Counterinsurgency against a political clock

WASHINGTON – How are we doing in Afghanistan, now that General David Petraeus has taken over? Well, it depends on who is answering the question. The administration, of course, would like to present a bright picture, as evidence that its policies are working. However, a few days ago, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to be in great difficulty explaining to skeptical senators, including many Democrats, what progress is being made in Afghanistan several months into the new policies that followed the major strategic readjustment ordered by president Barack Obama late last year.

US goals in Afghanistan

As we know, the new strategy called for a significant increase of US forces, (about 30,000 additional troops), along with additions coming from NATO allies, (this is ostensibly a NATO operation), and others. There would also be a redoubled, (“new and improved”?), comprehensive effort to bring about economic development, through more and (this time around) better aid programs. The idea was that a new two pronged (military and economic) vigorous counter insurgency effort would weaken the Taliban, strengthen the shaky Kabul government led by President Hamid Karzai, while winning over many Afghans still uncertain as to who would win the war and thus who they should support. The new strategy was accompanied by great confidence in eventual success. Indeed, it was indicated at the time that by July 2011 there would be a beginning of US withdrawal. In brief, this was the political message to a suspicious US public: “quickly in”; “victory”; and then quickly out”.

Support for the US?…

Anyway, one of the seemingly positive things that Holbrooke stated during his recent testimony is that several opinion polls, such as they are in the context of a primitive country, indicate that at most only 10 per cent of the Afghan population supports the Taliban. His implicit point is that the other 90 per cent are on our side; and this would be good news, showing that the balance has shifted in our favor. Well, not quite so, it seems.

…Not so great after all

A Reuters story (July 19, 2010) stated that:

“A recent poll found 75 percent of Afghans believed foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions, 74 percent believe working with foreign forces was wrong, 68 percent believed foreign forces did not protect them and 65 percent wanted the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to join the government”. Given the overall messy conditions on the ground, I have no idea as to how reliable any poll taken in Afghanistan may be. But these numbers, even if inflated on the negative side, are truly worrisome. Holbrooke pointed out that only 10 per cent of the people are with the bad guys.


Whereas, the poll cited by Reuters would indicate that more than 70 per cent of the people believe that “we” are the bad guys, or at the very least that we are not be trusted. This does not imply, of course, that more than 70 per cent of the people are actively engaged in armed resistance against US forces; but it surely does not suggest support or confidence in what we are there to do. So much for progress, thus far, in “winning hearts and minds”.

The challenge before us

But there is lot more on the negative side. A The Wall Street Journal story (“Petraeus Sharpens Afghan Strategy“, July 22, 2010), reporting on some adjustments being made by General Davis Petraeus upon taking over as Commander in Afghanistan, commented that :

“[…]. An effective counterinsurgency strategy can take years, and it remains unclear whether Gen. Petraeus approach will work in Afghanistan, where volatile tribal politics, a lack of infrastructure and rudimentary local security forces pose significant challenges.”


The conditions in Afghanistan

Well, note the passing comment that this counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan “can take years“, while the stated US goal is to start withdrawing at least some troops by July 2011. As for the “significant challenges” referred to in the article, they are a euphemism for “incredible obstacles“. Let’s see how the CIA World Factbook –this is our own US Government speaking– characterizes Afghanistan’s economy:

“[…..].Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, agriculture, and trade with neighboring countries. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. Criminality, insecurity, weak governance, and the Afghan Government’s inability to extend rule of law to all parts of the country pose challenges to future economic growth. Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world. [Emphasis added].While the international community remains committed to Afghanistan’s development, pledging over $57 billion at three donors’ conferences since 2002, the Government of Afghanistan will need to overcome a number of challenges, including low revenue collection, anemic job creation, high levels of corruption, weak government capacity, and poor public infrastructure
How poor is poor Afghanistan?

Got that? And bear in mind that, in the context of Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on earth, “poor public infrastructure“, does not mean an insufficient number of 4 lane highways, it means that there is almost nothing there. Think of this: the installed electrical capacity of Afghanistan, a country with 29 million inhabitants, is smaller than the capacity installed in The Cayman Islands, a country with a population of 50,000. Yes, you got that right: 50,000 people in a high income, small Caribbean country have more electricity than 29 million Afghans.

Millions of illiterate children

And other data indicate the magnitude of any effort aimed at improving economic conditions, a key component of an effective counterinsurgency strategy, based on the idea that you will “win hearts and minds” by demonstrating how you can create positive change for the local population.

Afghanistan is bigger than France, with a population of about 29 million. Of these, 42% are children below the age of 14. Due to poverty, their future is grim. Life expectancy is 45 years. And the chances of making things better for all these children are slim. The overall literacy rate is about 28%, and for girls a miserable 12%. What future can there be for an illiterate girl in a poor country in which women, because of custom and religious belief, are treated as second class beings? And what can the US do to seriously improve literacy, while providing economic prospects to millions of poor children? Overall, little. And in the short time, very, very little.

Poverty, corruption, ethnic strife, terrorism…..

A per capita GDP of about $ 800 a year places Afghanistan towards the very bottom of world rankings: number 219 out of 227 listed. Add to this the internal divisions among at least 7 major ethnic groups and languages, a weak government, a flourishing narcotraffic (opium) that funds local criminals, war lords and the Taliban and you get the picture of the country that we are trying to modernize, and very fast at that, as we are fighting an insurgency which unfortunately causes the death of many civilians caught in the crossfires.

And yes, I almost forgot: rampant corruption. For instance, what do we make of the confirmed fact that billions of dollars leave the country every year? How can one possibly justify this exodus of capital from a poverty stricken nation that literally needs every penny that would come in? And it is in this environment that the Taliban-led insurgency has regained ground, proving to be an almost intractable pest.

And we want to defeat an insurgency –and we are in a real hurry to get it done fast– in this most intractable environment by sprinkling around some more troops and a few billions of dollars?

Well, Good Luck!

We cannot win

I am not suggesting here that our goal of denying sanctuary to Islamic radicals in Afghanistan is a lost cause. But I am suggesting that this strategic objective cannot be achieved in the way envisaged by the administration which is based on modernizing (at least to a significant degree) the country in order to inoculate it from terrorists.

The Obama “Afghanistan Plan” created an incredibly tall agenda and thus a huge challenge for itself. A challenge that cannot possibly be met with the resources so far allocated, even if we include more troops and more money for development.

And certainly US goals cannot be met within the official time horizons, whereby we start moving forces out by July 2011; thus  implying that about a year from now the US will be able to start handing over important responsibilities to supposedly capable Afghan entities, military and civilian. This scenario is highly unlikely. Nothing thus far indicates that the Afghan state will be capable to do much more a year from now. As the article quoted above says, counterinsurgency may take years. In fact I think that we are talking decades.

An alterative: rely on local power structures

The issue here is that we have chosen a counterinsurengy strategy to achieve counter terrorism objectives. In principle, it may look good to “clean up” Afghanistan and fix it so that it will be inoculated against the temptations of radicalism. In practice, this is a fantastic objective that cannot be reached.

Is there an alternative? I have said before and I repeat now that we may be able to achieve our basic counter terror objective of denying the Taliban and al Qaeda a safe heaven in Afghanistan by entering agreements with local war lords and the power structures, such as they are, that they embody. And this choice is not because we want to fragment Afghanistan into tribal or ethnic enclaves, or because we like the war lords. It is because building up, almost from scratch, a strong and credible central Afghan state is just too complicated, unless we assume decades and unlimited resources to do the job.

“No Taliban”

The agreement with the local chiefs would essentially say: “We support you. We give you money, arms, and resources. On one condition: No Taliban. No al Qaeda. If you break this agreement we will deal with you”. With US money, the local lords will strenghten their power, while hopefully providing a little better for their people. This would be the locally based anti-Taliban force –a force that, if we are straight with them, (“we shall support you, we shall give you arms”), would have a stake in resisting the insurgency. (Note that Gen. Petraeus is concocting something similar, taking the form of beefed up local militias. But it is a contradictory goal, in the context of the declared US strategy, to empower new local militias, while pursuing the parallel objective of building up the capability and reach of Kabul armed forces and police).

Messy but it might work

All this may not be tidy and orderly; but it may work. The advantage of this approach is that it would rely heavily on local resources, with indirect US support; while allowing the US to reduce its visible presence, itself a negative factor that strengthens anti-foreign feelings and thus the resistance.

Of course, this looks messy. And this would not fit the nice, canonic, much beloved “text book” nation-building paradigm predicated on: 1) fixing the Kabul government, 2) creating capacity for all the line ministries, 3) investing in the economy, 4) improving revenue collection, 5) reforming the judiciary, 6) ensuring free elections, 7) eradicating corruption, 8) providing health care, 9) creating schools, etc.

To do things “right” may require decades

The problem is that the tidy nation-building goals may require a generation or more of steady investments and a lot more fighting before we can see truly appreciable results: i.e. the modernization of a poor country now virtually in the Middle Ages. But, somehow the disconnect between lofty goals and the harsh reality on the ground is lost.

Agenda hostage to US politics

The net result is that we have unachievable policy goals to which we have to add that all this grand strategy has to be accomplished  within time constraints created by a restless US public opinion that wants “this thing” to end as soon as possible. And on top of that we have to add the additional constraints imposed on the operation by the US political calendar: “Win and show soldiers headed home before the 2012 presidential  elections“. Hence the incoherent message whereby we redouble our efforts now and at the same time announce that we shall start packing next year. This would be fine if our goals were reachable within such a short time. But they are not. Talk about squaring the circle.

Win before the elections

But in so doing, by defining goals that it cannot achieve, within time horizons that are almost laughable given the magnitude of the tasks, it seems to me that the Obama administration has painted itself in a corner. Its only way out would be by engaging in fact manipulation, by inflating results and “declaring victory” next year, essentially lying to America and to the world.

This way we cannot achieve the goals

My simple contention is that the Afghan policy goals as stated are unattainable within the time frame indicated and relying on the resources so far allocated. General David Petraeus may be a genius and the best we’ve got when it comes to counterinsurgency. But he does not have divine powers.

America: no more money for distant wars

And if the above were not enough, let’s consider this: The US Government is nearly broke. With mounting political pressures to cut public spending, the Afghanistan operation, rightly or wrongly, is beginning to look more and more like an extraordinary luxury that we can no longer afford –at least for the average voter who may not understand the possible long range ramifications of anarchy and what an eventual Islamic take over in Afghanistan may bring, including more attacks against the US homeland.

And this is why the administration created an arbitrary but politically savvy short time horizon for this campaign. Message to the wary voters: “Not to worry. We’ll be done in no time“. But, while clever, this is really a bad idea. Fighting a messy guerrilla war is bad enough. Fighting a war with the proviso that you have to win by a due date, because the country will not support it much longer is probably too much –even if you have David Petraeus in charge.

As for our Allies willingness to help us, beyond the inadequate levels provided so far, well this is another sorry chapter in this story which I’ll save for another time.


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