture Mosul and other cities, Iraqi troops seemed intent on setting speed records to flee their positions and let the insurgents take over with barely a struggle.  ISIS captured vast quantities of sophisticated military hardware that Baghdad’s troops abandoned in their haste.

That episode was reminiscent of the pathetic performance of the U.S.-backed ARVN—South Vietnam’s so-called army–in early 1975.  Although the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had waged a bloody war against both South Vietnamese communist insurgents and North Vietnam for more than a decade, which cost over 58,000 American lives, the results were dismal.  President Nixon’s Vietnamization program—training and equipping the ARVN and gradually transferring responsibility for the war effort to the South Vietnamese government–was a total failure.  When North Vietnam launched a major offensive in early 1975, the collapse of the ARVN was shockingly rapid and complete.  Indeed, it occurred so fast that the U.S. embassy in Saigon was barely able to evacuate its diplomatic personnel before North Vietnamese troops captured the city.

These and other incidents confirm that U.S. leaders habitually choose foreign clients that are utterly inept.  They are characterized by thin domestic support, poor organization, and terrible morale.  Their domestic adversaries always seem to be better organized, more competent, and far more dedicated.  Given the extent of the failures in so many different arenas, Washington should realize that lavishing funds on preferred clients cannot make them credible political and military players in their countries.  And continuing to backstop such inept clients with U.S. troops merely wastes American lives.  Unfortunately, it appears that we are on the verge of being taught that lesson yet again—this time in Afghanistan.

Colonel Gian Gentile on the War in Afghanistan

Last Friday, Colonel Gian Gentile, an award-winning historian, associate professor of history, and director of the military history program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, spoke at the Cato Institute about the misapplication of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan for the purpose of destroying al Qaeda. In a new Cato video, conducted with Cato multimedia director Caleb Brown, Colonel Gentile elaborates on America’s narrow aim of defeating al Qaeda. He also explains how that aim can be pursued without a costly, multi-decade, troop-heavy campaign, and puts the application of counterinsurgency doctrine in a historical context.

On a slightly different note, mainly for those readers concerned about leaving the Taliban unmolested, the United States and its coalition allies have come to accept the region’s geopolitical landscape, in which it seems there is no way to avoid the Taliban and other anti-Afghan government forces becoming part of some future political order. Consider this statement by Philip Mudd, the former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and the FBI’s National Security Branch: “On September 12, 2001, can you imagine asking the question: Is the Taliban really a threat? Today, 12 years later, I’d say, well clearly it’s not a threat!”

Food for thought. Check out the video below.

Karzai’s Latest Outrageous Comment

Yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai alleged that the United States and the Taliban are “working in concert to convince Afghans that violence will worsen if most foreign troops leave.” His accusation exposes a strange irony. Karzai not only supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, but also disparages that presence to evade his own failings. 

Since 2001, senior U.S. officials have tethered our military might to the sick man of Central Asia. In 2004, President George W. Bush pledged America’s “ironclad commitment” to help Karzai’s country succeed. In 2010, President Obama made clear that the U.S. role in Afghanistan “is a long-term partnership.” 

President Karzai codified those pledges last May by concluding the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America. Despite his history of hindering U.S.-backed anti-corruption investigations, denouncing the international community, and claiming the U.S. ferried Taliban to the north in order to spread violence, he eagerly signed an Agreement that commits the U.S. government to Afghanistan’s future. It provided for the possibility of a U.S. troop presence until 2024, and a long-term framework for training Afghan security forces and targeting al Qaeda. 

Washington’s devotion to nation building still holds fast despite Karzai’s inability to fulfill its lofty expectations. As former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl W. Eikenberry bluntly warned his superiors in November 2009, Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner.” 

Certainly, the United States is not blameless for Afghanistan’s downward spiral—it took responsibility back in 2001 to rebuild the war-ravaged country and then shifted its attention and resources in 2003 to invade and occupy Iraq. Yet, the endemically corrupt Karzai regime and its band of thugs and cronies are also culpable. 

Ample reporting on Afghan corruption need not be repeated here. More to the point, Karzai fails to appreciate the way in which his poor governance vindicates insurgent propaganda and drives many Afghans to fight. A widespread perception of the central government’s massive corruption delegitimizes the state and inspires the sense of injustice that makes the Taliban appear as an effective alternative. Apart from Karzai himself, Afghan police are notorious for perpetrating crimes they are supposed to be stopping, such as corruption, theft, kidnapping, murder, and child abuse. Meanwhile, the Afghan army, long hailed as the mission’s shining success story, is rife with factionalism and patronage networks that could splinter the institution along political and ethnic lines. Foreign policy planners in Washington overlooked the second- and third-order consequences of their attempts to build a strong central government that wields a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. 

As the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admitted two years ago, “Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.” (Emphasis mine.] 

Perversely, the corruption of the Afghan central government and the failures of the foreign-led nation-building project feed off one another in disturbing symbiosis. The Washington Post hasreported that foreign military and development spending provide roughly 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, fomenting fears that withdrawal will push the Afghan economy into depression. The alternative to popping that foreign aid bubble, some argue, would be to commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of attention, resources, and patience to transform Afghanistan’s deeply divided society into a stable, non-corrupt, electoral democracy. Of course, such success would hardly be guaranteed and assumes we possess the local knowledge as well as the cultural and religious legitimacy to operate indefinitely in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority. 

Over twelve years of nation-building has had little success in creating an economically viable Afghan state, much less a self-sustaining Afghan security force. Indeed, nation building has propped up an erratic and unreliable regime whose behavior feeds the insurgency’s momentum. 

Policymakers must reject the flawed premise on which their policies rest. They must overcome their tendency to overestimate the strategic importance of a small, underdeveloped country to the narrower and more achievable goals of disrupting terrorist networks and preserving U.S. national security.

Obama Floats a Zero Option in Afghanistan

As President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, a flood of recent news reports suggest that the White House is considering a zero option that would leave no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such news is bittersweet.

It appears that top officials have come to realize that America can protect its vital interests without an indefinite residual troop presence. That said, these officials implicitly acknowledge that conflating the fight against terror groups with the creation of viable central governments has failed. America can and should destroy, incapacitate, and punish those that do it harm; but the American military and civilian establishments have had repeated difficulty repairing failed states emerging from civil conflict.

After 10 years and counting, the fragile Afghan government still lacks a central pillar of nation-state sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Reports suggest that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta favors leaving 9,000 U.S. troops behind to combat militants and to train the 350,000-large Afghan Army and police. But according to Washington’s own metric, indigenous security forces, which the U.S. has spent $39 billion to train and equip, have to be effective enough to operate independent of foreign assistance. But reports have found that some coalition forces largely see the Afghan National Army (ANA) as unmotivated, highly dependent, and making little to no progress.

Leaving trainers also assumes that Afghan government forces are effective in gaining the Afghan population’s support. But a Pentagon report from last year found little evidence of that. Afghan government corruption remains rampant and continues to bolster insurgent messaging. Sadly, more resources are unlikely to change the fact that the coalition has no overarching or coherent geopolitical framework to connect military gains with a broader political process that would resolve what drives the insurgency. Absent that, rural Afghans in insular pockets of the country will continue to turn to the Taliban alternative.

A plan to end America’s limited presence is a debate we must have. Committing manpower with no decisive end attaches no conditionality on the performance of either Afghan elites or security forces while leaving U.S. troops exposed to insurgent attack. The lesson to draw from the Afghan mission is not to plunge into a country and dwell for ten years, but to avoid similar futile missions in the future. 

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, I discuss the future of Afghanistan and why it is time once again to rethink our mission:

Why the United States Might Never Leave Afghanistan

In autumn 2001, America’s initial purpose in Afghanistan—which made perfect sense—was to destroy or incapacitate al Qaeda and punish the Taliban government that hosted it. This was accomplished 11 years ago. Today, the purpose of the U.S. mission is ill-defined, but clearly involves nation building. What the coalition desperately needs is an achievable, realistic endgame, not an indefinite timeline that commits thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan until or beyond 2024.

A common argument is that America and its allies must create an effective Afghan state that can rule the country and prevent the return of the Taliban and, by extension, al Qaeda. Aside from the fact that al Qaeda can exist anywhere, from Hamburg to Los Angeles, it’s not at all clear that the coalition can either eradicate the Taliban or come close to creating an effective Afghan state.

As a Department of Defense Report declared earlier this year, “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined with a significant regenerative capacity, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of [improvised explosive devices] and conduct isolated high-profile attacks that disproportionately field a sense of insecurity.”

Arguments that the coalition must eradicate the Taliban lose sight of what the term “insurgency” actually means. Guerillas typically fight when the opportunity is ripe. They can melt easily into a population, making it difficult for conventional troops to distinguish friend from foe. Combined with the Afghan insurgency’s ability to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan, coalition gains can be quickly undone by such systemic factors that make insurgents resilient. Additionally, reporters Dexter Filkins and Kelly Vlahos provide excellent analyses that draw out the ethnic divisions and political factionalism posed by Afghan warlords, many of whom are regrouping and could potentially touch off a civil war in the years ahead.

As for the common contention that America must stay until Afghans can police and govern themselves, the current state of Afghan institutions ensure that it would take a decade or more before coalition forces could withdraw, with little promise of success.

detailed report released last year by the Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. government contracted for dozens of clinics, barracks, hospitals, and other facilities that exceed Afghan funding capabilities. For instance, the $82 million Afghan Defense University will cost $40 million a year to operate, which is well beyond the Afghan government’s financial capacity to sustain, according to DoD officials. Long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the Afghan National Security Forces could continue through 2025. Similar findings were uncovered by auditors at the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The expectation is that the United States will maintain a presence of some 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, while the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan will need $3.9 billion a year through 2024 for economic development. Ironically, when foreign policy planners in Washington make clear that they never intend to abandon Afghanistan, it’s their ambition to create a centralized state that will perpetuate that country’s dependency on foreigners.

Did the Surge End the Chance for Peace in Afghanistan?

As Afghan forces continue to turn their guns on their U.S. partners, so-called “green-on-blue” attacks, the coalition’s patience has reached a breaking point. On Sunday, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insider attacks have become a “very serious threat” to the mission. On Tuesday, NATO issued orders to curb joint training operations on front-line missions temporarily.

With the coalition’s managed transition running into serious problems, it is necessary to question whether Obama’s surge of over 30,000 troops is closer to achieving a core objective: pressuring the Taliban to accept the conditions for reconciliation. I addressed that issue in an article published this week on GlobalPost.com:

The Taliban has always been amorphous and fragmented. But paradoxically, aspects of the surge may have both weakened the movement’s operational leadership and breathed new life into its grassroots fighters.

In their chilling assessment of the conflict, Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn conclude in An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, that the coalition’s kill and capture campaign against mid-level commanders has weakened the leadership’s grip on the chain of command. Some of these higher-ups, however, were more open to peace talks. Younger insurgents opposed to a political settlement are now moving into leadership positions and are increasingly influenced by Al Qaeda’s worldview.

Given the complex nature of Afghan society and politics, forging a power-sharing deal between the insurgency and the Afghan government composed of its enemies was always going to be difficult. But if, as reports suggest, a generation of neo-Taliban are refusing to reconcile, and Taliban higher-ups who are less opposed to peace are having the rug ripped out from under them, then something about the surge went terribly wrong.

In addition, the surge brought a massive uptick from US forces in misdirected firepower, kicked in doors, and controversial incidents of perceived cultural insensitivity, all of which sowed discontent among the population and affirmed the worst insurgent propaganda. The kill and capture campaign in particular was never popular among Afghans.

In other parts of the article, I further address how the makeup of the insurgency is likely to result in less of a chance for reconciliation. I hope I’m wrong. You can read the rest of my article here.

NATO Summit Will Reaffirm Afghanistan’s Weakness

The focus of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago will be Afghanistan. President Obama is expected to speak of the need for solidarity from the international community. His only major success will be a pledge from NATO members to commit funds to Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Difficult questions surrounding the mission’s long-term sustainability will remain unanswered. But any long-term plan for stabilization must put Afghans in the lead. That is the country’s true path to self-sufficiency.

The estimated cost of paying for the 230,000-350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) hovers between $4 billion and $6 billion, annually. The President will seek $1.3 billion from allies, which in an age of austerity will be difficult for NATO partners, leaving the United States to foot much of the bill.

Although it is cheaper to fund Afghan forces than deploy foreign troops, long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the ANSF may continue through 2025. Building security and governance to the point where locals can stand on their own is an indefinite commitment, not an exit strategy.

The real story of the summit is that U.S. and NATO officials plan to extend their financial support to Afghanistan in the face of war-weary publics at home, brazen insurgent attacks in the capital, and a string of scandals involving coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts. Lingering issues that will go unresolved include the quality of the ANSF, the seemingly indefatigable insurgency, and the long-talked-about negotiated peace settlement with extremists and regional powers.

Beyond the cost and size of the security forces, President Obama will also speak of the lofty commitments in the recently signed U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership framework, which include “protecting and promoting shared democratic values” and “social and economic development.” What remains unanswered is what will happen if Afghanistan does not meet these ambitious benchmarks.

What will happen if the fundamental rights and freedoms of women are not protected? What will happen if the 2014 presidential elections are not free and fair? What will happen if security and national unity are not advanced? Does failure void the agreement, and for how long will Afghanistan rely on the United States if we do not see progress? These questions persist as American taxpayers spend $2 billion a week on an unpopular war, and as widespread local corruption and perceptions of social injustice continue to fuel passive support of the insurgency.

The international community’s pledge to never abandon Afghanistan is well-intentioned, especially since Washington was partly responsible for that country’s past and present turmoil. But it is also imperative that the international community not become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch. Afghans desperately seek foreign assistance, but what really matters is the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan’s institutions. Sadly, social and political changes won’t be seen as legitimate if they depend on institutions that appear to be at odds with local traditions or are excessively reliant on foreign patronage.

Paradoxically, the United States and NATO may wind up both helping and hindering Afghanistan on its path toward self-sufficiency.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.