How to succeed in Afghanistan

With rampant institutional corruption in Kabul, the US is better served by pursing the decentralisation of authority.

Barack Obama’s current policy ventures  are restricting progressive initiatives towards stability in Afghanistan [AFP]

This past week, President Obama announced the results of his promised annual review of US actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As expected, the review contained few, if any surprises.

In describing his administration’s study – which was not so much a policy review as a diagnostic exercise designed to measure progress against the goals he had carefully set out a year ago at West Point – the President struck a tone of cautious optimism, citing modest, though admittedly reversible, progress across the board in addressing the many challenges in the region. 

This steady progress, he concluded, will permit the start of a gradual, responsible draw-down of US forces, beginning a mere six months from now.

Indeed, if there were any surprise in this exercise, it was in the President’s apparent obliviousness to the vast disconnect between his sensibly modest goals, and the sweepingly ambitious, grandiose and costly strategy being employed at his direction to achieve them.

“….from the start,” he said, “I’ve been very clear about our core goal. It’s not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it’s not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

The disconnect between rhetoric and reality

This is a President who, perhaps more than any politician I have ever seen, is preternaturally heedless of the vast gulf between his rhetoric and the actual direction of his policies. We have seen this in Obama’s rhetoric concerning his desire to change perceptions of the US in the Muslim world; we have seen it in his claimed commitment to Mideast peace and the need to provide both justice to Palestinians and security for Israelis; and now, disastrously, we are seeing it in his stated policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Consider this: An American administration which claims to be highly discriminating in the threats it will confront in Afghanistan has embraced an apparently open-ended and disproportionate commitment to maintain a force of 100,000 troops – to say nothing of an additional 50,000 in NATO forces and an army of diplomats and development experts – at a cost of nearly $100 billion per year, in a country whose entire gross domestic product is only $14 billion. 

Yes, President Obama insists that he will begin a drawdown of forces next year as Afghans demonstrate greater capacity to maintain their own security. Brave words notwithstanding, however, haltingly slow progress in constructing a ‘capable” Afghan army means that the US will continue to pay a huge price in both blood and treasure for years to come – absent a change in policy which the President shows no sign of considering.  How long will a US public already disenchanted with what it sees as a losing and thankless proposition willingly pay such costs?

This same administration, which nominally eschews nation-building, is nonetheless trying to construct a modern, highly centralized state apparatus for which Afghanistan lacks any historical precedent, sufficient educated human capital, or popular support. 

Institutional corruption

By concentrating power in a central authority which exerts control over government appointments all the way down to the local level, a US nominally committed to ethical and transparent governance has facilitated construction of a mafia-like structure in which corruption is not only rampant, but vertically-integrated, with local officials sharing their ill-gotten gains with those up the chain who appointed them. 

Moreover, by channeling huge amounts of cash for infrastructure and development projects through a political structure dominated by cronies of the Kabul elite, the US has facilitated the growth of corrupt, locally-unaccountable officials who support their personally – and tribally – connected friends and prey upon the less-favoured, driving them into the arms of the Taliban.

Finally, the centrepiece of the current US strategy, the key element in the strong centralised state envisioned by the US and NATO, which will relieve the well-intentioned westerners of their current burdens – the Afghan National Army  – is to be expanded to 134,000 troops by the end of 2011, and perhaps to as many as 170,000 thereafter. 

Leaving aside its inadequate training, its high attrition rates, and the fact that its dominance by Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities undermines its effectiveness in the contested Pashtun areas of the country, maintenance of such a huge force in the field would require budgets measured in multiples of Afghanistan’s GDP: In short, even if built, it simply cannot be sustained. Those who suggest that western governments will support such a force to the tune of many billions per year, even after their own troops are no longer on the front lines, are simply ignoring history.

The inevitable path to failure

In short, Obama has allowed himself, against his better judgment, to be forced into a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy grossly inappropriate to his modest stated objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Confronted by the refusal of the military bureaucracy to provide him with a strategy calibrated to his goals, Obama has given General Petraeus his head, compensating for this apparent dereliction by insisting rhetorically on policy objectives and a withdrawal timeline thoroughly belied by the actions of his government.  This is a policy doomed to sink under the weight of its own contradictions.

If the US and its allies are to avoid a disastrous failure in Afghanistan, they should embrace the modest goal at which their efforts are nominally aimed: To deny safe haven to al-Qa’ida on either side of the Durand Line.  Further, they must understand that such an objective can only be achieved, over the long term, by Afghans and Pakistanis operating on their own account, and reorient their methods to suit.

Paving the path to success and stability 

If the end-state to be avoided in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan is an uncontested terrorist safe haven, then an achievable western goal would be to ensure that any terrorist safe havens which may appear are, in fact, contested, pending the two countries’ much longer-term goal of fully controlling their own territory. In the case of Afghanistan, this would mean that the price of continued US and NATO support to the government would be a continuing platform for counter-terror operations which have arguably been the most successful aspect of the US engagement to date.

More broadly-based US efforts to support the Afghan government and to extend responsible control over more of the country, however, must focus on true sustainability, and must conform to traditional Afghan norms of governance to succeed. 

This would mean, first of all, a sharp devolution of power from the centre to the periphery. Rather than provincial and district officials being appointed by Kabul, such officials should be locally selected, and subject to traditional forms of democratic accountability, whether through elections or broadly representative shuras.  This would help to break the systemic, vertically-integrated corruption bedeviling the country, and reduce popular resistance to the Kabul regime.

Economic assistance should remain a key part of western efforts to build support for the Kabul government, but to do so it should be pursued on a much more modest scale, and tied to efforts to encourage and empower responsible local governance. 

Rather than pouring billions into large-scale projects which generally serve to empower unaccountable elites and their provincial cronies – and which generate scant political support in the bargain – western assistance should be provided via initiatives such as the highly successful National Solidarity Program, through which funding is provided for village shuras to select and administer their own projects and take full ownership of them.

Decentralising the security effor

The shift from building unaccountable and unsustainable centralised institutions should extend, perhaps most importantly, to the security realm. Rather than focusing their efforts exclusively on building up an ethnically unrepresentative and unsustainably large national army, the US and NATO should complement efforts to train a small but capable national force with initiatives aimed as supporting local tribal leaders and others – particularly in the Pashtun South and East – who have genuine weight in their communities and who are willing and capable of leading local militias to resist Taliban intimidation and brutality. 

Though disparaged by some as an effort to build up warlords, support to traditional Afghan leaders provided by knowledgeable and engaged military and intelligence officers can be conditioned on those leaders’ willingness to accept the guidance of broadly-based and representative local shuras. 

Promotion of “warlords,” in short, would place US and NATO forces in service to authentic Afghan leaders, rather than the other way around; would conform to Afghan social and cultural norms; and could serve to encourage warlords’ best behavior, both in local and national contexts.

Building Afghan security in this manner would be a task for relatively small US and coalition special-forces units, and thus would require many fewer troops – perhaps something on the total order of 35,000 to 45,000, rather than the current total of 150,000. 

Rather than relying on conventional forces to engage in large, highly disruptive sweep operations which generate significant civilian casualties to clear and hold territory, in the often vain hope that Afghan security and governance will follow behind, western forces instead would seek out genuine leaders in contested areas whom they could then support.

In areas lacking capable and courageous leaders willing and able to counter Taliban incursions, the Taliban could well consolidate control. So long as they did not play host to foreign militants posing a threat to the region and the wider world, however, this is something the US should be willing to live with.

A productive platform for counter-terrorism

When and where a genuine terrorist safe haven were to arise, moreover, foreign counter-terrorism forces would have an Afghan platform from which to exercise their right of sovereign defense with full acquiescence of the national government.

In areas where Taliban-affiliated leaders were to take advantage of decentralized governance to exert traditional forms of local rule and had the support of the local population, this should be a matter of indifference to western forces: Where core western counter-terror objectives are not engaged, they should not be reflexively attacking the Taliban.

It would be far more likely, of course, that Taliban gains would be made through intimidation, and thus likely over time to generate popular resistance. As we saw after 9/11, local opponents of the Taliban will be far more likely to rise up against them if they have recourse to western military support.

Viewed another way, in areas where Taliban dominance generates incipient local opposition, and where there is a danger that the Taliban will provide support to regional and international militants, western forces should be in the position of fomenting insurgency, rather than allowing themselves to fall into the trap of conducting an indiscriminate, nation-wide counterinsurgency.

If the desired end-state in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is responsible government control over all national territory, the approach advocated here for Afghanistan will take many years. Its advantage over current policy, however, is that it would be sustainable by the West, put Afghans appropriately in the lead, and be actually capable of achieving its long-term goals, while providing means of defense against international terrorists in the meantime.

A transparently sustainable US-NATO policy in Afghanistan could also have salutary effects in Pakistan, where US policy to date has been similarly deficient. The shape of a viable US policy toward Pakistan will be considered next week. 

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002 as well as the director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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