Our strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, both of which make sense in theory, no longer apply.
The classic defense of our involvement in Afghanistan is that we need to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a sanctuary for al-Qaeda or other enemies of the United States. Ungoverned spaces attract terrorists, especially when they’re in bad neighborhoods. (See: Pakistan.)
That is strategy. The classic defense of our tactics is that we are fighting a counterinsurgency according to best practices, providing security to the people of Afghanistan so that they can choose to support their elected government rather than the insurgency. Everything our military does in Afghanistan is aimed at that goal. We are trying to train the Afghan security forces to the point where they can take over from us, just as the Iraqi security forces mainly have, and we can go home.
I agree with both the strategy and the tactics, in theory. And I’ve long argued that our military is doing as superb job of ground-level counterinsurgency, and that the Afghans, at least in the north and west, are doing an impressive job at building civil society through the same capitalist methods that have worked in the West.
But what I’ve seen in my last three trips to Afghanistan, and what I’ve read in the Pentagon’s own “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stabilization in Afghanistan” makes me believe that neither our strategy nor our tactics apply any longer.
First, and most important, our strategy makes no sense. We are supporting a criminal state in Kabul that is likely involved with the insurgency itself. There is almost nothing to distinguish the Taliban from the Karzai mafias, whose tentacles reach down to the most obscure rural districts.
American commanders will tell you of governors, police chiefs, district governors, and district police chiefs so corrupt, abusive, and vicious that the Taliban are a desirable alternative. We are talking about Afghan government officials who sell famine aid for their own profit, rape boys and women, run drugs in police cars — and often conspire with insurgents to kill Afghan civilians and security forces, and even American troops.
Ahmad Wali Karzai is running a mafia out of Kandahar, and his brother Hamid Karzai is protecting him. This mafia is worth over a billion a year to him, if the Times of London is to be believed.
One senior coalition figure calculated that the “Karzai cartel” was making a turnover of a billion dollars a year from the coalition involvement in Afghanistan, through lucrative contracts and sub-contracting spin-offs in convoy protection, construction, fuel, food, and security.
In fact, it may no longer be the case that AWK does what he does in order to strengthen the hand of his brother: It may be that Hamid does what he does to strengthen the hand of AWK. The Afghan state is being hollowed out from the inside and becoming a branch of a lucrative criminal enterprise. Why would the Karzais have any interest in defeating the insurgency? They are profiting from it.
Our so-called allies, Karzai, Inc., may no longer differ much from the terrorists who would likely govern southern and eastern Afghanistan if we leave. If al-Qaeda stays on the Pakistani side of the border, where, after all, living conditions and infrastructure are better, what’s the difference? Once we leave, the cause of expelling the foreign troops vanishes; al-Qaeda has much more of an interest in nuclear Pakistan; and the Karzais would likely meet the same end as Najibullah, strung up in the streets, once they lose our support.
Descending to the level of tactics, ours aren’t leading to a situation where we can leave. It’s impossible for us to go until we can stand up the Afghan National Police (ANP or AUP), but it’s impossible to do that when the local governance they are meant to support undermines the rule of law. The generals in Kabul are very quiet about this, but the two-year-old training program for the ANP is being phased out, because it was a massive waste of money that produced poor results. As the Pentagon report acknowledged, “the lack of other rule of law improvement in districts also limits the effectiveness of the police. Even when well-trained, AUP units have regressed when a mentoring team has been reassigned.”
As one American captain, Michael Tumlin, who partners with the Zabul police chief, told me, “We are basically enacting local governance here.” And what kind of counterinsurgency is it when you can never leave?
The new focus is on standing up the Afghan gendarmerie, or ANCOP, and hoping that the problems with the ANP will go away or the media will stop noticing. But the ANCOP attrition rate has been as high as 82 percent and is still way above 50 percent. The only way to get from their current number of 4,000 to the end goal of 15,000 by March 2011 is by what the International Crisis Group report on the Afghan National Army (ANA) — quoting a retired American lieutenant general — called a “catch and release policy,” where new recruits and AWOL soldiers are jiggered until “the numbers caught and released reach the predetermined goal . . . and [U.S.] forces can go home.” Of course, a couple of months after the goal is “achieved,” the numbers are likely to be back down to what they were before.
I’ve seen big improvements in the ANA over the course of six embeds with the American forces who oversee their training. But attrition is in the 50–60 percent range despite a generous pay raise effective this January. And the increases in capacity are terribly slow. Between May 2009 and March 2010, the number of units at the highest level, capability milestone 1 (a rating of 85 percent), remained unchanged at 22. The number at CM2 (70–84 percent) increased from 14 to 35. And the number at CM3 (51–69 percent) went from 14 to 28. The remaining 20 units were at CM4 (under 50 percent capability). So, despite billions in U.S. funds, the number of units deemed at “full operational capability” did not increase in ten months.
We can look forward to a long-term financial drain from the ANA. A recent International Crisis Group report noted that the annual cost of maintaining the ANA is likely to be around $2.2 billion, of which the Afghan government in 2008 contributed a mere $320 million.
In the 2010 fiscal year, Congress appropriated $6.6 billion for the Afghan Security Forces Fund, a trust that also receives contributions from other nations. And this February, the DOD requested an additional $2.6 billion for the 2010 fiscal year and $11.6 billion for the 2011 fiscal year. This trend line is in the wrong direction.
So is just about every trend line in southern and eastern Afghanistan. After six embeds, I am tired of hearing American commanders tell me that the reason SIGACTs (violent acts) are up is that “we are pushing out into areas we’ve never been in before” and “we have more troops here.” The logical conclusion of this is that we could bring our entire Army to Afghanistan and violence would continue to edge up.
The Pentagon’s report is less than candid when it comes to security. Of 121 “key” (i.e., dangerous) districts (out of about 365 districts in the country), the Pentagon assessed only 35 “favorably,” at the “occasional threats” level or better. I would venture to say that there isn’t one of those 35 districts where Afghans — much less foreigners — can take a drive without fear.
The list of 121 districts does not include all dangerous or insurgent-controlled districts, either. It omits many that aren’t “key,” such as the districts in Zabul that American officers have described to me as so dangerous that it would take a company-level operation to move 20 kilometers. This is also true of parts of Khost, which has deteriorated in the last two years. Most of the province, which I visited extensively in 2007–8, is now marked “neutral” or “sympathetic to the insurgency” on the Pentagon map.
“Neutral” areas seem to mean areas where you may or may not be killed, depending on your luck. I took a road trip with an Afghan to Khost from Kabul on April 9, in a Toyota Corolla, with no security. It was fine, even between Gardez, the capital of Paktia, and Khost’s capital — the most dangerous stretch of road that USAID is building. (Later, I was told by USAID that IEDs are routinely found there.) But the next day, insurgents destroyed 17 road-building machines on that stretch. Twelve days later, two ANA were killed there by IEDs.
The Pentagon report admits that
IED events increased markedly in 2009. . . . This increase led to an increase in the total number of casualties by 55%, with a 123% increase in international partner casualties. January to March 2010 saw a 16% increase in IED use, mainly caused by central Helmand operations where insurgents prepared an IED-based defense.
Neither our strategy nor our tactics are working in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t be surprised: There’s never been a counterinsurgency that worked when the people didn’t support the government. The Pentagon’s map of Afghanistan’s 80 most key districts shows only five “sympathetic” to the Afghan government — and none supporting it. Only 24 percent of Afghans in the broader group of all 121 key districts support the Karzai government.
We are caught in a trap of our own making, supporting an Afghan president who stole an election and who has no more legitimacy than the Taliban we replaced. We are apparently supporting him under the false hypothesis that his mafia provides “security,” even as it demonstrably fails to do so, even as citizens are rightly turning against it. Effectively, we are in Afghanistan so that the Karzai cartel can steal even more money. Is that worth losing our soldiers for?