November 1, 2010  

No way forward

Afghanistan Study Group report falls short

If councils of war can breed timidity, councils of scholars and pundits can generate fog. The unofficial Afghanistan Study Group brought together a group of great Americans for deep discussions and fervent contemplation on the U.S. role in Afghanistan, but its report, “A New Way Forward,” fails to improve on the current strategy. Indeed, it is not a new strategy at all, but a set of recommendations that mainly fall short of the mark.

Many of the report’s preliminary assertions are, at best, puzzling. It proclaims that the current strategy is not working, but it was published in the same month that the last of the U.S. surge forces hit the ground. We have had a few strategies in the nine years that we have been there. Our new strategy is but a few months old. Even the most impatient Washington insiders have agreed to give it until December 2010 for a re-assessment and up to July 2011 before they begin to modify it. The Study Group’s judgment seems to be that the new strategy was dead on arrival.

The report refers to the conflict in a few places as a civil war, which is a code word for hopelessness and a warning against involvement by third powers. Afghanistan had an all-against-the others civil war from 1992 to 1996. The Taliban ended that civil war by defeating or co-opting the other combatants. Today, we have an insurgency fostered by a tiny minority of the Pashtun ethnic group, which is 40 to 42 percent of the population. The Taliban effort is a complex, 21st-century insurgency by religious zealots to regain authoritarian political power. These insurgents rarely rise above 10 percent in nationwide popularity polls. The war in Afghanistan is a war of 29 million people against 35,000 guerrillas and their supporters, willing or coerced. It is an insurgency, not a civil war.

The Study Group regards al-Qaida as the plague, but considers the Taliban to be a more benign entity, unworthy of our military efforts. President Obama, however, clearly saw the growing relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban as a significant problem and stated in a West Point speech last year that the Taliban “has maintained common cause with al-Qaida” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, the Pakistani variant of the Taliban — a close ally of Afghan Taliban — has already been involved in terrorist activities in the United States.

Al-Qaida saw Afghanistan as the first state in the multiregional caliphate. It used Afghan territory to train 10-20,000 terrorists, according to the 9/11 Commission. It has high stakes in the victory of the Taliban in both countries. In turn, the Taliban is now a menace to two states, one of which is home to a U.S. expeditionary force, and the other to a state with nuclear weapons. The Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan has become the epicenter of the global war on terrorism. We cannot choose to fight al-Qaida and sidestep the Taliban, no matter how convenient or less expensive that might be.


Another strange aspect of this report is its disregard for the Afghan government, the 40 coalition partners, and the international community. The Study Group portrays the war in question as an American contest against the Taliban. The war is, of course, very much a combined effort, but the report ignores our international partners and does not even mention the International Security Assistance Force, under whose banner the U.S. is fighting this war.

NATO — with nearly 40,000 soldiers in country and over 700 dead — receives a few perfunctory, mainly pessimistic references in the report. The United Nations is mentioned once, and the World Bank, and other international financial institutions, not at all. In this Study Group, the war in Afghanistan seems to be all about us.

The body of the report revolves around five recommendations, which it repeats in three places in its 16 pages. Three of these are wrong and the other two are generally unobjectionable, but they mainly describe policies that are already underway. Let’s look at them in turn.

• 1. Emphasize power sharing and political inclusion. The United States should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power sharing balance among the principal parties.

The report seems to forget here that Afghanistan is a sovereign state with its own constitution, and that it is not a colony of the United States. The Afghan government should lead on reconciliation issues and is better at local politics than the coalition could ever be. One must also wonder whether a “fast-track” peace process is at all appropriate. With the Taliban coming off from five years of battlefield progress and believing that it is winning, wouldn’t a fast-tracked peace process be to its advantage? Even if the Taliban is not considered a threat to the U.S., it was terrible as a government, is very unpopular inside Afghanistan, and has committed numerous atrocities since 2002. Should the U.S. really “encourage a power sharing balance among the principal parties?”

• 2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the military footprint.

The authors seem to believe that the firemen caused the fire in southern Afghanistan. The truth is far simpler: The Afghan government and the coalition had hardly any presence in poppy-rich Helmand up until 2006. Garrisons in other southern provinces, such as Helmand and Uruzgan, were skeletally manned and not up to the tasks at hand. The problem today in southern Afghanistan is that these areas have become Taliban strongholds. We are not “an important aid to Taliban recruitment.” To the contrary, we are now destroying cadres that had been unchallenged there for many years.

Putting aside current realities, one may also wonder how ending military operations in the southern part of Afghanistan would affect the coalition’s ability “to fast-track a peace process.” Having ejected our forces from the south, the Taliban would be likely to exploit that victory in its propaganda and at the peace talks — if it bothered to show up. Fighting and pressuring Taliban field forces and leadership cadres is not an obstacle to peace, it is a prerequisite to it. So is fighting and pressuring the Taliban in the east, where more than half of U.S. forces are. Surprisingly, the report says nothing about the more successful battle for Regional Command-East.

In a similar vein, in the middle of the report, the authors recommend “a decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011 and 30,000 by July 2012.” This would mean taking out the entire surge force by October 2011, and then rapidly reducing U.S. forces in 10 months to the level they were at in the spring of 2008, a very bad time for the coalition. What is the basis for these numbers? What would these troops be doing, or not doing, in the future? What would make up for the loss in a short period of time of the security contribution of 70,000 U.S. troops? How would this affect our allies?

Giving force levels without explanation or analysis is akin to Stalin giving guidance to his generals by drawing on the globe with a crayon. There may well be detailed reasoning and logic behind this withdrawal scheme, but the Study Group did not put any of it in the final report.

• 3. Focus security efforts on al-Qaida and domestic [U.S.] security.

This is essentially the “counterterrorism only” option rejected by President Obama last year. No field general believed that this was a viable option. A full-up counterinsurgency effort, including stability operations, was chosen by the president because Afghanistan will not be “over” until there is a decent government in Kabul, capable of dealing with the residual threats to its interests. We are in the process of helping the Afghans to manage their own security. The Study Group, however, ignores the whole issue of building up the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, which is, in my view, is the cornerstone of the coalition exit strategy.

It goes without saying that homeland security is a vital mission. However, rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan in order to fund more domestic security activities — again unspecified — is neither necessary nor productive. The Study Group ends this recommendation with a suggestion to “exploit potential cleavages among different radical groups in the region.” True to form, it concludes that this will be “facilitated as the U.S. military presence declines.” How do fewer forces and a shrinking presence give us an enhanced ability to play off apparently victorious radical groups against one another?

• 4. Promote economic development.

To a large extent, this is already being done, but the Study Group has a few interesting variations on the theme, such as promoting trade and investing in local infrastructure, and special reconstruction zones. These are fine ideas for the future, but are difficult to execute during war in a country where there are as many as 700 insurgent attacks per week. To make the Study Group’s economic recommendations viable, the coalition and its Afghan partners will have to increase security for the population, 75 percent of which is not in urban areas.

The Taliban have made a fetish of damaging aid projects and attacking major reconstruction efforts. One wonders, then, if this is the time to reduce U.S. troop strength from 100,000 now to 30,000 by 2012. Another dog not barking in the report is the Study Group’s assessment of the approximately 70 billion dollars already pledged or donated by the international community for security and economic assistance. Perhaps some good and important work has already been done. But, like the progress of the Afghan army, it did not merit mention in the report.

• 5. Engage global and regional stakeholders.

Again, to a large extent, this is already being done. The Study Group adds a new wrinkle, though. It recommends that “the substantial reduction in the U.S. military role be accompanied by an energetic diplomatic effort, spearheaded by the United Nations, and strongly backed by the United States and its allies.” Would the U.S. have more leverage to do this important task after precipitously withdrawing its forces and slowing the development of the Afghan National Army and police, or while pursuing the current strategy?

In all, the Study Group report fails one more critical test. Unlike the current strategy, it does not have a clear theory of success, one that, if executed, will produce a better peace. The current coalition strategy aims to stabilize the countryside, build up the Afghan national army and police, increase reconstruction and stabilization activities, give aid and reassurance to Pakistan, and begin the reintegration of individuals and reconciliation of elements of the Taliban. In the end, much of the burden of success will be up to the Afghans and the Pakistanis. The current coalition strategy — with Afghan and Pakistani help — will produce a viable Afghan government, able to handle its own problems.

The path chosen by the Afghan Study Group will not lead to more stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It hopes that by doing less militarily, we will be able to do more diplomatically and economically. It makes valid points about the high costs of our strategy, and, in truth, its deep cuts in forces would save large amounts of money in a few years time.

A New Way Forward, however, is not a path to policy success, unless a wobbly exit and a weakened Afghanistan are the goals. AFJ

JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Defense Department or government.