At the time of my writing, the NATO war in Afghanistan has just become the longest war in U.S. history, a status it seems likely to retain for some time. It has been, and remains, a very strange war, all the stranger now that General Stanley McChrystal has been fired as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan following the lamest Douglas MacArthur impression on record. He has been replaced by General David Petraeus, the father and executor of the doctrine that lay behind the eventual U.S. military success in Iraq, a version of which is now being applied in Afghanistan. The notion that his appointment will lead to substantial changes in the Afghan mission is hence overblown, especially as up until a week ago he was the one telling McChrystal what to do in his role as the latter's boss.
So, not a time for radical change, but a time to reflect.
American involvement in Afghanistan began in 1979, when the Soviets invaded the country. The U.S. wanted to get the Soviets bogged down in a demoralizing war, they wanted to discourage this sort of Soviet adventurism, and they especially wanted to make sure the Red Army didn't march on through to the Middle East. So, with the help of a host of other countries, the U.S. funelled money and weapons to anti-Soviet forces, and they didn't ask too many questions about the politics of the recipients. This strategy worked, and the Soviets eventually left Afghanistan and shortly afterwards exited the pages of history for good.
What the U.S. did next wasn't so canny though: they decided they could live with the anti-Soviet groups ruling Afghanistan, and promptly lost interest. A giant civil war proceeded to rage among the anti-Soviet factions, of which there were literally thousands. In 1994, a devout and dedicated religious movement calling itself the Taliban (which means student) began a rapid rise to power. The group comes from the Pashtun ethnic group, which lives in a broad swathe from southern Afghanistan across the Durand Line into Pakistan. They quickly overcame smaller armed groups, and they had a certain ideological appeal in the country's south, but most of all they had a strong influx of foreign manpower from Pakistan. By 1996, they had conquered the capital Kabul. They were brutal and not popular, and Afghans (especially non-Pashtuns) have still not forgotten how the rest of the world did nothing to contain their rise.
This current war began, as everyone knows, after 9/11, which was carried out by al-Qaeda, who were sheltered by the Taliban. Those attacks were planned in southern Afghanistan and carried out by people who were trained and financed there, and the idea of the ensuing war was to ensure this could not happen again. The war itself was mainly carried out by Afghans themselves, with U.S. support; these Afghans were the Taliban's enemies, the people who had lost the Afghan civil war and were still fighting from their northern redoubts. In what I personally refuse to believe was a coincidence, their leader Ahmed Shah Massood was killed by the Taliban just two days before 9/11. These people weren't liberal democrats, but traditional Afghan tribalists, a problem to which I will return below.
The Northern Alliance were only able to take over Kabul with the help of U.S. airpower; after all, they had lost the civil war against the Taliban. But once their conquest was complete, the U.S. had very little to do with them, or with most of Afghanistan. With the Taliban regime in Kabul no more, the Bush administration turned its eyes elsewhere. U.S. forces remained in the south of the country to battle Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts, while development and the training of new Afghan security forces was left to a NATO (i.e. European) mission in Kabul. For a long time, this NATO mission only actually had authority in Kabul, and the policing and defence of the rest of Afghanistan was tasked to Afghan security forces that did not exist yet. This wasn't a strategy for the long-term transformation of Afghanistan, but for making do; and, like the U.S. strategy against the Soviets, it relied on others to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
However, much to the surprise of many, the Taliban proved highly resilient. Between 2001 and 2006 they were largely quiescent, nourishing their movement across the border in Pakistan, recruiting, training, and absorbing an influx of insurgents who fled Iraq after the surge. Then they started coming back, and in force. They wanted to conquer Afghanistan again, and it was clear that the nascent Afghan security forces and the European mission in Kabul wasn't up to the task of stopping them. Nor were the small number of U.S. troops who were still in the country. So, belatedly, the Bush administration began the task of dispatching more troops, and ISAF extended its mission to cover the whole country, subsuming the U.S. forces. This was the start of a serious attempt to come up with a strategy for the future of Afghanistan and to combat the Taliban.
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The exact content of this strategy depended heavily on what the new president did when he assumed office in 2009. Obama eventually decided to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy similar to the one carried out in Iraq. Under this strategy, the problem of Afghan internal security would be Americanized for as long as it took to build up an Afghan government that could function on its own and defend itself. Meanwhile, a surge of U.S. and other forces would attack the Taliban over a period of years, and deny them their most prized territory - particularly Kandahar, their birthplace - by extending the writ of the central government there. As Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, the goal wasn't a "Central Asian Valhalla", but a government that would meet these basic requirements. At that point, the U.S. could hand the problem back off to others and bring its troops home.
This last part is very important. The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for nearly nine years now, and it cannot afford to sustain large forces there indefinitely. The U.S. has a severe manpower and financial deficit, and every year that its forces are tied down in a strategically-insignificant country like Afghanistan is a year that the U.S. is unprepared for crises elsewhere. Don't imagine it's a coincidence that North Korea brazenly sunk a South Korean warship or that Iran marches ever-onward towards a nuclear weapon as America is tied down in two wars. Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, constrains U.S. ability to take military action elsewhere.
This is one reason that Obama felt the need to impose a timeline on operations in Afghanistan, suggesting that a "transition" of some sort would occur in July 2011. This is surprisingly soon, given that the surge of forces has not, even as I write, completely arrived in the country yet. But this also speaks to the manpower deficit I spoke of earlier; it takes time to cycle a limited number of forces into the country. It's also clear that there are political factors at work, as some Democrats and much of the liberal base has decided that Afghanistan is no longer "the necessary war" but just another war of choice after all, and that the U.S. should leave. The Obama administration - and the British government, I might add - have hence telegraphed extreme uncertainty about the extent of their commitment to the war. In short, no-one is convinced they will do what it takes to win.
Sadly, this uncertainty has the power to fatally undermine the war effort almost single-handedly by handing a decisive propaganda coup to the Taliban.
Given the limitations placed on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, its end-point will never be the complete destruction of the Taliban. This is impossible, not least because the movement has a sanctuary in Pakistan which the U.S. cannot physically occupy. Rather, the end-point of the war will be the creation of political conditions in Afghanistan which will ensure the Taliban can never return to power; and to achieve these conditions, it is vitally important that the Afghan population be won around to the Kabul government and made to believe that the legitimate authorities can protect them. It's important to understand that the Taliban isn't some sort of national liberation movement, but a force that is essentially foreign to most of Afghanistan. It rules by fear, not consensus, and hence a large part of the U.S. mission consists in making sure the population sleeps safe in the knowledge that the Taliban are not returning.
Were foreign forces to leave tomorrow, there is no doubt the Taliban could defeat or co-opt the Afghan warlords, sweep into Kabul, close girls' schools, and reinstitute their theocracy. And if everyone thinks foreign forces are leaving in a few years, whether the Kabul government is strong or not, then they're likely to believe that there's no doubt the Taliban will sweep back to power then as well. Hence the constant theme of Taliban propaganda: "Align with us now, or we'll make you regret it later". The Kabul government and its foreign backers have to be uncompromising in their quest for victory, and everyone has to believe they are, or Afghans will simply prepare for the time when the foreigners will give up and abandon them - just like they did after the Soviets left. This goes for Pakistan as well, which will always keep one finger in the Taliban pie for as long as they believe the latter will one day rule Afghanistan again.
The timelime and the prevarication from President Obama, while it may have been politically and even strategically necessary, given threats elsewhere in the world, has hence been disastrous. It is unlikely that a counterinsurgency strategy can succeed in the short time period given to it, especially given the disincentives to co-operation with foreign forces that the timelime provides.
A related mistake has been the focus almost from the beginning of the strategy on talking to the Taliban, as if we have anything to offer them that they won't be able to take on the battlefield over the next ten years. They don't operate on two-year electoral cycles like we do, and they can wait. Obama should have promised to, as a British general said, hit the Taliban until their eyeballs bleed. We'll know we're winning when it is they who want to talk to us. Democrats may be uncomfortable with this sort of militaristic language, but this is what it takes to win a war, and when you are in Rome you must destroy Carthage as the Romans do.
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I believe, sadly, that much of the pessimism surrounding the war at present is hence well-founded. I have not even addressed, yet, the enormity of the task which would face foreign forces even if they had ten years in which to achieve their goals. These challenges, when considered together, indicate that there is unlikely to be a clean-cut victory for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the more likely scenario is the continuation of a messy and alarming situation for some years to come.
Afghanistan is very different to Iraq. Iraq is a relatively modern country with a well-educated population, and it is highly urbanized. Most of the Iraqi insurgency was based in cities, particularly Baghdad. Urban insurgencies have their own particular problems, but it is much easier to physically occupy a city than a vast expanse of countryside like the one that sustains the Taliban. When foreign forces conquer territory in Afghanistan, the Taliban simply run away or melt into the population, only occasionally to reappear with sniper rifles and remote detonators. Ensuring dominance of this territory after foreign forces depart will be far from easy.
Nor are the governance and security reforms that would be necessary to inoculate an area against the eventual return of the Taliban easy. This has been proven in Marjah, the city that the coalition captured with much fanfare earlier this year. Much of the Afghan population is illiterate and focused on local or tribal concerns; they have little experience of central government, and the experience they have teaches them to view it as predatory. Afghanistan needs to be won over one village at a time, and development gains need securing to prevent the Taliban from returning to destroy them - girls' schools being the obvious example. But the training of Afghan security forces is proving slow, and there are not enough foreign forces to defend every school.
Afghanistan has always been a fundamentally decentralized society, and the only route to success for the U.S. in the short time period that is available is to harness this decentralization rather than fighting against it. There is simply not enough time to construct the strongest central state in Afghanistan's history; rather, the centre will have to rely on local allies to form a coalition against the Taliban. This means that Afghanistan's future is likely to involve fighting for decades to come, even if the U.S. plan succeeds and the centre more or less holds. It also means a return to the unreliable strategy of relying on local forces, although this time they are likely to have support from U.S. Special Forces and advanced technology like Predator drones.
Then there is the problem of the central government, although this can be overstated. Karzai's administration is corrupt and focused on its own interests, which need not necessarily be a problem so long as we don't allow our own unrealistic expectations to colour our view of it. What matters is that Karzai can keep the Taliban at bay; the rest is all gravy. As in Iraq, the Afghan population first and foremost wants security, and it is this that the central government must focus on providing. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and Karzai's government is good compared to anything that came for decades before it. There is no tradition of individualism in Afghanistan, and politics will continue to be tribal long after foreign forces have left; the trick will be to harness this by constructing a local coalition to provide a reasonable standard of governance and hold back the Taliban.
This will not be easy. It may not even be possible. Yet the fact that financial and political constraints prevent a long-term deployment of U.S. forces to this impoverished and landlocked country means that making do is the only strategy available, as it has been in Afghanistan for many years. But of course, if the Taliban are one day able to reconquer the country, then the world will once again have to return to take down the terror camps. It will remain to history to judge if greater sacrifice in the first half of the Obama presidency might have forestalled much greater sacrifice in the years ahead, for both the Afghan people and those upon whom the duty of policing the world falls.