Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

The New Afghan War

(AP/Department of Defense/Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini)
With patience and the right strategy, we can win

Kabul – Gov. Mohammed Halim Fi-dai is agitated. He’s holding forth in his office in Wardak province a half-hour or so outside of Kabul, before an audience of U.S. military officers and visiting journalists. Fi-dai’s English is excellent and the military loves him. A former refugee who worked for years for Western NGOs, he’s an ideal partner for the U.S., and we are using his province as a springboard for an experimental program creating a local militia to supplement the national police.

Dressed in a Western jacket over traditional Afghan clothes, Fi-dai has a small white button he can, in theory, push to call one of the attendants who occasionally pop in and out of the room. He repeatedly pushes it but nothing happens. Someone jokes that it must be turning on and off a TV somewhere else in the building. Fi-dai laughs. But he wants to serve his guests lunch and as nothing continues to happen, he gets upset: “This is part of capacity in Afghanistan,” he complains, “they can’t prepare the food on time. You have to tell them every small thing. They can’t make decisions on their own.” A little later, he begins to get up from his chair, “I will check on these people.”

The visiting U.S. general keeps him from getting up and reassures him, “It will be great.” And, eventually, it is — a fine Afghan spread of rice and lamb during which Fi-dai chats proudly about his children’s excellent grades back in Kabul, where he continues to live because the schools are better. 

The incident isn’t particularly important, except by way of illustrating that it’s in a country where the smallest thing can be a struggle that the United States is about to launch its most ambitious nation-building project of the post–Cold War era. And it is doing it in the midst of a high-stakes war. Who wins here will determine not just whether al-Qaeda gets safe havens back in Afghanistan, but perhaps the future of Pakistan, which would be further destabilized by a Taliban victory across its border.

The U.N. doesn’t technically rank Afghanistan on its human-development index because of insufficient income data. But an Afghan research institute estimates that Afghanistan comes in at 174 out of 178, ahead only of Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Niger. A U.S. official here compares it to Haiti, except with a sprawling and often confused international presence and abutted by malignant neighbors Pakistan and Iran.

In 1979, the Soviets invaded a country with working infrastructure and governmental institutions and trashed them both, while decapitating the country’s traditional local leadership. When the Soviets left, rival mujahideen factions shelled Kabul to the ground. The stately Queen’s Palace, a former residence of the royal family where Pres. Hafizullah Amin was assassinated by the Soviets in 1979, still stands ruined on the western fringes of Kabul, testament to the country that existed prior to the serial catastrophes that befell it. The Taliban took over and ground the country down even farther with its medieval obscurantism. 

This is the country that, with a handful of Special Forces troops on the ground and precision strikes from the air, fell into our lap in 2002. Initially, the minimalist Rumsfeld strategy was to eschew a dominant role in nation building or major security operations, to avoid the taint of an occupier. The Europeans, through NATO, would undertake a peacekeeping mission. This approach didn’t become manifestly inadequate until about 2006, when the Taliban began to revive. Most of the Europeans didn’t have the capability or the will to confront it, while Afghan governmental institutions were failing and the country was well on the road to becoming a narco-state. By this time, of course, the U.S. was embroiled with an insurgency in Iraq and couldn’t devote significant new resources to Afghanistan.

‘Under-resourced” is the word used here over and over to describe the war; in counterinsurgency warfare it is almost always a synonym for failure. While Iraq had 15 American combat brigades before the surge and 20 during it, Afghanistan was in the low single digits and will only reach 7 brigades with the addition of the 21,000 American troops just ordered to Afghanistan by Pres. Barack Obama.

Still and all, coalition officers here, representatives of civilian agencies, and U.N. officials interviewed by our group of visiting journalists, almost to a man, think the mission is doable. The most frequently repeated phrase before they cite an optimistic piece of data or hopeful sign is, “I don’t want to be Pollyannaish, but . . .” Their conviction is that the Afghan war hasn’t failed, but hasn’t yet truly been tried, despite all the sacrifices to this point. Now it will be, with U.S. forces doubling, the U.S. embassy staff doubling, the U.N. budget doubling, and the Afghan army doubling. 

The increased resources are pouring into a country worse off and better off than Iraq. Iraq has a more literate population, greater natural resources, and a stronger tradition as a centralized state than Afghanistan, yet Afghanistan is still more peaceful. Even with civilian casualties up 45 percent over the last year, they are just half the current number in post-surge Iraq, and Afghanistan has a larger population. 

Kabul is nothing like Baghdad circa 2006, when the Iraqi city descended into chaos, nor even like the Baghdad of today, still plagued by suicide bombs. It can go weeks without a security incident. Kabul is a bustling city of 4 million, if unrelentingly poor. There is traffic in the roads, and even traffic jams. The cars are surprisingly modern. An American officer notes that nearly every time there is intelligence about a suspected suicide car bomb, it is in a white Toyota Corolla — because there are so many white Toyota Corollas on the road. 

People ride bikes or walk in the dirt by the side of even the paved roads. Men push wheelbarrows or pull cumbersome pull-carts behind them. Men or women walk singly or in single-sex groups, but never with each other. Some, but not all, of the women are fully covered; many have colorful splashes in their clothing. Like they do throughout the Middle East, men tend to sit crouching on their haunches, like a catcher resting between pitches. In a strange juxtaposition, men in traditional garb will be sitting like this by the side of the road, as they have for centuries — chatting on cell phones. The country went from basically zero cell phones a few years ago to 8 million today. Verizon should volunteer for nation-building duty. 

The roads are lined with ramshackle shops in shacks or shipping containers, selling fruit, or car parts, or meat, hanging out in the open air from the ceiling (“the Afghan refrigerator”). Plastic canisters are often stacked in front of the shops, for water or fuel, and children can be seen merrily carrying them around. Under umbrellas, men hawk fruit — bananas hanging in small, browning bunches around them — from small carts. Men stand by the side of the road, dangling long rows of phone cards for sale. In some parts of town, there are even stores with window panes, a cluster of them selling what in this context seem impossibly fancy dresses.

The city sits in a bowl of a valley surrounded by mountains, snow-capped and gorgeous in the distance. Think a post-apocalyptic Denver. How clearly the mountains can be seen is an instant check on the day’s air quality, which, in the U.S., would surely get the city’s leadership severely punished — maybe jailed — under the Clean Air Act. Think a post-apocalyptic Beijing. People burn anything — including fuel made from dung — to stay warm. 

From the air, Kabul is an intricate patchwork of low-slung brown boxes, the city’s walled houses stretching in all directions. The trip east to the Khyber Pass by air is a dazzling kaleidoscope of shifting landscapes, from snow-capped peaks to flat high-desert expanses to lush greenery around the Kabul River and back again, and seemingly every landscape in between. Never has godforsaken been so unbelievably beautiful. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander in the east, has a different take looking down on the remote mountains: “This is perfect guerrilla country.”

In contrast to Iraq, where the insurgency was largely, if not exclusively, an urban phenomenon, here it is mostly rural. In the east, American officers don’t even like to refer to the highly “syndicated” insurgency as the Taliban, believing that the name glorifies it with more coherence than it deserves. There are a few key factions, such as the Hizb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani that is one of the main killers of U.S. troops, in cooperation with criminal groups. 

In the south, where the Pashtuns dominate (they are the largest ethnic group in the country and make up 42 percent of the population), the insurgency is truly a Taliban production. It plays out against the backdrop of a complex human environment where new local power players — often drug lords — have risen up from the ashes of the devastated traditional social structure. “In the east it’s three-dimensional chess, in the south it’s ten-dimensional chess, and I’m not sure I understand all the boards,” says an American general who has served in both areas.

To meet this challenge, the first priority has to be providing what coalition officers refer to as “persistent security.” It’s the only way to give the population the sense of safety it needs to turn decisively against an insurgency that thrives on intimidation. There simply haven’t been enough troops on the ground to do it. Instead, the coalition has played “whack-a-mole,” hitting targets and then leaving, allowing the insurgents to return. That’s changing. In Wardak province, for instance, U.S. forces have increased by a factor of 10, from 100 to 1,000. That has to make a difference. Says General Milley, “It’s not rocket science, it’s war — mass matters.”

Population centers are the focus of the fight. “Whoever said ‘where paved roads end, the Taliban begins’ — it’s actually the opposite,” says an American general. In the south, where the war is generally considered a stalemate, the population is clustered around a few cities, the ring road that circles around the country (built with American aid dollars in the 1960s), and river valleys. The coalition is in possession of most of these key areas, but must better secure the connections between them. 

Insurgents are able to stage out of Baluchistan in Pakistan, unmolested by Pakistani forces. (That’s where Mullah Omar maintains his shura, or leadership council, in the city of Quetta.) Then, they can move through the unoccupied spaces of southern Afghanistan. A trip by helicopter from Kandahar south to the border town of Spin Boldak is a journey over an empty vastness — dry, brown, mountainous — that is ideal for infiltration. The new forces will work to squeeze off these routes. 

They will be going to areas where they haven’t been before, “digging up a hornet’s nest” in the words of one general. This is why coalition officials are bracing themselves for even more casualties this summer, but also believe security has to improve, almost inevitably. And that is the foundation for everything else.

No one in the military thinks military force, or “kinetic activity” in the bloodless lingo, will be adequate. Officers have thoroughly absorbed the lesson of counterinsurgency. A State Department official says that, of all the coalition forces on the ground here, the Americans have the military that most appreciates the need for the civilian effort and the civilians that most appreciate the need for the military effort. After security must come governance — government services and the rule of law — and economic development to keep Afghans from returning to the insurgency. 

The Taliban isn’t popular. It has no appealing, positive program and no charismatic, unifying figure like Mao Tse-tung or Ho Chi Minh. There is much talk back home of splitting off the Taliban’s “reconcilable” elements. There is more doubt here that such reconcilable elements exist within the Taliban proper. But there are certainly local fighters who are picking up a rocket-propelled grenade or planting an IED just for pay. And some Pashtuns are fighting for the Taliban because they feel excluded from the central government, which they perceive as controlled by the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance that swept into Kabul in late 2001. “If there’s the real possibility of inclusion,” says Christopher Alexander, a top U.N. official, “you’ll really split these groups.”

The country’s foremost political player is Pres. Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun. His reputation has plummeted among the American military, which can’t abide what they consider his grandstanding over civilian casualties caused by coalition raids. Karzai is increasingly unpopular among his countrymen too, but he is likely to win re-election this summer since there isn’t a viable alternative. 

Even if Karzai were flawless, he’d have one of the most difficult jobs in the world — and he’s not. Many observers think he’d prefer to be king, the symbolic ruler of the country rather than its chief administrator. He has a blind spot for former mujahideen commanders, who form a corrupt oligarchy, and for his family. His half-brother Ahmed Wali is the chairman of the provincial council of Kandahar and is widely believed to be involved in the drug trade. 

Corruption and the drug trade are enormous, intertwined problems. Corruption risks alienating people from the government. An example: If someone can’t get justice through the normal channels because he can’t afford the bribes, he will turn to the sharia courts of the Taliban. 

The drug trade, meanwhile, is a $4 billion business and funnels an estimated $100 million to $500 million to the Taliban. By way of comparison, the operating budget of the ministry of defense is just $58 million. Programs to distribute wheat seeds for free have met with some success, partly because the price of wheat has been up recently. The poppy crop was down 14 percent last year, and is projected to be down another 20 percent this year. But it’s a challenge. The drug lords will pay in advance for poppy and come to a farm to collect it, relieving the farmer of the burden of traveling dangerous roads to try to take his crops to market.

On governance more broadly, there is a debate whether to empower the central government or localities, but it’s not an either/or question. Both must be enhanced and connected to one another. The country can’t be handed off to local warlords, as some suggest. They will only misgovern it and feed the insurgency. Nor is creating somewhat competent government in Afghanistan necessarily a pipe dream, since the country had a functioning state prior to the Soviet-sponsored coups in the 1970s that started its slide toward oblivion.

The coalition is working both the center and the periphery. The ministry of interior had been corrupt, factionalized, and a safe haven for drug lords. Now, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a British-educated reformer whom the coalition loves, has taken over the ministry. Westerners think the ministers around Karzai may be the strongest he has ever had. Meanwhile, at the local level they work closely with provincial governors like Fi-dai of Wardak. The province is the first site of a pilot program recruiting locals to supplement the (disappointing) national police at the village level, roughly on the model of the “Sons of Iraq” security volunteers in Iraq. 

The difficulties inherent in all this have led to talk inside the Beltway that we can “lower expectations,” and just focus on a minimalist counterterrorism mission. That would really be a return to a version of the strategy that brought us to this point. The Afghans hate the phrase, sensing it’s a prelude to their abandonment. “It can only be justified,” thunders Afghan defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, a stout former mujahideen leader, “if your will is weakened and you want to come up with excuses.” Coalition officers tend to agree. An Australian says, “If you get half in, it will be too hard.” Afghanistan needs a version of General Petraeus’s “Mesopotamian stampede,” a push on all fronts that eventually creates a tipping point in security and Afghan capabilities.

There have been two unquestionable successes in nation-building and development. First, there’s the 80,000-strong Afghan National Army, an ethnically balanced force well-regarded both by the public and by its coalition enablers. The Soviets built the Kabul Military Training Center in the 1970s, and we bombed the hell out of it in the war. Now, there are 4,800 new recruits at the rebuilt, sprawling facility. “There is a strategic purpose above and beyond security,” British brigadier Neil Baverstock says of the army whose training he helps oversee. “It binds the people to the center in a way other institutions in Afghanistan don’t. It is a force for national unity, and is seen by the Afghans as such.” 

Second, there is the National Solidarity Program. Under the program, a village elects a Community Development Council that settles on a project, like a school or a water pump. It will receive funding up to $60,000 for the project but it has to put up 10 percent of its cost, through cash or in-kind contributions. The process vests the community in the project and it has proven one of the most successful ways to extend the reach of the government to the local level. “Where we’ve invested, the institutional result has come very quickly,” says Alexander. “Development experts are consistently amazed at how this country responds to good development work.”

If the Afghan war is winnable, it’s also losable. A war of counterinsurgency is always a test of wills. If the insurgency has the support of about 10 percent of the population, that’s not nearly enough for it to prevail, but it can keep fighting for a long time. An American colonel estimates it will take five years to get Afghanistan to where Iraq is now, with coalition forces beginning to draw down and Iraq forces increasingly in the lead. In his strategic review, Obama rejected the counsel of his advisers who wanted to minimize his commitment; he embraced a “comprehensive” counterinsurgency approach, even if he sold it in minimalist counterterrorism terms. Will Obama ultimately have the requisite strategic patience? No one can know.

The border areas of Pakistan are a devilish problem. “If the sanctuaries don’t go away, the insurgency doesn’t go away,” a top U.S. officer says. President Karzai likes to say that Pakistan is more of a state than Afghanistan, but that Afghanistan is more of a country. Pakistan doesn’t just have lawless tribal areas, it fails to govern areas, such as Baluchistan, that are parts of its country proper. It refuses to acknowledge that Mullah Omar is operating from Quetta, and the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence service) continues to support the insurgency. Obama wants to try to coax the Pakistanis along, with more development aid — $1.5 billion a year for the next five years — while also confronting them more forthrightly over their depredations. What this will achieve, no one can say.

Finally, there’s the sheer backwardness of Afghanistan. At times, it comically defeats the best American intentions. An American involved in developing an Afghan air force shows off the fancy new facilities we have bought for the Afghans. He says we have to tell them not to cut up their food on the floor, that’s why we gave them stainless-steel tables. It’s a country with rampant unemployment, yet half a million foreign workers had to be imported last year because there is so little skilled labor. Seventy percent of Afghan recruits into the army are illiterate; anyone who can read is put on a fast track to become an NCO. In one police sub-station in Kandahar, out of 45 police, only two or three can read. 

You don’t have to look far in this country for historical portents. At the Kabul training facility, the rusted-out remains of Soviet armored vehicles — the T-72 tanks sunk into the ground, their barrels titled downward — are lined up for training purposes. Just over the hills is the mountain pass through which a British contingent retreated in 1842, on the way to a slaughter from which only one soldier, a surgeon, escaped. But the Americans aren’t a brutal occupying army or a hated colonial power. It’s hard to imagine a military force more committed to bettering the lives of a foreign people.

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” In Afghanistan, the military is a conservative institution in the service of that liberal truth. There are precedents. In congressional testimony, the Afghan expert Marin Strmecki noted that “in the mid-1950s, South Korea was worse off by most social, economic, and political indicators than Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.” Within three decades, it was an “Asian tiger.”

We don’t need that sort of transformation, but merely an Afghanistan that is strong enough to ward off a terrorist insurgency. As one civilian official says, the standard is pretty low. In Iraq, the people will be disappointed if we don’t restore the country to middle-class stability; in Afghanistan, the people just want us to stop the pain. And, now, we will try.

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