The Afghan dilemma

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 September 2009

The debate in Washington about the Barack Obama administration's future strategy in Afghanistan is intensifying. The imminent publication of General Stanley McChrystal's report on the progress of the war is being signalled by multiple leaks which suggest its key elements:

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming  * The war is not going well; increased commitments and changes in strategy are needed to prevent things getting even worse

* This in turn will almost certainly require many more troops. A specific recommendation may be weeks away, but some briefings indicate that President Obama may be asked to agree to as many as 45,000 more troops - which would increase the foreign-troop presence in Afghanistan to nearly 150,000

* There will also have to be much more of a focus on ensuring security among Afghan communities, and much less on defeating Taliban militias

* There must be a huge increase in the size of the Afghan army and police, perhaps doubling their currently strength of 200,000; a process that will take several years.

* It will be necessary to engage with moderate Taliban elements.

A war gone wrong

The comparison with the situation as recently as late 2006 is startling. Then, the substantial British troop deployments that had moved into Helmand province in the previous few months were meeting considerable and unexpected opposition; Canadian and Dutch troops elsewhere in southern Afghanistan were encountering the same problem.

Meanwhile, United States troops in eastern Afghanistan were reporting considerable successes in their own uncompromising approach to fighting the paramilitaries. A number of senior US military figures expressed candid views at the time about the incompetence of their Nato allies, not least the British; some of the serious disputes that resulted were reported by the media.

Three years on, there is a frank if belated admission that the war has gone badly wrong. Even during a period when the number of foreign troops has increased, Taliban and other paramilitaries have actually gained control of more of Afghanistan.

This has been further accompanied by political regression in the country, reflected in the many accounts of widespread voting irregularities in the presidential elections of 20 August 2009 (see Carlotta Gall, "Growing Accounts of Fraud Cloud Afghan Election", New York Times, 30 August 2009); the collapse in women's participation in the polling across many parts of the country is especially notable (see Pamela Constable, "Many Women Stayed Away From the Polls in Afghanistan", Washington Post, 31 August 2009). The flawed election reinforces the negative effects of endemic corruption and maladministration under the Hamid Karzai government in eroding the Afghan people's confidence in and support for the military and political strategy of their domestic rulers and foreign military backers.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch hereThe ability of the insurgents to strike at the heart of the state was demonstrated on 2 September when a suicide-bomber killed Afghanistan's deputy chief of intelligence; the major attack, at a mosque in Mehtar Lam (Laghman province, east of Kabul), took the lives of three leading provincial officials and seventeen other people.

In parallel, there is an upsurge of attacks across the border, where Pakistani army operations have failed to subdue the Pakistani Taliban. Within a few days, suicide-bombers killed twenty-two border-guards at the Torkham crossing, while another bomber penetrated the special-police training-centre in Mingora and killed fifteen police-officers. Even more seriously, Pakistan's federal minister for religious affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, was wounded and his driver killed in an attack in Islamabad on 2 September; the minister's opposition to the Taliban and support for recent army operations makes him a potent target for his assailants.

A world of experience

What overshadows this is a harsh reality, and one rarely aired in public: that in the escalating violence of the 2007-09 period, the Taliban insurgency has shown itself to be becoming steadily more competent and effective. Even as the American military and other western forces have acquired new equipment (such as many more armoured vehicles) and extended their tactics (such as the widespread use of drones), Taliban paramilitaries have adapted too; in part by using experience gained in or transmitted from the 1980s against the Soviet forces, in part too by using the benefit of combat in Iraq and elsewhere (see Karen De Young, "Taliban Surprising U.S. Forces With Improved Tactics", Washington Post, 2 September 2009).

There are many examples of this adaptation on the Taliban side. The overwhelming firepower of western forces means that Taliban militias rarely now engage in large-scale operations, but rely much more on numerous small engagements. When they do choose to attack small US or Afghan army units they have a very clear idea of how long it will take for the US troops to call in close air-support, and make sure to disengage at just the right time.

In preparation for an attack, radio-silence is maintained to avoid interception. In the case of assaults using mortars to strike at foreign targets, the units involved will even go as far as wetting the ground around the weapons to avoid dust being raised by the recoil, which would give their positions away.

Some US observers believe that foreign specialists from countries in the middle east and central Asia are training Taliban paramilitaries. In the words of one report: "These embedded trainers... play almost the same role as U.S. military training teams that live with and mentor Afghan government forces...To many of the Americans it appeared as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army Rangers School, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments".

None of this is a surprise: eight years of insurgent experience fighting a perceived occupier (a timespan longer than the full extent of the second world war, whose seventieth anniversary is being commemorated this week) is bound to have its effect. But what really counts is how this relates to McChrystal's proposals. The general shares the recognition that has come to underpin current US military thinking: that the massive firepower advantage available through air-strikes, helicopter-gunships and armed drones can readily be counterproductive because of the civilian casualties it so frequently inflicts. The dozens of civilians reportedly killed in the Nato air-strike in the northern Kunduz province on 4 September 2009 following a Taliban hijack of fuel-tankers is but one tragic example of a far wider problem.

The implication of the American military commanders' evolving awareness is that far more troops are needed on the ground in order to greatly limit areas of Taliban influence and control. At the same time, for such troops merely to patrol roads, towns and villages in heavily armoured vehicles would be ineffective and even pointless; since, in such circumstances, Taliban paramilitaries would redeploy in order to avoid conflict - while laying deadly roadside-bombs.

What is needed, therefore, is that foot-patrols and small units embedded in towns and villages directly secure these areas. But this is precisely the kind of deployment that is most easily disrupted by resilient and experienced insurgents; and to counter their resistance in turn would require hundreds of thousands of foreign troops (who are simply not available) or even larger numbers of Afghan soldiers (who will take many years to train to the level required).

A slow-burn shift

This is the central dilemma. It is intensified by the fact that if the Obama administration were to contemplate any kind of withdrawal, this would be a disaster for the senior ranks of the US military and for the very powerful defence-industry lobby (see "Afghanistan: point of decision", 27 August 2009).

What might still be termed the military-industrial complex and its political allies on the Republican right have long been united in supporting the war in Afghanistan. That consensus is breaking.

The indicators include an article by the conservative commentator George F Will which advocated a withdrawal from Afghanistan (see "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan", Washington Post, 1 September 2009); and Peter Feaver's pained revelation that Pentagon officials were no longer certain of White House support for an expanded war (see The scariest thing I've read on Afghanistan", Foreign Policy, 1 September 2009).

George F Will's column drew fire from neo-conservative analysts, but his views represent an opinion that is no longer restricted to the liberal wing of American politics. There is now a real doubt across much of the United States political scene over the rationale for the war in Afghanistan.

What will happen if, in the coming year, this mood develops into a much more rooted discontent? In that case, Barack Obama's administration might come to accept the need for a fundamental rethink that goes far beyond even General McChrystal's approach. Such a shift would be an acknowledgment of the adaptability and ingenuity demonstrated by the Taliban in recent years. It could also - at last - open the way to an endgame in this long and bitter war.

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