Today's Washington Post reports that residents of Gizab, a village in southern Afghanistan, reclaimed their territory from the Taliban. One U.S. commander called it "perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year."
Gizab may eventually turn back to Taliban control, but at least for now, we can try and postulate as to why local residents successfully defended their territory, achieving what the coalition has been trying to do for years throughout the country but to no avail. Here's a thought: allow Afghans to fight the Taliban themselves and slowly back away. Unfortunately, this story may reinforce the atrocious "One Tribe at a Time" formulation, a strategy that entails coalition troops "going native" and unilaterally choosing tribes to side with against the Taliban--of course, without any proper understanding of tribal or community dynamics beforehand.
As I wrote several weeks ago, "merely increasing our knowledge of Afghanistan's local politics will not guarantee success; presuming we can simply learn what ethnicities and communities can be 'peeled off' from militants does not necessarily mean we will reach the ends we seek or yield the outcomes we want."
Many moons ago, Christian Bleuer over at The Ghosts of Alexander wrote about the follies of following the "One Tribe at a Time" formula. "Seriously, go out and try to find the 'tribal leadership.' You will find that there is no clear, stable leadership. Things are in flux, and always have been. Especially since 1979. You will end up with a bunch of squabbling locals trying to call in air strikes on their rivals.... Please don’t let this anecdote draw away attention from how bad Gant’s paper is when considered in its entirety. The blind embedded, hyper-localized 'adopted son' mentality he shows should be a warning to all. Anthropologists do their best to not 'join the tribe.' So should soldiers."
Indeed, Judah Grunstein wrote a while back in Small Wars Journal about this very same issue. "What's also overlooked -- by Gant [author of "One Tribe at a Time"], but also by more conventional COIN theory -- is the fact that intervening in a social system creates both winners and losers. COIN bases its methodology in large part on the assumption that losers will shift loyalties in order to compete for the benefits on offer. Again, the lessons from the helping professions show that this is far from a foregone conclusion. The resulting power imbalances within the indigenous structure can instead lead to increased -- and rigidified -- resentment and hostility toward the helping professional."
Most analysts in D.C. are waiting for that silver bullet, that one strategy that will help America "win." But Afghans can "win" without our help, as villagers in Gizab have shown. It may not be easy, and Afghans will surely encounter setbacks, but coalition forces cannot continually recalibrate policy to accurately predict which areas of Afghanistan will prefer the corrupt centralized government we back and which ones will not. It's time we get out of the way and let Afghans decide their future, Taliban or no Taliban.
In 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.
Virtually no one believes that things are going well on the ground in Afghanistan. The reasons are many. Some of the practical frustrations are captured by my friend Joshua Foust, who is working with the military on attempting to better understand Afghan society. He writes:
Over scalding cups of tea in mid-February, an elder in Nijrab, Afghanistan said to me, "For two years you have come here and asked me the same questions. I like you, I like the French, but you people never learn."
He was referring to the generic questions Westerners ask Afghans: What is your life like? Where is the Taliban? What are your village's needs? This particular elder has regular contact with American troops, and likes Americans enough to have tea with us. Nevertheless, he was deeply frustrated by the way, for all our questions, we never seem to learn from our experiences.
Very few people in Kapisa province assume that coalition forces are there to do them harm. They acknowledge that ISAF behaves fundamentally differently than the Soviets did. Yet as the seventh year of the war begins, there is enormous frustration with the coalition for not learning from its mistakes, and also with the Afghan government for being unresponsive.
One elder from northern Tagab said, "We can sit down and have tea with you, but we can't with our own government." He said he wished the coalition would focus more on the people and less on the government. "Governments come and go," he said, "but the people will always be here."
Indeed, countless interviews indicate that people in Afghanistan have very little confidence in their local government or the police, instead trusting their shuras (community and district councils) and the Army to represent their interests.
His reports on his blog also are well worth reading. Josh is a skeptic of preventive wars and nation-building, but his posts are more reportorial, giving us ivory tower sorts a better sense of the reality that America's military and civilian personnel must confront every day in Afghanistan.