19 April 2009

Afghanistan: can we win?

I am indebted to Henry Thornton’s friend Sir Wellington Boote for drawing attention here on 14 April to an article in the U.S. Armed Forces Journal by Major Daniel L. Davis, entitled The Afghan Mistake: Why sending more troops won’t work.

Major Davis, who is a U.S. Army officer currently posted to Baghdad as a military trainer, asks whether a surge of troops in Afghanistan is the best solution to the deteriorating situation, and whether it is possible to create a stable government in Afghanistan by using military force to destroy all opposition (the Taliban and others).

In reply he argues that there are cultural reasons why increases in U.S. troop strength have only resulted in “increasing the number of American casualties, an escalating Afghan casualty rate and a troubling rise in Taliban strength and effectiveness”.

The particular feature of Afghan culture to which he refers is the qawm, a flexible sense of solidarity, sometimes translated as tribe, which may be based on kinship, residence or occupation. The qawm, which is the basic unit of community in Afghanistan, can cross tribal or even ethnic boundaries.

Davis argues that the qawm culture ensures that outsiders will always be treated as outsiders, such that Afghan parties who are fighting each other will band together to turn on the outsider.

His solution is to withdraw the bulk of all combat forces from Afghanistan, and “transition the nature of our support to something that is culturally acceptable and at least has a chance to be sustained over time”. He envisages an emphasis on institution building and changing the focus of foreign forces to a support and training role.

He distinguishes between domestic threats (the Taliban, provincial warlords) and transnational threats (al-Qaida). When transnational threats are identified American and NATO special forces would be mobilised along with American strategic assets to destroy them.

Much of this makes sense to me, but a better answer might lie in the views attributed to Dr David Kilcullen in an article in The Age of 18 April 2009. Kilcullen is a former Australian Army Lieutenant-Colonel who left the Army in 2005 to become Chief Strategist in the U.S. Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-terrorism (2005-2006), served in Iraq in the civilian position of Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser to General David Petraeus during 2007, was then an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and at the end of 2008 joined the Washington-based consulting firm the Crumpton Group.

Kilcullen sees a lot of local insurgents as “accidental guerrillas”, people who have taken up arms because we have invaded them, not because they want to invade us:

He is fighting because we are in his space, not because he wished to invade ours. He is engaged in ‘resistance’ rather than ‘insurgency’ and he fights principally to be left alone.

Kilcullen, who has also advised the Obama Administration on the new “AfPak” policy under which an additional 26,000 troops will be sent to Afghanistan, says that the primary task of these troops must be the protection of population centres, not “chasing the enemy all over the place on large-scale search-and-destroy missions”. This will allow people to get on with their lives while Afghan security forces, backed by small teams of U.S. special forces, secure the areas between the population centres.

Kilcullen is suitably sober about the prospects of success:

The conflict remains winnable, but the overall trend is extremely negative and a concerted long-term effort is needed – lasting 5-10 years at least – if we are to have any chance of building a resilient Afghan state and the kind of civil society that can defeat the threat.

Extending an effective, legitimate government presence into 40,020 villages for the first time in modern Afghan history is the principle challenge, as government weakness, corruption, misrule and perceived lack of legitimacy at the village and district level allows militias, warlords and criminals to reassert themselves.

The notion of the “accidental guerrilla” and the de-emphasis of large-scale military operations has been recognised at the highest levels of the United States military. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee in September 2008, “We can’t kill our way to victory...”. Admiral Mullen told the Committee that the U.S. urgently needed to improve its nation-building initiatives and its cross-border strategy with Pakistan.

In his own piece on “The Afghan Mistake” Sir Wellington Boote suggests that we should leave Afghanistan and leave “the savages in Afghanistan” to fall into their own heap. This sort of question is sometimes raised in relation to wars in faraway places, especially undeveloped ones that do not seem particularly relevant to us. My first response to that is that it strikes me as more than somewhat unseemly to invade another country and then depart when the locals fail to live up to our expectations.

There are three other reasons which might be more satisfying to people who consider that response a bit “soft”, three reasons firmly grounded in our self-interest. On a global basis, three major social evils are in large part the by-product of civil wars in which the locals are slugging it out – hard drugs, pandemic diseases and international terrorism:

- About 95% of the global production of illegal narcotics is located in civil war countries

- Epidemiological research suggests that the initial spread of HIV was closely associated with the 1979 civil war in Uganda

- International terrorists need areas outside of government control for large-scale training camps.

Sir Wellington asks whether you can have an alliance if you start saying “no”. My answer would be that indeed you can: that is what would make it an alliance rather than a client state relationship.

Finally, Sir Wellington also has some unkind things to say about “Canberra Public Servants”. I have known more than a few in my time. “Laziness” and “corruption” are not labels that I would apply to the people with whom I worked closely over many years.

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