Can the Right War Be Won?

Defining American Interests in Afghanistan

Foreign Affairs – July/August 2009
Steven Simon
STEVEN SIMON is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1994 to 1999, he served on the National Security Council in various positions, including Senior Director for Transnational Threats.

The Obama administration recently completed its 60-day review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the president, “The core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” The United States will pursue this goal, he explained, by carrying out five tasks: disrupting terrorist networks that are capable of launching international attacks; “promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan”; building up Afghan security forces that are “increasingly self reliant”; nudging Pakistan toward greater civilian control and “a stable constitutional government”; and getting the international community to help achieve these objectives under UN auspices. The premise of the strategy is that the turbulence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if untamed, will lead to a nuclear 9/11.

In some ways, the new administration’s goals are more modest than those of its predecessor. As President George W. Bush described the U.S. goal, “We have a strategic interest and I believe a moral interest in a prosperous and peaceful democratic Afghanistan, and no matter how long it takes, we will help the people of Afghanistan succeed.” President Barack Obama has dismissed this objective as unrealistic, stating that the United States was not going to “rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy.”

In practical terms, however, the Obama commitment is bigger. Whereas the Bush administration put a ceiling on troop deployments to Afghanistan (albeit largely because of Iraq), Obama ordered the deployment of an additional 21,000 troops. General David McKiernan — who in May was replaced by General Stanley McChrystal as U.S. commander in Afghanistan — had asked for 10,000 more; the White House will decide whether to add those in the fall. By the middle of 2010, the U.S. troop presence will have expanded by nearly one-third, to 78,000. Adding NATO troops, including those slated for deployment through the August Afghan elections, would boost the total coalition troop level to approximately 100,000.

During the presidential campaign, Obama emphasized that the war in Iraq was the wrong one; it was the effort in Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s base, that was the right war. “Only a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda will succeed,” Obama said, “and that’s the change I’ll bring to the White House.” The notion that Afghanistan was the epicenter of global terrorism and would prove to be an enduring source of danger to the United States unless the Taliban were subdued became a recurring theme. It was therefore unlikely that the administration’s 60-day policy review was going to propose anything but a heightened military and economic investment in Afghanistan’s future.

Now, the transition from Iraq to Afghanistan is well under way. Total annual spending in Afghanistan will soon exceed that in Iraq — $65 billion versus $61 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget request. This would be an increase of nearly 40 percent for Operation Enduring Freedom, adding nearly $7.5 billion for the Afghanistan security forces and $700 million for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund. The administration’s strategy will also necessitate far greater civilian involvement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, a fact reflected in the $4.1 billion international affairs portion of the request, which covers the cost of diplomats and technical experts as well as economic assistance to both countries (including a down payment on a five-year $7.5 billion package for Pakistan).

LESSONS OF THE PAST

In 2001, most Afghans welcomed the U.S. troops. Inattention, ineptitude, and a lack of resources squandered this goodwill. Unsurprisingly, the dramatic escalation of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan has triggered a vigorous debate about whether it will prove to be “Obama’s Vietnam,” as it was framed in Newsweek, or a successful effort that finally matches goals to resources and is guided by a counterinsurgency strategy honed in the “Wild West” of Iraq. Two new books contribute to this discussion in different ways. In the Graveyard of Empires, by Seth Jones, chronicles the misjudgments and blunders that have characterized the U.S. effort in Afghanistan thus far, intimating that the record does not presage success for Washington’s renewed commitment. The Accidental Guerrilla, by David Kilcullen, deals only partly with Afghanistan per se, but it lays out a counterinsurgency strategy that he argues would maximize the chances of success there.

Jones is an analyst at the RAND Corporation and has made Afghanistan his niche. He has been there a number of times and even grew a beard and wore baggy pants for a native’s-eye view. Although his book breaks no new ground, it is a useful and generally lively account of what can go wrong when outsiders venture onto the Afghan landscape. Those ventures have generally not turned out well. Alexander the Great met his match there; the British were massacred; the Soviets, humiliated. The title of Jones’ book, which focuses mostly on the U.S. effort, seems to impart a glimpse of the author’s own assessment of U.S. prospects. This is ominous, because he knows too much about recent interventions for his pessimism to be disregarded.

By 2007, Jones writes, the United States faced a “perfect storm of political upheaval.” Al Qaeda bases were embedded in Pakistan, a “cancer of corruption” had undermined the Afghan government’s legitimacy, and the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign had been “hamstrung” by the war in Iraq, which had absorbed the troops that would have been needed to quash the growing violence in Afghanistan. The anarchic setting testified to “America’s inability to finish the job it had started.” The Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami, the Haqqani network, criminal groups, and tribal militias had “beg[u]n a sustained effort to overthrow the government.” (On this point, Kilcullen disagrees: he was struck by the relative indifference of the Taliban toward Kabul; for the insurgents, he argues, it was the Pashtun countryside that mattered. To the degree that U.S. policy hinges on the expansiveness of the Taliban’s goals, it matters greatly whether Jones or Kilcullen has this right.)

The immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion saw some successes. Jones attributes these to the unique combination of personalities in charge. Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador, had been born in Mazar-e Sharif. He was personally committed to Afghanistan’s recovery, sensitive to its sociocultural idiosyncrasies, and possessed of a knack for working with military counterparts. He meshed well with General David Barno, then the U.S. military commander, who began immediately to put in place a “security halo” around Pashtun villages — what Kilcullen much later called a “population-centric” approach.

This successful duo ended up being a casualty of the Iraq war. Khalilzad was reassigned to Iraq; Barno went to the Pentagon. They were replaced by Ambassador Ronald Neumann and General Karl Eikenberry. According to Jones, these were poor choices. Their shortcomings resulted mainly from their “stovepiped” management styles, which disengaged the political and military gears of the counterinsurgency campaign envisaged by their predecessors. And even if they had had the right intentions, the Iraq war would have starved them of the resources needed to carry them out. “American and other international assistance,” Jones writes, “was among the lowest of any state-building mission since World War II.” Insurgent attacks increased by 400 percent between 2002 and 2006; deaths rose by 800 percent. The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a tactic imported from Iraq, rose 100 percent.

Jones occasionally reverts to political science jargon, which hobbles an otherwise very readable style. Sometimes, however, this can work well, as when he reviews various explanations for violence offered by the literature on civil wars — competition for resources, ethnic rivalry — but concludes that these are not at work in Afghanistan. The primary factors, he argues, are bad governance and a mobilizing ideology.

Jones’ time spent in Afghanistan also pays dividends. This is less because he was ferried by soldiers to Afghan villages for a bit of authenticity than because it gave him exposure to the soldiers themselves. Here, the anecdotes reveal something important about NATO relationships in the field. U.S. personnel, he reports, have assigned their own meanings to the acronym “ISAF” (for the International Security Assistance Force, which operates under the auspices of NATO): “I saw America fight” and “I suck at fighting.”

A SAVAGE WAR OF PEACE

Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer, is the proverbial man who needs no introduction. A connoisseur of counterinsurgency — with military experience in the field and senior staff and advisory experience with the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism — he is a man who knows “where the dog is buried.” (He is also fond of idioms and proverbs.) His book lurches from graduate-school anthropology to lyrical memoir to policy memo. In places, it is as impenetrable as the Indonesian jungles where he was once deployed and, as a doctoral student, interviewed remote villagers. Nevertheless, there is much that merits close attention.

First, there is Kilcullen’s clear and detailed explanation of counterinsurgency tactics, as opposed to strategy. By now, the world understands that at the campaign level, the priority is supposed to be the nonmilitary sphere, in which the general population must be secured, and that cultural awareness is vital. Kilcullen powerfully describes what this means on the ground. For Afghanistan, the example he chooses is road construction. Far more effective than conducting large-scale search-and-destroy missions — which catch a few insurgents but leave the population defenseless and alienate ordinary people — is building roads in dangerous valleys, which serves the local population and gives it a sense of shared purpose with U.S. troops. Moreover, the cement road shoulders make it hard for insurgents to bury IEDs. In another context, this might look like a retreat to a defensive posture ill suited to the warrior spirit. In Afghanistan, it forces insurgents out into the open and engenders a sense of common cause between civilians and U.S. soldiers.

Kilcullen also mercilessly conveys the cluelessness of those working from sequestered headquarters, drawing on his experience in the Green Zone in Baghdad. An assiduous diarist, Kilcullen kept a record of the official reaction to the Sunni bombing of the Shiite Askariya shrine in February 2006. According to Kilcullen, it took four and a half months for the transformative effect of this atrocity to register within the Green Zone. Yet myriad news stories at the time — The New York Times ran the headline “Iraq at the Precipice” that month — were already pointing out that the attack had thrust Iraq into civil war.

Kilcullen’s meticulous delineation of the criteria for a successful counterinsurgency, which is intended to show that there is indeed a winning strategy, has the opposite effect. It raises the question of whether the United States, or any other country, could conceivably wage a successful campaign in a place like Afghanistan today.

ENDS AND MEANS

The conspicuously odd thing about these books is that neither explores in any depth why the United States is still so involved in Afghanistan at this juncture. Jones notes that he chose “to examine Afghanistan because it is a case of such intrinsic importance to the United States.” Yet sentiment, rather than strategy, seems to have shaped his rationale here. Afghans, he writes, “have longed for security and hope, and perhaps something to make their difficult lives more bearable. After decades of constant war, they deserve it.” Why the United States needs to be their benefactor is unexplained.

Kilcullen makes a few assertions about the United States’ and the international community’s stakes in Afghanistan, but he does not really elaborate on them — which is unfortunate given his genuine thoughtfulness on other matters. He observes that “Afghanistan is one theater in a larger confrontation with transnational takfiri terrorism” and that “Pakistan is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, the epicenter of global takfiri terrorism, making Afghanistan a frontline state.” But if Pakistan is the epicenter of a worldwide movement, the notion of a “frontline” seems singularly inapt. It is true that links between Pakistan and the United Kingdom are dense and some terrorist conspiracies hatched there have been traced to Pakistan. And it is true that the Pakistani government, motivated by Indo-Pakistani rivalry over Kashmir, may have been involved in terrorism against India. But any broader and more systemic relationship between Pakistan and global terrorism is not terribly clear.

Kilcullen posits a nightmare scenario that has circulated among analysts and officials: “Given the presence of core [al Qaeda] leaders and nuclear weapons in Pakistan, this makes the Taliban an extremely serious strategic threat to the international community and to our entire strategic position.” Presumably, the switch from al Qaeda to the Taliban is meant to suggest that as long as there are Taliban fighters in Pakistan, nuclear-minded al Qaeda operatives will enjoy safe haven there.

These assertions summarize the new Washington consensus. Yet given the tenuous relationship between instability in Afghanistan and the putatively graver threat posed by instability in Pakistan, the grim record of imperial attempts to intervene in Afghanistan that Jones recounts, the typically long duration of insurgencies and the frequency of indecisive outcomes, and Kilcullen’s daunting list of prerequisites for counterinsurgency success in Afghanistan, the administration might find that the moment to rescue the mission begun by its predecessor has passed. If so, a narrower strategy that focuses on the immediate threats to the United States would be an appropriate fallback.

Thus, if the core concern is terrorism, Washington should concentrate on its already effective policy of eliminating al Qaeda’s leadership with drone strikes. In what amounts to a targeted killing program, the United States uses two types of unmanned aerial vehicles — the Predator and the faster, higher-altitude Reaper, which can carry two Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs — to attack individuals and safe houses associated with al Qaeda and related militant groups, such as the Haqqani network. Most of these strikes have taken place in North or South Waziristan, as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory. There were about 36 against militant sites inside Pakistan in 2008, and there have been approximately 16 so far in 2009. Among the senior al Qaeda leaders killed in the past year were Abu Jihad al-Masri, al Qaeda’s intelligence chief; Khalid Habib, number four in al Qaeda and head of its operations in Pakistan; Abu Khabab al-Masri, al Qaeda’s most experienced explosives expert, who had experimented with biological and chemical weapons; and Abu Laith al-Libi, the al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan. Some 130 civilians have also been killed, but improved guidance and smaller warheads should lead to fewer unintended casualties from now on.

The logic of this strategy is straightforward. “In the past, you could take out the number 3 al Qaeda leader, and number 4 just moved up to take his place,” says one official. “Well, if you take out number 3, number 4, and then 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to revive the leadership cadre.” In consequence, “the enemy is really, really struggling,” says one senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who notes “a significant, significant degradation of al Qaeda command and control in recent months.” These same officials say that al Qaeda’s leadership cadre has been “decimated” and that it is possible to foresee a “complete al Qaeda defeat” in Pakistan. By its third day in office, the Obama administration had decided to press on with this program. Its fiscal year 2010 spending request — which asks for $79.7 million for 792 Hellfire missiles and $489.4 million for 24 Reapers, nearly double the number requested in fiscal year 2009 — points to an increased use of drones.

The program has made life so uncertain for militant leaders within 25 miles of the Afghan border that the survivors have relocated deeper into Pakistan, to the area around Quetta, in Baluchistan. For the administration, the militants’ retreat to a safe haven in an area in which the Pakistani government has traditionally held sway, unlike Waziristan, poses a dilemma: Will the effect of these strikes on Pakistani public opinion outweigh the benefits flowing from further attrition of the militants’ leaders? Thus far, the administration has decided that the benefits are worth the cost.

It is also important to note that it is now more difficult for attackers to enter the United States than it was in 2001. The U.S. customs and immigration services are more alert. A consolidated, if still flawed, watch list now exists. Both the intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies are better at sharing information and highly attuned to the threat. This is not to suggest that the United States is invulnerable. Al Qaeda has a well-appreciated protean quality and has reconstituted itself after harsh blows in the past. But it means that the more efficient measures for defending against a devastating terrorist attack are killing al Qaeda’s operational leadership in Pakistan and continuing to improve homeland security — as opposed to nation building in Afghanistan.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

These two books dampen expectations about the prospects of success for the nation-building mission by making several things clear: Afghans resent occupation and will resist it, large footprints correlate with heavier resistance, the adversary is experienced and resourceful, and the government on whose behalf the United States is fighting is corrupt and unreliable.

Kilcullen proffers a how-to manual and believes that it points the way to a victory in Afghanistan that will take “five to ten years at least” to achieve. It will require “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” that can sustain “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” Kilcullen is careful to note that this would be not the restoration of the status quo but an entirely new and unprecedented state of affairs for Afghanistan. And if this does not instill a degree of caution, Jones’ recitation of tragic failures in the past surely will.

Still, for U.S. policymakers and strategists, the allure of the right general, or the right strategy, or the right instrument — coupled with the widely held, although unproved, conviction that the “surge” in Iraq worked on a strategic level — will be hard to resist. The differences between Iraq and Afghanistan are large, and the strategies that helped in the former are not necessarily transferable to the latter. Regrettably, there is no gap yet between the “good” Taliban and the “bad” militants to exploit. The population, as Kilcullen emphasizes, is overwhelmingly rural and dispersed; an array of warlords compete with tribal authorities; the structure of the tribal system makes it unlikely that coalitions can be assembled to fight al Qaeda; and, if there is to be bandwagoning, it is likely to be against foreigners. Here arises Kilcullen’s “accidental guerrilla.” The Afghan people have picked up arms to get rid of the outsider, not to reestablish the caliphate.

As for Pakistan, the efflorescence of Pashtun nationalism and Taliban prominence has as much to do with the growing weight of the U.S. presence than with anything else. Although it is worth trying to convince Pakistan’s leadership that the Taliban, rather than India, are the most salient threat to them, success in this regard is hardly guaranteed. Pakistan has lost wars and territory to an India that is now armed with nuclear weapons, and New Delhi is building up its influence in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military’s leadership is unlikely to be persuaded that the best way to protect Pakistan’s strategic interest is to abandon the jihadist allies that it has cultivated for decades. In any case, it is the establishment of “mini-Afghanistans” within Pakistan, rather than the Afghan Taliban (who are uninterested in waging expeditionary campaigns against the West), that is the real threat to the United States. The nation-building project in Afghanistan seems largely beside the point.

THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE

Ultimately, the United States is caught in a vicious circle. In the face of a threatening al Qaeda hosted by the Taliban, the United States deepens its involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban respond to the U.S. presence with destabilizing violence and insurgent activity. The United States, in turn, responds by applying more intense pressure, increasing civilian casualties and general instability — and thus weakening the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, which benefits al Qaeda and the Taliban. This will prove especially true in Pakistan if the government cannot cope with the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by the military campaign in Swat.

Thus far, the Obama administration has prudently insisted that it retain some freedom of maneuver. The president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have said that they will carefully assess progress before sending more troops. Officials are also exploring ways to win Pakistan’s acquiescence and possibly cooperation in the use of aerial strikes, in order to continue bleeding al Qaeda and to keep it off balance.

Anxieties about Pakistan’s ability to manage the Taliban are certainly warranted. According to Bruce Riedel, the leader of the 60-day policy review, the Taliban “smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan.” That idea, however, might be more a delusion than an achievable goal. The Pakistani army is big, is well equipped, obeys orders, and can fight, and the Pakistani intelligence service, notwithstanding its Machiavellian tendencies, is not likely to transfer nuclear weapons to the Taliban. As the United States plans for the next phase of the conflict, these limits on the Taliban’s ambitions in Pakistan should be kept in mind. So should the limits on the United States’ ability to reengineer Afghanistan’s politics and society.

Foreign Affairs/ The Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

Share

Leave a Reply