Friday, September 10, 2010

A New Way Forward??? Part 1

So the Afghanistan Study Group (http://www. recently published a new and revised war strategy going forward in Afghanistan called "A New Way Forward: The Report". It's on the main page of the website, so download it and read it. It won't take long to read, which may or may not be good. Rather than copy and paste the entire report, I decided to carry over the five conclusions of the report and offer an assessment.

"1. Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation. Afghanistan will not achieve a sustainable peace without broader support from the Afghan people themselves. Accordingly, the United States should fast track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and to encourage a power sharing arrangement among all parties.

Under the current Afghanistan Constitution, the President has unchecked authority to appoint provincial governors and hundreds of other positions in government. As David Miliband wrote, in many parts of the country, district governance is almost nonexistent, half the governors do not have an office, fewer than a quarter have electricity, and some receive only six dollars a month in expenses. As an important start to reform, the Afghan Parliament should be given confirmation authority for major appointments, district councils should be elected, budgeting authority decentralized, and elected provincial representatives should be included in the national level council that determines the portion of funds distributed. The ethnic base of the Afghan army should be broadened. More generally, governance should depend more heavily on local, traditional, and community-based structures.

In contrast to President Karzai’s recent and narrowly conceived “peace jirga,” political outreach should include leaders selected by key tribal and village leaders in all of Afghanistan’s ethnic and regional divisions, including rural Pashtuns. This effort should be open to those among the fragmented Taliban who are willing to engage in genuine reconciliation, a step that can help marginalize those Taliban who remain defiant. Preconditions for negotiations, such as recognizing the existing Afghan Constitution, should not be required."

Fast Tracking the Peace Process

This is an overly simplistic and naive view of the region. The Taliban, with the backing of the local populace (or at least no resistance), al Qaeda, and the Pakistani ISI, have been in control of a majority of Afghanistan for the past 15 years. Maybe it has not been flying flags and sending out notes on official letterhead control, but really "in control" through on-going intimidation, narco-trafficking, and shadow governments. On one side sits the Taliban, for the most part safely ensconced in the tribal areas of Pakistan, who have nothing but time and know that we don't. It's a waiting game to them and with the stomach of the American people turned wretchedly by Iraq, they won't have to wait very long. The so-called 2011 withdrawl schedule announced by President Obama does NOT send a signal to the militants that they already don't know. They are smart, under little military pressure, and know that our stay in AfPak is limited by money and weak morale back at home.

On the other side sit 135,000 ISAF troops whose countries, for the most part, have been there since the beginning in late 2001. Many of these same countries fought in Iraq and their citizens and governments have grown weary and are in debt. ISAF forces, with the exception of small groups of Special Forces, will not bring the fight to the Taliban in the tribal areas due to many practical restraints, such as logistics, politics, and manpower. Thus, the only pressure we can exert on the Taliban is through either 1) face to face (direct action) confrontations or 2) drone strikes in the tribal areas. Our mission in southern Afghanistan has largely revolved around trying to bait the Taliban into the open, but they have learned that no fighting force can defeat the modern U.S. military in a direct action engagement. Consequently, the Taliban have adopted the same strategy that doomed the Soviets in the 1980s, which is to 1) melt into the local population and 2) retreat to the mountainous areas and pick the time and place to fight in small unit engagements. Aside from the rare direct action engagement at places like Marjah and Lashkar Gah, ISAF military power has been relegated to conducting drone strikes in the tribal areas.

There is no doubt that the U.S drone strike campaign has killed a large number of Taliban and other jihadis (virtually every #3 man in every jihadi group has been killed several times), but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall number of combatants, which is estimated to be between 30,000 – 60,000. Let me be clear--drone strikes are an indispensible part of the effort as they effectively and (relatively) cheaply destroy the command and control capabilities of the enemy. However, they are not mass casualty weapons. Additionally, unlike al Qaeda, the tribal militants have an effective and in-depth leadership and training structure (based on the tribal structure), so that even when drone strikes kill the leadership, the lower echelon troops are well versed in tactics and can still carry on the mission. An unintended effect of the drone strikes has been an increased recruitment of new fighters and increasing resentment towards the Pakistani government and the ISAF effort (TTP bombings in heavily populated areas). Thus, as they wait, they grow stronger while continuing to receive financial and military aid from the narco-trafficking profits (courtesy of American and European drug users) and Gulf State donors.

Which brings me to my point—to fast track anything, ISAF and the Afghan government need leverage. We have little leverage in face to face combat, as the Taliban is reluctant to participate in large scale direct action engagements. We have some leverage with the drone strikes, but their effects are limited and are a double-edged sword. We have no economic leverage because the narco-trade is extremely lucrative and our continuing presence in a Muslim country inspires Islamic donors. We have almost no leverage to force the Taliban to come to the table. The only hope we have is to convince the Taliban leadership that living in Afghanistan and earning an honest day’s wage is better than living in the tribal areas wondering if the next Hellfire missile is aimed at them. There may be some merit to this approach, but it definitely won’t be something that can be accomplished in short order.

A more effective, but probably less realistic solution, is not through military power, but through economic and political pressure. If the U.S, were to cease $5 billion in annual monetary aid to Pakistan (or dole it directly to the humanitarian projects) and military hardware, this would pressure Pakistan to, in turn, pressure the Taliban to come to the table. Pakistan is so insanely paranoid about a conflict with India (most of the financial assistance given to them goes to military efforts in the Kashmir region), that a denial of conventional arms and money, in all likelihood, would pressure them to cooperate. This solution, while effective, would probably never happen from a political standpoint, though. Pakistan is viewed as our "friend", and to deny aid to our "partner" in the war on terror would be viewed as directly aiding the Taliban. This conundrum is similar to our situation with Israel--if we cut off military aid, they would be forced to come to the table and adopt a two-state solution. Any rubbish about this type of move prompting Pakistan to help the Taliban as retribution is just that--rubbish. Pakistan cares first and foremost about it's survival. The government is largely secular and tries to cater to the extremists only to the extent that it serves their own interest. Faced with the option of either losing a war with India or kicking the militants out of the tribal areas, Pakistan would undoubtedly choose the former as its priority.

Decentralization of Power

This is exactly what needs to happen. A federal model of government in Afghanistan is a Soviet relic. The country has existed for centuries as a decentralized series of provinces based on ethnicity, language, tribal and religious affiliation, and geographic location. It was not until the Soviets established a centralized puppet government in the 1980s that the various provinces were "federated". After the pullout in 1989, the Najibullah government collapsed quickly as the various ethnic and tribal groups jockyed for power.

The Bush and Obama administrations have made the centralization of power a focus of their strategies, perhaps because it is the backbone of the American democratic model. Aside from the faulty centralized approach, President Karzai is viewed as extremely corrupt by locals (he's actually fairly honest, but he tolerates rampant corruption, which makes him seen as corrupt) and quite powerless to provide protection or support to areas far away from Kabul. I think our fascination with the centralized model has been championed by the military and CIA, the two entities that should NOT be responsible for a strategic nation building plan.
The more effective approach is to have a weak centralized government, designed by the State Department, that does nothing but promote hegemony between the provinces, and allow the power to rest in the hands of the provincial governors. This can only be done by effectively stripping Karzai of his power (through a national referendum) and allowing the provinces to conduct elections with the express intent of strong local governance.

I guess the Taliban thought a direct action assault would turn out differently. Obviously they didn't read my blog. From the Long War Journal (Sep 2nd):

US and Afghan troops have beaten back another attempt by the Haqqani Network to overrun a US base in eastern Afghanistan.

More than 20 members of the Haqqani Network were killed after launching an early morning attack today on Combat Outpost Margah in the Bermel district of Paktika province.

"The attack began in the early morning with small arms and indirect fire directed against the outpost," the International Security Assistance Forces stated in a press release. US troops repelled the attack with mortar and small-arms fire, then called in helicopter gunships to finish off the attackers.

"Aircraft from TF [Task Force] Viper conducted two passes over the area, killing at least 20 insurgents in two separate engagements," ISAF stated. No US or Afghan troops were killed or wounded in the attacks.

Combat Outpost Margah is the third US base to be assaulted by the Haqqani Network since Aug. 28. Haqqani Network fighters launched coordinated attacks against Forward Operating Bases Salerno and Chapman in Khost province on Aug. 28.

In the Aug. 28 attacks, US and Afghan troops routed the Haqqani Network fighters, killing more than 35, including a commander, during and after the attacks. Several of the fighters were wearing US Army uniforms, and 13 were armed with suicide vests. US forces killed and captured several commanders and fighters during raids in the aftermath of the attacks.

A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that the Haqqani Network attacks, and similar assaults carried out against major US bases across the country, are ineffective.

"These sorts of FOB [forward operating base] attacks have become little more than exercises in target practice here," the official said in the aftermath of the Aug. 28 attacks. "They show up, we watch them; we kill them."

But a senior US military intelligence official and several US military officers contacted by The Long War Journal cautioned that the attacks demonstrate that the Haqqani Network still has the capacity to organize and strike just outside the walls of US outposts.

"That they [the Taliban and Haqqani Network] can muster their forces so close to large US bases and launch the attacks shows that their presence is strong just outside the gates of our largest bases," an officer who wished to remain anonymous said. "There is no doubt that these are lopsided battles."

"All they need to do is get their fighters inside the wire and create havoc, and the Taliban score a major propaganda coup," a senior US military intelligence official said. "The Taliban know the worst case scenario for them in these attacks - they lose all of their men - and they are willing to take those losses to achieve that goal."

In May, a small team attempted to breach security at Kandahar Airfield after launching a rocket attack on the base, and conducted a suicide assault at the main gate at Bagram Airbase in Parwan province. In June, the Taliban launched an assault against Jalalabad Airfield in Nangarhar province. The Taliban carried out a suicide assault against the Afghan National Civil Order Police headquarters in Kandahar City in July. Three US soldiers were killed in the attack, which included a suicide car bomber and a follow-on assault team. And in early August, the Taliban again conducted a complex attack at Kandahar Airfield. All of the attacks were successfully repelled by Coalition and Afghan forces.

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