It's time to adjust the strategy.
by Christopher D. Kolenda
The Weekly Standard
10/13/2008, Volume 014, Issue 05
How is it that we find ourselves unable to dispatch the Taliban seven years after their downfall? Winning in Afghanistan requires us to understand the changed nature of the war we are fighting and to adapt our strategy appropriately. Simply killing militants is not enough.
The war in Afghanistan is no longer purely a counterterrorism effort against al Qaeda and the senior Taliban leadership. It bifurcated long ago, and its second branch is a counterinsurgency against a range of groups who are flouting both the central government and the traditional authority of village and tribal elders and moderate mullahs. Often well funded by the Taliban or other enemies of the Afghan government and the coalition, and sometimes incorporating foreign fighters, these groups use money and guns to recruit from the vast pool of illiterate young men who see only continued poverty in the village and tribal status quo. The militants find their opportunity in the unraveling of the social and economic fabric since the Soviet invasion.
Against this shifting alliance of convenience between well-funded extremists and local malcontents, the Afghan government is fighting for its life. Historically decentralized, Afghanistan is a polyglot state made up of myriad ethnic groups and tribes. The present collapse from within, therefore, will not likely be defeated from the top down. While building up the central government is important, that effort will be in vain without a complementary effort to build systems and institutions at the local level, which can eventually be connected to the national government. Accepting and working within the decentralized reality of Afghan society is essential to defeating the insurgents.
Beyond that, the changed nature of the war makes necessary four key strategic adaptations.
(1) Increase the local and international security presence and its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; focus on population-centric operations.
More international security forces, particularly in the east and south, are crucial. The increase must be accompanied by an intensified effort to raise and develop Afghan forces. Furthermore, we must devote more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to the contested areas. As a rule, each battalion-sized task force should have constant unmanned-aerial-vehicle and close-air-support coverage.
These forces must concentrate on protecting the population. To that end, they must build allies among the people; reduce the friction associated with the presence of foreign forces; work with local leaders to promote security in villages and on roads; promote local solutions to local problems; crush the militants when they reveal themselves; and give people compelling reasons to support the government and the counterinsurgency.
(2) Invest in bottom-up capability; attack the problem from both ends. Decentralization can be a powerful force on the side of the government if used responsibly. Afghan identity works from the inside out: Family, clan, village, and tribe are far more compelling to the individual than the nation. Afghans regard their elected village, district, and tribal shuras (councils) as their true representatives, not the appointed district administrators or provincial governors. Empowering these local councils to bring effective governance, basic services, and economic opportunity to their people in a manner integrated with national efforts is the best way to connect people to their government.
Local governments desperately need to draw on the expertise of civilian partners from the international community to develop durable systems relevant to everyday life. The military cannot do this alone. Ensuring these efforts are properly distributed and aligned with the national government will mitigate the very real risk of a return to the warlordism that racked the country after the Soviet war.
(3) Fix critical economic and fiscal policies at the national level. A functional economy, coupled with social and political institutions at the local level, would destroy the Taliban. The overwhelming majority of military-aged males in contested areas are unemployed outside subsistence farming. They fight for money. The economic logic of violence must change.
Afghanistan has considerable natural resources that could be harnessed to spur business and other economic growth. Sadly, national policy hamstrings efforts to do this. For instance, the timber trade has been virtually outlawed, preventing the development of local businesses while creating a black market that feeds the insurgency and resistance to the government. The underground timber economy has also resulted in significant deforestation. A smart timber policy would create incentives to manage forests in addition to generating business opportunities consonant with local interests and capabilities.
Tax policy is another study in dysfunction. According to local officials, a district is authorized to collect taxes on sales, but it must send all of the money to Kabul, which then redistributes it on the basis of perceived need. This encourages district officials to collect no taxes and claim poverty, thereby securing money from the national government. Enabling local governments to retain most of the taxes they collect, and creating systems to ensure transparency and accountability for how the money is spent, would end up bringing more money into the national coffers as well as providing better for the localities. Getting the economic and fiscal incentives right while improving local governance would also reduce the problem of government banditry.
Building systems and institutions that make local governments robust enough to earn the loyalty of their people while remaining tied to the national government is the heart of the matter in the long run. If this is done, local militant groups will die on the vine.
(4) Work with Pakistan to apply the same full-spectrum approach across the border. The socioeconomic dislocation seen in Afghanistan is similarly endemic in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Working with our allies in Pakistan to eliminate insurgent safe-havens is critical, but so is investment in local governance and development in the impoverished areas that have become breeding grounds for militants. Here too, potential recruits to the militant groups need a reason to support their government. The insurgencies must be defeated on both sides of the border in order for Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to have peace. Progress on these fronts, of course, would also support the counterterrorism campaign against the senior al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.
Afghanistan is worth winning. Adapting our strategy to the realities of the war we now find ourselves fighting would enable us to defeat the enemy's strategy and not just his forces. Strategy trumps tactics in counterinsurgency: As we saw in Vietnam and, until recently, in Iraq, we can win every battle and still watch the war slip away. Adjust the strategy, align the tactics, and we will regain the initiative in Afghanistan.
Christopher D. Kolenda, a U.S. Army colonel, returned recently from Afghanistan, where he was a task force commander. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect official Department of Defense policy.
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