May 1, 2011  

Getting it right

10 problems with the Afghan campaign

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander Gen. David H. Petraeus often talks about getting the “inputs” right in Afghanistan, which means having the right mix of military forces, civilian assets and Afghan government participation to conduct a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. In many respects, the process of getting the inputs right only really began in 2009, but with the beginning of the U.S. drawdown later this year, it is useful to investigate whether we have the inputs right as well as whether the “outputs” are correct. The following 10 problems with the Afghan campaign reflect the challenges of resourcing the conflict correctly but also have to do with implementation strategy in general, as well as how civilian interagency and Afghan partners are doing in support of the COIN strategy. These observations are gleaned from my service in Afghanistan with the State Department in 2005-2006 when I worked as the political officer at the Tarin Kowt Provincial Reconstruction Team, military service with the Navy in 2009-2010 where I worked as the liaison officer between ISAF Joint Command and the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs, as well as a trip last fall for the U.S. government where I participated in an independent study of the conflict. I also served with the Navy in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007, which provided a useful contrasting experience.

1. Not enough troops. The dominant narrative of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., is that there are enough troops to undertake a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign. However, the difference between the rhetoric of troop increases and the reality is still quite stark. Many areas of the country have sufficient troops to undertake a population protection strategy whereas others are COIN-lite and some have few, if any troops at all. This rationing of the war, where some areas receive a great deal of attention and others are economies of force, will prove insufficient to prevail against the Taliban. The Key Terrain District (KTD) program wherein coalition operations are focused in more than 80 districts represents this reduction of expectations. Each KTD is supposed to have a synchronized delivery of population-protection, good governance and reconstruction/development efforts. We are already not meeting these reduced expectations, and as we squeeze the insurgency in some areas with a counterinsurgency approach it is manifesting itself in others where sufficient resources are absent. It is an open secret in Kabul that senior ISAF leaders want more troops. President Obama’s authorization of an additional 1,400 U.S. Marines in January was further evidence that there aren’t enough troops to undertake the tasks required under a population-centric campaign and that his support for 30,000 troops was insufficient.

2. Civilian uplift is failing. The civilian uplift was announced by Obama in March 2009 and is an effort to provide “a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground … to advance security, opportunity and justice — not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces.” The plan was to increase the number of civilian personnel in Afghanistan from roughly 360 in January 2009 to approximately 1,000 by early 2010 and to around 1,200 to 1,300 by late 2010. Most personnel would be in the provinces and districts of Afghanistan where coalition troops are stationed, while those in Kabul would concentrate on partnering with key central government ministries focused on delivering services to the Afghan people. In addition to increasing the number of civilians at provincial reconstruction teams, the uplift was also going to provide civilian advisers at military task forces as well as at newly created district support teams (DST), which are three-man elements focused on good governance and development activities at the local level. The vast undertaking of recruiting, training, deploying and evaluating these personnel has significantly tested the State Department and, while much has been achieved, it is still inadequate.

A clear majority of these civilians are working in Afghanistan’s capital and, while large numbers of civilians will be deployed to the countryside for the first time, the focus of the uplift on Kabul reinforces the capital-centric nature of our operations. With the Taliban insurgency focused on securing the villages and districts of rural Afghanistan, this emphasis is unfortunate. Furthermore, it is unclear what factors were taken into consideration when determining the size of the civilian uplift. Why district support teams, for example, are three people versus any other number is difficult to determine when the size, development needs and host government capacity of Afghanistan’s districts fluctuate considerably.

Additionally, while the concept of district support teams is absolutely correct with respect to focusing interagency efforts on the lowest level of government the Afghan people encounter, significant challenges have arisen since implementation. Many districts that will be cleared and held by coalition military forces still do not have a dedicated DST to support “hold and build” operations. Additionally, more than half of the DSTs do not have the full complement of diplomat, development adviser and agricultural expert to partner with local Afghan officials and work with military units.

Disturbingly, many of the civilian “experts” who have been hired for the uplift are too fat, frail and/or flaky to undertake their responsibilities. Some are physically incapable of doing their job of visiting villages and meeting with local officials, and others are not taken seriously and do not know how to represent the agency they speak for and thus are quickly marginalized by the military. Much of this has to do with challenges in the screening and hiring process in Washington, but because, as one diplomat put it, “[t]he political will in Washington to meet year-end targets is intense,” shortcuts have been taken leading to the hiring of many marginally qualified individuals. While the civilian interagency has a long history of difficulty in recruiting personnel to work in Afghanistan and Iraq, these quality shortfalls are puzzling when the U.S. is faced with an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent.

3. Civil-military cooperation is dysfunctional. The Obama administration’s 2009 integrated civilian-military campaign plan for support to Afghanistan was an effort to provide more resources and organization to Afghanistan’s state-building efforts. It created a number of coordinating bodies in Kabul to better integrate civil-military efforts; senior civilian representative positions to provide greater direction; DSTs to partner with local officials; additional ambassadors to provide improved management; a substantial increase in interagency civilians to work in the field; and an Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs at the U.S. Embassy to focus on the countryside. The chief goal of these efforts was to improve the connection of the field to the U.S. government’s representatives in Kabul and to provide a more coordinated approach to partnering with the Afghan government and the U.S. military. Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources, poor design and implementation, and inadequate evaluation, the integrated civilian-military effort is faltering.

U.S. civil-military efforts in Kabul are still poorly coordinated and integrated even with all of these changes. They have a bias toward the central government versus the field, are fraught with continuity problems because of frequent personnel rotations, and are hampered by friction, miscommunication, lack of teamwork and poor planning. In many respects, when it comes to the collective good governance and development efforts of the U.S. and the international community, the U.N. has the mandate but not the manpower; State has the responsibility but not the resources; and the military has the manpower but not the mission. While much has been done to improve U.S. and coalition state-building efforts, a new approach is needed that is better resourced, fully integrates civilian and military efforts, connects the field to the capital, and is sustainable for the long term, especially as districts and provinces transition to civilian control.

4. Withdrawal deadline has set operations back. Obama’s December 2009 announcement that he intended to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting in July 2011 has had a devastating effect on the military campaign. When set in the cultural context of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the U.S. withdrew its support from Afghanistan after the communist government fell in 1992, the withdrawal deadline immediately prompted many Afghan and Pakistani leaders to focus on survival and short-term strategies versus long-term goals of stability.

For all of the discussion in Washington of Afghanistan “endgame,” “exit” and “withdrawal” strategies, it is easy to lose sight of how these debates affected the Afghan government and the exit strategies of President Hamid Karzai, as well as the calculations of the Taliban and Pakistan. Karzai’s pragmatic ambitions are now focused on the survival of his government, and any notions of anti-corruption, reconciliation, counterinsurgency and development are permeated by this new focus on continuing to exist after the departure of U.S. and coalition forces. There are already signs that Karzai’s willingness to support certain U.S. goals for his country are shifting or weakening, and while he and his government will continue to work closely with the coalition, he is hedging his bets on a post-U.S. and post-NATO reality in his country.

The shift by the U.S. to the beginning of a drawdown in 2014 is a recognition that the original date was not only ill-informed but counterproductive. Additionally, the July 2011 departure provided additional morale support to the Taliban and their supporters because it gave them further evidence that their strategy of attrition against the U.S. was working. Furthermore, the withdrawal deadline also reconfirmed Pakistani officials’ calculations that the U.S. would not be staying in Central Asia to ensure stability for the long term, thus prompting them to continue their close work with the Taliban as a strategy for influence within Afghanistan.

5. Mineral deposits are not being developed. The recent announcement that the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations led by Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul A. Brinkley will be subsumed within USAID only serves to underscore the lack of effort by the Obama administration to develop Afghanistan’s reportedly $1 trillion worth of minerals.

The June 2010 announcement that the task force, in addition to the U.S. Geological Survey, had uncovered potentially trillions of dollars of minerals such as copper and lithium within Afghanistan was significant for a number of reasons. Afghanistan could potentially be self-sufficient with respect to generating resources to pay for the enduring costs of maintaining a large army and police force and, for the first time in its history, would be independent of foreign financial support and chart its own course. While a number of initiatives have begun to develop these resources, absent the driving force of DoD’s task force, efforts will be unfocused, not comprehensive, and mired in USAID bureaucracy.

6. Pakistani safe havens have not been addressed. We must be frank with ourselves as much as we are with the Pakistanis. The only reason the Pakistani government went after the Taliban and its associates when they overran Pakistan’s Swat River Valley is because they directly threatened Pakistan’s interests. While U.S. collaboration with the Pakistan government has been uneven with respect to targeting foreign fighters, Pakistan’s overwhelming national interest to maintain the Taliban, shelter al-Qaida, and provide safe havens for jihadists dominates its calculations.

Targeted airstrikes that secure tactical victories are insufficient to achieve victory in Pakistan. We should review the practical considerations of a campaign to secure Waziristan and Baluchistan to eliminate the Taliban’s nascent state government and its military bases of support. We should pursue this with the Pakistanis if we can, but be prepared to initiate it alone if we must. We should prepare for this by reducing our dependence for supplies from Pakistani ports as well as review our security assistance to the country. We cannot prevail in Afghanistan without solving the Pakistani security problem. We must escalate military operations if we hope to de-escalate and prevail in the long term.

7. NATO is hindering victory. The experience of NATO in Afghanistan has been uneven and the differences between the idea of NATO as a war-fighting organization and the reality on the ground have been stark. While having broad political support as well as military contributions from NATO for the Afghan campaign have generally been positive, the bureaucracy, risk-averse behavior, operational caveating and force protection mindset of many alliance members have been catastrophic.

While a number of countries have volunteered to be in the worst areas of Afghanistan and have suffered significant casualties, many more have served in relatively safer parts and the burden of the war has been uneven. While NATO cites Article 5 of the NATO charter as its reason for being in Afghanistan, far too many countries seem to want the political benefits of participating in the Afghan campaign but are unwilling to truly take the military risks required for victory. A pared-down NATO in Afghanistan that allows those countries willing to fight to remain while allowing others less inclined to do so to leave would be a fruitful accomplishment. We should evaluate the merits of bringing more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to ease this withdrawal process.

8. Clinton, Gates and Petraeus will eventually leave. The coalition within the U.S. government that has favored victory in Afghanistan will eventually leave either due to retirements or promotion. Inhibiting the rush to the exits in Afghanistan by many NATO countries as well as the U.S. will prove difficult if these individuals depart government service without a thought-through succession plan. A strategy must be assembled to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Petraeus with people who are still committed to victory in Afghanistan and who will reassure our allies that the U.S. is not leaving precipitously. Additionally, these individuals must have broad bipartisan backing in order to sustain congressional funding and political support.

9. The Afghan constitution inhibits local success. One of the central challenges of Afghanistan has been building a viable government at the provincial, district and village levels that can compete with the Taliban’s political program. While security conditions have long been a limiting factor to the establishment of an effective government in many parts of the country, Afghanistan’s history of an overly centralized state in Kabul and a nonexistent state in the countryside has also complicated the task.

Good governance efforts have been further hindered by Afghanistan’s high illiteracy rates, formidable terrain and lack of trained civil servants. While the state is quite weak in many areas, it is too strong in others where the central government has so much authority that local initiative is often stymied because provincial officials must secure the central government’s approval for actions that should fall within the discretion of community leaders. Because provincial governors are appointed by the central government and often lack direct budget authority and the ability to hire and fire local officials, they are ever mindful of maintaining political connections in Kabul and do not have to be overly concerned with local sentiment. Because the people are unable to hold corrupt or ineffective provincial officials accountable, they often turn to the Taliban to address injustices.

Furthermore, this system of government encourages corruption because accountability and responsibility are disconnected, and lacking a viable judiciary and political party system, local residents have no realistic way of addressing complaints. We must work with the United Nations and the Afghan government to pass the recently approved Sub-National Governance policy and to seek consensus on constitutional reforms allowing some element of democratic accountability to exist at the local level.

10. MRAPs are adversely affecting operations. The introduction of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles has dramatically reduced the horrendously high casualty rates caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban have also responded to this improved capability by escalating IED attacks and improving their lethality.

One unintended effect of the introduction of these vehicles is that commanders are increasingly determining their missions based upon the ability of the MRAPs to transport soldiers to the intended target. Because roads in Afghanistan are notoriously bad, especially in the mountainous east, it has had a chilling effect on operations where force-protection concerns have trumped mission accomplishment. Like anything in Afghanistan, implementation is key and while devices designed to save the lives of U.S. soldiers are always valued, they must be balanced against other interests such as securing an objective, meeting with tribal elders and conducting combat operations against the insurgency. AFJ

Dan Green is a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Ph.D. student in political science at George Washington University.