ONLINE ONLY: Washington, D.C.: It’s Not Rocket Science!

An American commander explains why Afghanistan is winnable

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The British press seems to begin with the presumption that the Afghanistan war is a lost cause – partly for understandable historical reasons. Americans – or at least the Americans you encounter in Afghanistan – tend to be more optimistic. Certainly US Navy Commander Dave Adams, 41, exuded confidence when he told me about his twelve months as the commander of the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) in Khost Province.

Khost is a province of about a million ethnic Pashtuns that has a 180 km long border with Pakistan. It is now considered the “model province” among the 14 eastern and central Afghan provinces under direct American oversight.

From March 2007 to March 2008, Adams led a team of 83 military, 10 civilians, and 57 local nationals that changed the province possibly more than it had changed since people started living there. On my own three visits to Khost during that time, I had heard good things about Commander Adams from the American officer in charge of purely military or ‘kinetic’ operations in the province, Lieutenant Colonel Scottie Custer, but we never met. I finally caught up with him in Washington DC and asked him about his experience of provincial reconstruction and counter-insurgency.

“It’s presence plus projects,” Adams explains. “Afghanistan is winnable if you get off the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) and live with the people, in the district centers.”

Starting in summer 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Custer pioneered the US strategy in eastern Afghanistan of moving troops off the FOBs to live in groups of 20-40 in small bases in what amount to Afghan county seats. Commander Adams’ team lived on another FOB nearby, and it is his regret that his deployment ended before he was able to push them out to a location in the provincial capital, Khost City.

“The other element is to keep those projects coming. The US spent $6.6 million in the five years before I arrived. We announced a project nearly every day. My team spent $52 million of CERP funds (Commanders Emergency Response Projects) in nine months from August 07 to March 08. Commanders’ Emergency Response Funds (CERP funds in military parlance) are allocated by Congress so that maneuver commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan can bypass the often lengthy USAID approval process and execute development projects quickly”

CERP funds have been the key to American counter-insurgency successes. US commanders in the field down to the rank of captain have extraordinary discretion about how to spend them. Commanders at Adams’ and Custers’s level can spend up to $25,000 without consulting their superior, who in turn can spend up to $250,000 before referring the project for approval to the commanding general in theater.

“We built 66 kilometers of roads in Khost for $7 million. We built 45 irrigation dams, doubled the access to fresh drinking water, opened 37 schools and began construction on 15 more. Our team built Khost’s first mosque for women, a women’s park, we started a hospital, and just before we left we designed, contracted and began work on a power grid for Khost City.”

Adams has a healthy skepticism about Afghan government officials, but it’s not the throw-up-your-hands and give up attitude one often hears from Westerners in Afghanistan. “Most of them will be corrupt if you let them,” he says.” The key is to design your spending systems so they cannot be. Our counterinsurgency efforts will falter if we fail to hold officials strictly accountable.”

“We drove the price of our roads and schools down to where officials couldn’t skim. By the time we left, the contractors were getting a 20% profit margin.” Adams made the bidding process for CERP-funded contracts transparent and insisted that the governor of Khost announce the winning bidders of all contracts on local radio and TV “You can make a good Afghan official competent,” he says. “In our system, they can’t take money, but they get the credit with the people. Their reward is political, which they understand.”

He is even sanguine about defeating IEDs. “Pave the roads so they can’t plant them, find the cell that are making them, and most important, get the tribes on your side. When the tribe says no to IEDs, that means no. I was never concerned about IEDs in the 11 of 12 districts where the tribes were supportive.”

Adams has strong convictions about what should be changed and what should be done next. Spending, he says, should be formalized. The CERP system is ad hoc. “If you spend it, competently, you get more. There should be an actual budget so you can plan one year, two years, five years out.”

I asked him about the notoriously corrupt and incompetent Afghan National Police whose training has been the responsibility of German NATO troops. They are now the focus of a massive American training effort, but cynics point out that Westerners have been trying to train them ever since we got there. “It’s not rocket science. You pay them enough, you live with them in the districts, and you mentor them.”

Adams is more perturbed by the administration of justice in Afghanistan. Like every other American officer I have met in three embeds, he has seen suspects caught red-handed with IED components released from jail when someone was bribed.

“The legal system is a big problem. It’s a lawless system based on power and money. We’ve never done a comprehensive reform of the judicial system and we’ve been here seven years! If you want to reform it, you put a court house and an American mentor in every province. We came to Afghanistan and we have certain responsibilities to establish government and services. Look what the US Navy did after World War Two in the Pacific Islands Trust. We put administrators there and a legal system and we eventually turned it over to the locals. It’s a pretty good little government now, sixty years later. “

As I wrote in a recent article, the situation in Khost does not look as rosy now as it did when Commander Adams left. Two schools have been burned in Sabari, Khost’s most volatile district, since April, while none were burned in the previous fifteen months. Five American soldiers were killed by IEDs since April, and just two in the previous fifteen months.

This probably has something to do with the fact that Khost simultaneously got a new maneuver commander and new PRT commander. Though they were thoroughly briefed by their predecessors in a thirty day “relief in place” procedure, both could not be expected to have the same knowledge base as the outgoing commanders. Custer and Adams readily admit that there is a steep learning curve. Moreover, Colonel Custer served fifteen months in Afghanistan and such long deployments are a real aid to effective counterinsurgency. Indeed, the brevity of British deployments in Afghanistan – their troops serve a mere six months – may well have undermined their mission.

Commander Adams remains optimistic that the principles of presence plus projects with Afghan government accountability are sound. He regrets not having moved the PRT to downtown Khost City, to be closer to the people and the Governor and other officials. But he says all the PRT commanders that the Navy is sending are good officers who will figure it out.

All of the twelve American-led PRTs in Afghanistan are commanded by Navy or Air Force officers, because the Army is stretched thin in Iraq. But this command is considered a crucial, career-building assignment. “The Chief of Naval Operations pays a lot of attention to who goes to Afghanistan. Only officers who are selected for future Navy commands are eligible. Adams, one of the few Americans to graduate the UK’s top of the line Perisher submarine command course, will take command of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear attack submarine, in the summer of 2009.