The following was first published in The National on September 2, 2009.
The Obama administration certainly can’t be accused of a less than thorough review of the war efforts in Afghanistan. The latest strategic assessment submitted by General Stanley McChrystal on Monday was merely the culmination of a comprehensive review of the situation in Afghanistan that began almost as soon as Barack Obama took office. It took the better part of a year, a long time when the United States is on the losing side of the conflict. Meanwhile popular support is decreasing in the US and among many of its European allies. Time may have been a luxury Mr Obama had in short supply, but he seems to have made good use of what little he had.
First there was the broadening of the scope of the conflict to include Pakistan, a notion that has come to be termed AfPak. It neatly encapsulates the reality that the conflict in Afghanistan is inseparable from the problem of militancy in Pakistan’s hinterlands. While the US and coalition allies may be forced to respect the borders of a close Nato ally, the Pashtuns who make up the overwhelming majority of the Taliban’s fighters do not. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can be secured separately, so their problems must be tackled at the same time.
Mr Obama ordered a policy review of US efforts in Afghanistan ahead of the Nato conference in April. What resulted was a new, grand strategy for the war. No longer would the US and its allies measure its success by counting bodies, both American and Taliban. Instead, the focus would be on protecting the Afghans from the Taliban, speeding up a stagnant reconstruction effort and, most importantly, building the Afghan capacity for security and governance – a comprehensive approach dubbed counterinsurgency.
Gen McChrystal’s job was to figure out how to make Mr Obama’s vision actually work. Arguably, the greatest problem preventing success against the Taliban in Afghanistan is a lack of commitment. The overwhelming majority of fighting is being conducted by the US and a handful of other countries. While the US now has over 60,000 troops in the country, they are not enough. US commanders are already clamouring for reinforcements, but they will not be authorised by the US Congress without some assurance of progress. Nor are its allies likely to shoulder any greater portion of the combat burden.
But the war effort needs more than just a greater number of “trigger pullers”. Coalition countries such as France, Italy and Germany have never played much of a combat role in Afghanistan, yet together they have nearly 10,000 personnel in the country. They could be put to better use, particularly in the training of the Afghan security forces. The 42 nations that comprise the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (Isaf) must become more than a veneer of international co-operation in efforts to secure the country.
Presumably, this is what Gen McChrystal was referring to when he said that the war in Afghanistan needed “a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort”. As it is, both the combat and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly “Americanised”. This is not a sustainable trend. Nato countries in particular can’t shirk the burden. To do so would further undermine the already tenuous credibility of the organisation.
But despite the obvious necessity for coalition countries to shoulder a greater share of the responsibilities in Afghanistan, this is the real world. France and Germany may be major Nato partners, but their leaders answer first and foremost to their voters, not to the Nato secretary-general. Even the UK, the second largest contributor to Isaf, may not be in Afghanistan for much longer as popular support for the war has all but dissipated. Thus the need for a better economy of resources is all the more pressing. While a better use of the manpower on hand is needed, there is still a pressing need for more bodies to keep Afghanistan secure and to rebuild a country broken by three decades of conflict. The solution lies in the Afghans themselves.
The Afghan army is projected to grow from 93,000 to 134,000 in two years. By all possible measures this is a massive undertaking. There are also long term concerns about creating such a large military, which the coalition cannot sustain forever and the Afghan economy cannot support on its own. And as troubled as the army is, the police are in an even worse state. Often poorly equipped and underpaid, if they are paid at all, the Afghan police are often more hated than the Taliban. Without support from Kabul or its provincial representatives, many police have turned to banditry or bribes to support themselves.
The government in Kabul is increasingly becoming a hindrance to victory. While the US and its allies could feasibly win the fight against the Taliban, any success will be temporary so long as the central government remains rife with corruption, nepotism or even in complicity with the Taliban. David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to Nato generals, put it best, calling counterinsurgency “a competition for governance”. By almost every possible measure the US, its allies and Kabul are losing that competition. Many Afghans have turned to Taliban courts and police in areas that they control since they are considered more effective than what Kabul could produce.
After nearly a decade of combat and eight months of strategic review, the US has managed to assemble an effective strategy to secure and rebuild Afghanistan. It has the will and the leadership in place to execute that strategy. But ultimate success hangs on a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government that is, at best, uninterested in reforming its actions. Until this changes, success in Afghanistan is academic.