Sunday 7 September 2008

Stranger, spare a thought for Afghanistan

The FT’s Editorial Comment on Afghanistan ("Afghan Harvest," August 27th, 2008) paints a grim, succinct picture of the role of economic development and security in that country, and why the struggle for security may fail.

In a nutshell, conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating. The Taliban and its sponsors have taken a page from classic insurgency strategy, and are interdicting convoys carrying fuel, food and humanitarian aid from Kabul to the south. The recent attack on French paratroopers 40 miles from Kabul is another indication of their ability to strike at will throughout the country. If this reminds anyone of the Viet Cong strategy in Vietnam, it should be no surprise.

Afghanistan is a country of some 38 million people, 80% of whom are Sunni, and divided into over 30 major ethnic groups, of which the Pashtun and Tadjik are estimated as the largest. The terrain is extremely rugged, and transport links are vital to assuring basic economic activity. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and among the least developed on the UNDP's Human Development Index , when it is ranked at all.

In this environment, it should come as no surprise that the conditions for insurgency are flourishing. The Taliban has maintained its fundamental attractiveness as a political, social and religious force among a significant segment of the Afghan population, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated south-east of the country, bordering Pakistan. The actions of the US-led NATO alliance appear to be fanning the flames of the insurgency, either through brutal air assaults which lead to high “collateral damage” among civilians, or due to the humiliating way in which most military patrols interact with civilians.

For a review of the latter, just turn on CNN and watch how the average military patrol speaks with, frisks and detains Afghans. In a culture where possession of firearms is not only a necessity, but a cultural heritage, the fact that someone can be arrested apparently for possessing a firearm is slightly absurd. Beyond this, the fact that these people are searched, at gunpoint, in full view of other males and occasionally females, must go against every cultural and social tenet in the book. In other words, it’s a major humiliation, in a country where wars have been started for less.

There is no easy solution to this specific problem, and I don’t raise it with an alternative solution in mind. The key to defeating an insurgency is security, which would allow the conditions for economic growth, political engagement and social modernisation. Although the Afghanistan Compact provides a well-thought, well-intentioned strategic framework for doing so, it’s clear that the implementation of this framework is not sufficiently resourced.

Consider that the Afghanistan Compact provides for three key pillars of activity:

1. Security
2. Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights
3. Economic and Social Development

In this post, I will focus primarily on the first pillar, security, since without it the remaining two pillars will be impossible to achieve. This is also an issue of prime importance, since it affects decisions made in the current US Presidential election, as well as long-term issues in international security.

In the last 2 years, the Taliban have regrouped and taken the fight to major population centres outside the south-west of the country. They are interdicting the major transport axes to and from Kabul, and are mounting attacks against major military bases and within Kabul itself. In 2007, for instance, the Taliban launched a suicide bombing attack outside Bagram air base during Vice President Cheney’s visit. The number of US and ISAF casualties in Afghanistan has been rising, and US casualties are surfacing as a sound bite in US political coverage.

There are a number of root causes to government's inability to control security:

Insufficient Troops
There are not enough ISAF or Afghan boots on the ground to provide security and defeat the insurgency. ISAF reports a total of 52,700 troops, including National Support Elements. According to the Congressional Research Service (report available from the Federation of American Scientists), the US has a total of 48,250 troops deployed in-country as of June 1, 2008, of which about 60% are tasked to ISAF, with the remainder of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Assuming that 52,700 ISAF troops are joined by the 40% of US troops in OEF (19,300 troops), then there are a total of 72,000 western troops in-country. Of these, a number of German, French and other troops contributing to ISAF are stationed in the north of Afghanistan, and are not deployable to conflict regions. To this, we can add the 46,000 troops of the Afghan National Army forces, but these are widely acknowledged to be insufficient for independent command.

An Unknown Enemy
We can only define a number of troops as “insufficient” if we know the nature and deployment of the enemy they are confronting. Here, unfortunately, we are operating in the dark. The Taliban enjoys apparently unlimited ability to deploy its forces, either from its strongholds across the border in Pakistan, or from its bases within Afghan territory. According to a 2007 article in the New York Times, there are approximately 10,000 Taliban insurgents, of which 2,000 – 3,000 are committed, motivated fighters. The Senlis Council estimated that the Taliban controlled approximately 54% of Afghanistan’s territory in November 2007. The Taliban’s leadership is widely reported to be based in Pakistan, which itself appears to be undergoing a rapid melt-down of national government authority, at least in the Tribal Areas.

Regional Enemies and Safe Havens
Afghanistan’s neighbours, primarily Iran and Pakistan, can hardly be considered friendly states. US security services have accused Iran of supporting the Taliban, particularly through provision of weapons and expertise. Although these charges have not been sufficiently proven, the fact that Iran is following an active strategy against US interests in Iraq and the Persian Gulf indicates that its role could easily change: Iran holds the initiative on the border, not the Afghan government.

The New York Times recently reported a meeting between the CIA and the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, about the ISI’s support for the Taliban attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. It’s also clear that although Pakistan has been trying to impose central government control on the so-called Tribal Areas, it has been failing. The government has lost any number of military engagements in the region, and the Pakistani Taliban has shown that it is up to the task of defeating government forces on its own territory. Whatever the case, the fact that both Iran and Pakistan are, de facto or de jure, hostile towards the United States (in the former case) and of Afghanistan (in the latter) indicates that the Taliban insurgency has a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks in the country.

Perhaps the final element in the security situation is the cultivation of the opium poppy, which provides not only a high value crop for Afghan farmers, but finances the Taliban. Although recent reports indicate that the opium harvest is declining, with poppy cultivation down 19% over 2007, the laws of supply and demand mean that the Taliban will, if anything, gain income as prices rise in response to diminished supply. In the absence of foreign sponsors, the cultivation, processing and trafficking of opium provides a constant and reliable source of income, which until now neither ISAF, nor the UN, the Afghan government nor Operational Enduring Freedom have managed to shut down. Indeed, opium production is fuelling government corruption, with many reports questioning President Hamid Karzai’s inability to stop the trade.

The scale of the root causes of the security issue cannot be underestimated, and are complex. To define the Taliban as a group of ignorant Islamic fanatics is to confuse the issue, rather than to illuminate it. The Taliban’s religious and political philosophy, no matter how much we may disagree with it, is profoundly rooted in regional culture, history and current events. To “win hearts and minds” will be extremely difficult in the current situation, far more difficult than in Iraq, which can build on successive generations of secularism under Saddam Hussein and prior rulers.

Into this maelstrom, both US Presidential candidates, as well as President George W. Bush, have resolved to send more troops. Barack Obama has mentioned two combat brigades – about 7,000 troops – to Afghanistan. John McCain wants to send three additional brigades. President George W. Bush has announced plans to increase the troop commitment to Afghanistan as well, although this is contingent on the draw-down following the surge in Iraq.

Additional forces are welcome: there is no doubt about this. Yet this will certainly not be enough: a generation of international assistance for the second and third pillars of the Afghanistan Compact will be needed.

I wonder as well if the political dimensions of the Afghan conflict are being properly addressed, or even though about. The US-led troop presence of Afghanistan has now nearly completed 7 years since the original invasion in October 2001, following the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th. As recounted in this article, the Taliban insurgency has gained ground in recent years. This leads me to raise a series of questions, particularly since I’m tired of hearing the bromide that “Afghanistan is too important to fail”:

1. How do we define success or failure?
2. What scenarios exist for success or failure in Afghanistan?
3. What drivers and barriers exist to success (and failure)?
4. What price is appropriate for assuring that Afghanistan succeeds?
5. Are we prepared to pay this price?

This is a highly complex subject, and requires extensive further reporting. But for the time being, if anyone is interested in this subject, I invite you to check the websites of the two candidates – Barack Obama and John McCain, and consider whether this is receiving anything near the attention is should be. The Obama campaign doesn’t even have a page on Afghanistan (although it does have pages on Iran and Iraq); John McCain’s campaign also lacks a page on Afghanistan, although it has issued a press release.

As with many other issues in this Presidential Campaign, we are hearing promises with something approaching blithe indifference to conditions on the ground, root causes and likely approaches needed to bring about a solution. I would not be surprised if four years from today, in September 2012, we are hearing the very same promises from two different candidates.

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