A Military Solution for Afghanistan

Now that the insurgency is cracking, the time has come for Nato to send more troops into the war zone to finish off the job

Afghanistan Defence Features Military War on Terror
The scene after a roadside bomb is detonated east of Kabul

Throughout the US presidential campaign, Barack Obama lambasted the Bush administration for fighting “the wrong war” in Iraq while ignoring the right one in Afghanistan. Iraq had been a war of choice, Obama claimed, while Afghanistan was a war of necessity. He repeatedly claimed that if elected, he would unveil a new “stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy”.

In March, in one of those solemn occasions at which he excels, President Obama claimed that the new strategy, on which he did not elaborate, was already in place. The troop “surge” ordered by the outgoing administration was speeded up and, a few weeks later, a new commander was named for Afghanistan. General Stanley A. McChrystal lost no time in revealing that the Obama administration had no specific strategy and that his first task was to work one out. 

By the end of August, the general had drafted a “new strategy” and submitted a 66-page report to the Pentagon. In it, General McChrystal devoted 16 pages to concrete moves needed to put the new strategy in motion. Then nothing happened until someone leaked the report a month later. Forced by media pressure to say something, President Obama declared that he would not be rushed into sending more troops, as requested by McChrystal, pending the development of a “new strategy”.

This means that Obama did not have a “smarter, stronger strategy” for Afghanistan despite claiming he had one. But what about the strategy proposed by McChrystal? The President neither adopted nor rejected it. He would continue to “study the whole thing” through a “situation room”, bringing together his national security team, but pointedly excluding McChrystal. Meanwhile, the White House has briefed against the general, seeking to discredit his demand for an extra 40,000-60,000 troops. 

According to administration officials quoted by the New York Times, Obama may be having “buyer’s remorse” after “ordering an extra 21,000 troops there within weeks of taking office before even settling on a strategy”. Some have suggested that Obama drummed up the “necessary war” mantra for Afghanistan so he would not appear soft on national security when he portrayed the Iraq war as “a strategic error”. 

If US media reports are correct, his administration is deeply divided over strategy. While Vice-President Joseph Biden is reportedly pressing for a reduction of troop numbers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants more boots on the ground. Biden believes that al-Qaeda is no longer a threat in Afghanistan and that the US should transfer the war to Pakistan. Clinton insists, however, that, if the US scales down its military footprint, al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan “like mushrooms after the rain”.

Meanwhile in Washington and in Kabul, those who wish to sound knowledgeable fire one phrase to visiting reporters: “This has no military solution!” One hears it from Obama, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, UN “experts” and diplomats.

But what precisely is the “this” that has no military solution? If pressed, they offer a variety of answers: Afghanistan’s poverty; the slow pace of progress towards gender equality; corruption; the drug trade; ethnic rivalries; and intrigues by rival powers such as Pakistan and Iran. None of these problems has a military solution. Some may take years, if not decades, to resolve while others may never fade away.

However, the main problem that Afghanistan faces today is the security of its citizens and infrastructure, which are threatened by insurgents using terror tactics such as roadside bombings and suicide attacks.

This does have a military solution. Indeed, it could only have a military solution. The insurgents must be defeated on the battlefield. Even if Afghanistan is miraculously transformed into a land of plenty, even if a majority of Afghans agree suddenly that women should be treated as equals and even if Afghan rulers stop stealing money, the insurgency could not be crushed without fighting. 

The fact is that although Obama has spoken of a “war of necessity”, there is little actual fighting in Afghanistan. Only in a few cases are Nato casualties the result of insurgent ambushes. The majority of casualties are from roadside bombs called improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These devices also kill many non-combatants, the majority of them Afghan peasants. These could just as well be classified as road deaths as war casualties. 

The Afghan experience could be divided into three phases.  In the first (2001-2004), the US, backed by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, managed to flush the Taliban out of Kabul, gain control of the country and establish a new regime.

In the second (2004-2008), US and Nato forces focused on non-military issues such as the building of a new administrative machine, raising a new Afghan army and police force and creating a new judiciary. This was done under the assumption that the Nato presence had a peace keeping, rather than a peace enforcing, role. 

The bulk of Nato forces behaved more like the Salvation Army than a fighting machine in a real war. US forces did some fighting in the south-eastern provinces, often by firing missiles from drones into Pakistan. British, Canadian and French units also did some fighting in the provinces entrusted to them, by reacting when attacked. However, they seldom took the initiative by actually going after the insurgents. Their measure of success was the number of children, especially girls, who went to school in areas protected by them, not the number of insurgents killed or captured.

The third phase started in 2008 when President George W. Bush sent additional troops, a move endorsed by his successor. Washington realised that there was a military problem that needed a military solution.

In a strategy developed by General David Petraeus, the US and its Nato allies redefined the mission as one of enforcing peace rather than keeping a nonexistent peace. Under the new strategy, the “live-and-let-live” policy, under which insurgents are allowed safe havens, will end. These safe havens, concentrated in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Arzangan and Nimroz, as well as a few areas near Kabul and Kunduz in the north, are known to Nato but have been tolerated because the allies lacked the resources to destroy them.

Nato has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, a country the size of California. Of these, at least a third are non-combatant because of caveats imposed by their governments. That makes a division of labour imperative. Those non-fighting Nato troops must relieve the pressure on the fighting units by helping with policing, construction work and intelligence.

Even then, General McChrystal might find it hard to pursue the insurgents in a decisive manner with just 60,000 or so troops. Taking into account the need for rotation as well as logistical and administrative duties, the general might not have enough troops for a proper search-and-destroy strategy, even if we add British, Canadian and some French units.


General Stanley McChrystal, who has demanded more troops 

If President Obama intends to win his “war of necessity”, he will have to increase the number of US troops to fight a war that might continue beyond his first term. Even then, General McChrystal must realise that his version of the “surge” might not secure all the troops needed. He would have to find allies inside Afghanistan, just as Petraeus did in Iraq.

There are more than 150,000 former mujahideen, waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows. The Taliban never directly controlled the whole of Afghanistan and do not have enough popular support to govern the country. Between 1995 and 2001, they spread their rule, often nominal, by bribing the mujahideen. According to a proverb, one cannot buy an Afghan but one can always hire him. The policy of shunning the former mujahideen, branding their leaders “warlords”, may sound chic among the bien pensant, but it doesn’t work in real life.

There are also more than 50,000 armed, private “security professionals” who, provided they are deployed in the context of a broader strategy, could be used more effectively. 

The new Afghan army and police force has about 180,000 recruits. Often, these men draw salaries but spend their time doing crosswords or, at best, directing the traffic in Kabul. According to experts, a third of the new Afghan army is reliable and competent. Embedding them with Nato forces could give them a role in taking the war to the insurgents. Under existing plans, it would take until the end of 2013 to build up the new army’s strength to 300,000 — the benchmark that experts regard as necessary. 

The drug-smuggling rings have 15,000 armed men who often co-operate with the Taliban, whose own strength may be about 20,000. Smaller insurgent groups, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) may command a further 5,000 armed men. Hekmatyar, who worked for the CIA for years, recently made it clear that he was open to offers.

In a hierarchy of operations, the Taliban is the top target. This could mean making tactical alliances even with some unsavoury groups and buying others.

While some pro-Obama editorialists are already contemplating defeat in Afghanistan, the Taliban and other insurgent groups are sending quite different signals. Last month, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader presumed to be hiding near the Pakistani city of Quetta, issued an end of Ramadan message in which he all but admitted that things were not going well for his movement and its terrorist allies. For the first time in eight years, the mullah also indicated his readiness to consider negotiations as a means of ending the insurgency.

A careful reading of the mullah’s message showed:

  • He and his advisers are now convinced that they cannot win on the battlefield. 
  • A growing number of Taliban allies, especially among the 
  • Pashtun tribes, are wary of endless war and anxious to reach some accommodation with whoever controls Kabul. 
  • The mullah is prepared to abandon some of his most retrograde positions, especially with regard to the status of women, in the hope of securing power-sharing in Kabul. 

Mullah Omar is not alone in concluding that Nato cannot be driven from Afghanistan by the insurgency. Hekmatyar is also trying to wave an olive branch. In a recent interview, he echoed Omar’s indirect plea for negotiations and power sharing.

As the second largest insurgent force after the Taliban, Hekmatyar’s group has played a crucial role in spreading the fight to northern Afghanistan, notably Kunduz, where Omar never managed to gain a foothold.

The third major insurgent group is led by the Haqqani clan which has been responsible for much of the mischief done in the south-east. The clan seems to have concluded that it too cannot win this war. Last month, the Haqqanis sent their women and children to Abu Dhabi, where they have extensive business interests — a sign that they are preparing for an eventual retreat. They have also revived contacts with Saudi Arabia in the hope of joining Riyadh’s efforts to promote a dialogue between President Karzai’s administration and the insurgents. 

The three insurgent groups control only 11 of the country’s 362 districts, accounting for less than one per cent of the country’s population. Most of their main bases are in Pakistan and, in the case of Hekmatyar’s group, Iran. 

And, yet, Washington is all abuzz with the “f” word, for what many see as looming failure in Afghanistan. Three years ago, the defeat industry tried to manufacture an historic defeat in Iraq but failed. Now, it is trying to fabricate one in Afghanistan.

The highly publicised divisions in the Obama administration and the President’s tergiversations could change the atmosphere. 

The Taliban, Hizb Islami and the Haqqanis might well conclude that the US no longer has the will to stay the course and thus all that the insurgency needs to do is to hang on a bit longer to see Nato leave under the pressure of Western public opinion. Any perceived lack of resolve on Obama’s part could discourage the new national army and police or even tempt elements within them to switch to the Taliban. The controversy over August’s presidential election could also help turn the tide in favour of the insurgents.

Washington needs to act urgently on a number of fronts. First, it needs to help end the uncertainty regarding the election results. With the election marred by fraud, Karzai’s legitimacy has been called into question. An election run-off between Karzai and his closest rival, the former Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah Zamariani, has been set for 7 November. It is now imperative to ensure that the run-off does not create new divisions, thus undermining the legitimacy of the victor. It would be wise to have the results endorsed, at least implicitly, by a full session of the Loya Jirgah (or shura — the High Assembly). This represents Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups, tribes and religious communities. The new constitution recognises the Loya Jirgah as a constituent assembly and the nation’s highest legislative organ. Endorsement would bestow on the victor an added layer of traditional legitimacy as opposed to one produced by elections which, after all, remain an imported system of assessing the will of the people.


Former mujahideen commander Abdul-Rasul Sayyaf and Taliban leader Mullah Omar 

The same session of the Loya Jirgah could debate and approve a number of constitutional amendments. The presidential system introduced in 2002 does not reflect Afghanistan’s diversity. The amendments could reduce presidential powers, create the post of prime minister, install a system of parliamentary democracy and devolve power to the regions. On the way to a new session of the Loya Jirgah, the main losers of the presidential election should be co-opted into an interim government. Such a government would have a better chance of promoting a dialogue with the insurgent groups.

Once a mechanism is created for reconciliation and reform, President Obama should support it by sending the additional troops demanded by General McChrystal. Increasing the number of troops makes sense only in the context of a clear political strategy, the starting point of which must be a genuine and sincere commitment by Nato to achieving victory. 

Obama’s assertion that he is not looking for “victory” in Afghanistan sounds bizarre to say the least. In war, the only objective that justifies one’s sacrifices is victory, imposing one’s will on a deadly adversary and creating a new status quo that favours one’s interests. If you don’t want victory, you don’t go to war.

The number of Nato troops now in Afghanistan — just under 100,000 — is twice as large as in 2004. At the same time, the new Afghan army has more than doubled in size. And, yet, insurgent attacks have increased dramatically while many previously safe provinces have moved into the “insecure” column.

The reason behind this paradox is Nato’s “as if” strategy. After the initial victories of 2001-2002 that ended Taliban rule, Nato troops have been behaving “as if” they were fighting, but in most cases they are not. Now in self-defence mode, they have extended their presence beyond the greater Kabul but limit themselves to patrolling main roads and tracts of territory regarded as “sensitive”. In Afghanistan, there is very little of the “search and destroy” or “hunt and kill” operations that proved so successful in Iraq.

The same “as if” attitude pervades the multiple development plans launched since 2002. In most cases, the net outcome of a project is the illegal enrichment of a few dozen influential individuals, often linked to the new ruling elite in Kabul. Visitors to Kabul, and a few other cities such as Mazar Sharif and Taleqan, would be struck by the new luxury villas, some with Olympic-size swimming pools, fleets of shining German and Japanese cars and chic boutiques offering contraband luxury goods for the nouveaux riches. One of the former mujahideen commanders, Abdul-Rasul Sayyaf, now owns more real estate than his group ever controlled during the war of liberation against the Soviets. 

By the time corrupt officials and Western consultants, accountants, insurance brokers and security companies have received their respective cuts from a budget allocated to a project, little is left to carry out the project itself.

Afghanistan’s new democracy also suffers from this “as if” approach. August’s presidential and provincial elections were conducted as if held in a genuine democracy. However, the huge number of stuffed ballot boxes and the surrealistic numbers announced for Karzai show that we are faced with an exercise in make-believe.

The actual government of the country is also based on “as if” and make-believe. An astonishing percentage of high officials have dual nationality, and hold foreign passports. Many maintain their main homes abroad, in Europe, the US and the Gulf states, where their families live. Typically, a high official spends almost half a year outside Afghanistan, for “family reasons”.

The new Afghan Army, too, is an “as if” force. Since there is no banking system in the country, most recruits are unable to send part of their salaries to their families in remote towns and villages. As a result, they save the salaries of four or six months and then simply desert, returning home where they can live on their savings for years. Most Kabulis explain that the root cause of this “as if” situation is the belief that the Americans and their allies do not have the desire or the stamina to remain committed to Afghanistan.

Most Afghans felt that once al-Qaeda bases had been dismantled and most of its leaders killed, captured or forced out of Afghanistan President Bush was no longer interested in what he saw as a sideshow to the bigger task of liberating Iraq and reshaping the Middle East. Afghans believe that Obama is even less interested in Afghanistan and would jump at an opportunity to cut and run. “Since we don’t know what the Americans really want, we let them do it themselves,” a senior Afghan official told me in Kabul.

That analysis has promoted a “room service” mentality in which Afghan military and civilian officials simply pick up the telephone to Nato forces whenever they want something done. In most cases, Nato responds in kind, that is to say also with “as if”. 

President Obama’s delayed admission that he has no strategy should be welcomed if only because pretence never wins wars. The President is also abandoning his claim that Afghanistan is “a war of necessity”, and moving closer to considering it a war of choice. That, too, is welcome. As a war of choice, Afghanistan would make sense. For success there could help encourage the tide of democratisation that is shaking the despots in Iran, has turned back the Islamists in Pakistan and is challenging post-Soviet authoritarian regimes in Central Asia.

If he adopts Afghanistan as a war of choice, President Obama should discard the many myths that surround that country. Afghanistan is not “the graveyard of empires”. In fact, it was part of more than two dozen empires until a Persian adventurer, Ahmad Shah Duran, decided to transform it into a separate kingdom in 1702. 

President Obama should use his much-lauded rhetorical talents to mobilise public support for project Afghanistan, with victory as a clear objective rather than a vague aspiration to be shunned for reasons of political expediency. The US and its Nato and Afghan allies have already crushed a good part of the insurgency in Afghanistan. What they now face is the consolidation of a hard-won success that, unless protected for many more years, could be undone by the enemies of the Western democracies who happen to be enemies of the Afghan people as well. 

Afghanistan has a military problem that needs a military solution. US strategists are beginning to realise this. This war could, and must, be won.