Afghanistan: Things Going Right, Things Going Wrong And What Might Happen Next

Gizab is the exact sort of story you want to hear coming out of a place like Afghanistan.

I won’t repeat all the details, you can read it yourself. But it’s what America, and the free world, wants to see. Taliban attempt to hustle a villager out of his money as they have so many times before. The villager says no. The Taliban threaten him, kidnap his relatives. The villager has enough and so has the village. They revolt and the Taliban are thrown out.

Now US Special Forces are in the area, arming and training the Gizabians. The Taliban are holed up in nearby mountain caves, like some kind of cartoon villain. It’s the basic US COIN strategy (Clear, Hold, Build) in action:

Clear: The villagers have forced the Taliban out, presumably knowing the US would back them up.

Hold: They now hold the village, setting up patrols, roadblocks and their own military ventures, with the US Armed Forces on standby to help if needed.

Build: Here’s the kicker. For it to be a success, Gizab has to stay Taliban free, and build up its administration, its infrastructure, its finances, and do it with the knowledge that the US won’t be around forever.

I should note that Australian troops were also involved in the operation.

The problem here is that it’s happened before and, more often than not, it falls apart again. I think its clear that the ordinary people of Afghanistan don’t like the Taliban. Who in their right mind would pick the Taliban to rule them if they had a choice? Important to remember.

It’s the choice thing that’s part of the problem. We want the Afghans (I say we, referring to the Western “free” World) to support the government of Hamid Karzai.

The problem is, Karzai is a crook, plain and simple. He leads a very corrupt government, which has a very corrupt administration that, in the words of some US authorities  “don’t want to patrol, but they do want to take bribes.”

Afghanistan has roared back into the news in the last week, but only because of the guy who should be in charge over there. McChrystal’s sacking is not good for Afghanistan. But the appointment of David Petraeus to his old post might be.

The current troop surge in Afghanistan has a twofold aim, that copies that of the 2007 Iraq surge. The whole strategy is population centric: the ordinary people, the “hearts and minds” of Afghanistan are the prize, the centre of gravity. How do you win them over? Twofold:

1. Convince them that there is an alternative to the Taliban.

2. Convince them that Karzai and his government is that alternative.

Lots of problems with both as you can imagine. The coalition forces are attempting to achieve the first with the same tactics that (somewhat) worked in Iraq 3 years ago. Clear, Hold, Build, with a special focus in the Taliban infested south of the country. Kandahar is a huge problem. But it worked in Iraq so it should work in Afghanistan right? The people should warm to the ongoing US presence, and reject the Taliban, completely starving them of vital popular support.

Only, it’s not working, at least not so far. Proponants and supporters of COIN theory say that an increase in violence is inevitable as the Taliban attempts to disrupt the US strategy. It’s the death throes as they say. There is some merit in this argument, often crudely described as “the violence is actually a good thing”. It’s what happened in Iraq and within a few months, violence decreased spectacularly to its lowest levels since the initial invasion. COIN is working, we just have to give it time.

Critics say that Afghanistan can’t be compared to Iraq: the tribal divides in Afghanistan are far more numerous and pronounced, the violence is exploding at unprecedented levels, Kandahar remains almost untouchable, and most importantly, America simply can’t convince people that Karzai is a good alternative to the Taliban.

Karzai is a definite quandary. It seems he’s the best of a bad lot. Certainly, no name jumps up to replace him as the leader of a democratic Afghanistan. He is, very much so, the devil you know.

I recall, last year, meeting the Chief of Mission of the US embassy in Dublin. He was undertaking a series of visits to educational institutions to inform and outline Americas new strategy in Afghanistan. (I apologize but his name escapes me. He has since been replaced, and I can find no record of him on the embassy website)

My fellow students, teachers and I pretty much grilled him for a long period of time. I don’t think he expected such an interrogation but he took it well. I remember clearly one of the Departments younger members, (let’s just call him “Newbreed” ;)) being very direct and aggressive about how American could get into bed with someone as obviously corrupt as Karzai.

The response was surprisingly direct and honest. He acknowledged Karzai’s many, many faults and admitted he was hardly the type of person the USA should be dealing with. But, as he pointed out, Karzai has one rather large redeeming feature in their eyes: he isn’t the Taliban. The US can’t possibly deal with them (apart from a few discreet pay-offs) but they might be able to deal with Karzai.

But it might be academic anyway. Karzai’s government is largely a paper tiger. It has no control over large swaths of the country. It is corrupt in nearly all departments, most worryingly the police and parts of the army. Karzai himself has become very unpredictable, acting in a manner that is hardly a measure of a democratic leader. And now, he’s starting a policy of reconciliation with the Taliban, something that screams “throwing in the towel.”

So what can Petraeus do, now that it’s his mess to sort out? A mess he really only has July 2011 to deal with?

Bad things then: Major Taliban violence in the south, Kandahar remains an insurgent stronghold, the population isn’t dancing to the US tune like a lot of the Iraqis did, the war is increasingly unpopular at home, the UN is running out of patience, Petraeus is the new man and is faced with major restructuring of the US political and military leadership, Karzai’s government is seen as weak, corrupt and little better than the Taliban, some tribal tensions remain unsolvable etc etc.

Good things: Petraeus is the best possible choice for the job having the experience and knowledge to fight a succesful counter-insurgency campaign, he has over a year to succeed, he is well-known to the Washington political scene, he is known to and can work with Karzai, the training of the new Afghani forces is ahead of schedule (force multiplier), some areas (like Gizab) are providing an example of the benefits of the new strategy, the people don’t really like the Taliban.

What might happen next: Hmm…

The goal right now is to protect the population through the classic COIN tactics (Clear, Hold, Build or to be more complex, Kilcullans 28 Points). Within a few months, if things go the same way they did in Iraq the violence should start to drop. The Taliban will be feeling the pinch as their public support dries up (lack of arms, supplies, secure bases) and Petraeus can point to some success. He’ll be able to restart proposed offensives towards Kandahar and with American mid-terms done in November, he’ll be free of some of the political pressure.

If the violence continues without stop, or increases, then Petraeus will be faced with a choice: admit defeat (not openly, but essentially) and wind down the operation. American will retreat to their strongholds, and Afghanistan will limp on as it has in the last few years with the Taliban in charge of large ares and Karzai remaining king of his dirtheap.

The other choice is to change tactics and go after the Taliban directly, with extreme prejudice. Right now, American troops are avoiding confrontations with the Taliban if the risk is too great to the local population. If you change tactics now, you’ll increase damage to the Taliban, but inevitably, casualties to the civilians of Afghanistan will also increase. The military benefits are obvious, but in the long-term the Afghani people will reject the Americans.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this really is a case of “rock/hard place.”

At the end of the day success in Afghanistan will not be measured in the traditional sense. If the Americans can make the country somewhat stable before next July, with Karzai’s government established as a legitimate ruling authority, the Yanks will be happy. It’s the best they can do. It’s also very unlikely.

Afghanistan is in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Here’s hoping that can change. If it’s going to, Petraeus is the man to do it.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Counter Insurgency (COIN), Middle East, Politics, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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