More troops, fewer caveats. Let’s get serious

In Afghanistan Nato/ISAF faces challenges that go far beyond the normal limits of counter-insurgency and military strategy. It must carry out the equivalent of armed nation building, and simultaneously defeat the Taleban and al-Qaeda. It must change its strategy and tactics after years in which member countries, particularly the United States, failed to react to the seriousness of the emerging insurgency. The nations of the alliance lacked a unity of purpose, failed to provide enough troops and placed serious national caveats and limits on their use. They let the enemy take the initiative for more than half a decade.

The result is that the Taleban have been winning the war for control of Afghanistan’s territory and population while Nato/ISAF has focused on the tactical and combat aspects. The insurgents may have lost virtually every military clash, but they have expanded their areas of influence from 30 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts in 2003 to some 160 districts by the end of 2008, while insurgent attacks increased by 60 per cent between October 2008 and April 2009 alone.

Afghan security forces were not given serious priority until 2007 — more than five years into the war, and many Nato/ISAF planners feel that numbers need to be doubled and training time cut by one third to get more Afghan forces on the ground.

The military problems however, are only part of the story. The Afghan Government is corrupt, grossly overcentralised, lacking in capacity, and virtually absent in large parts of Afghanistan. The international aid effort continues to pursue unrealistic medium and long-term goals, and many organisations largely ignore the civil side of war fighting. What should be an integrated civil-military effort, focused on winning the war in the field, is a dysfunctional, wasteful mess that is crippled by bureaucratic divisions. Afghan power brokering, national caveats and tensions, and a failure to make good on pledges waste aid resources at every level.

This has created a situation where the Taleban have gone from a defeated group of exiles to a force that has threatened to defeat Nato and the Afghan Government. It has also created a situation where winning the war now requires Nato/ISAF to deal with not one, but six, centres of gravity.

First, it must change its strategy to continue to defeat the insurgency in tactical terms, but also eliminate Taleban, Hekmatyar and Haqqani control and influence. This means shifting from a focus on defeating the enemy in the field to shaping operations that can secure the population centres, clear out the insurgents, hold the cleared areas in ways that provide lasting security, and then build a level of governance, economy and prompt justice that leads to sustained popular support. It is the strategy now called “shape, clear, hold, and build”.

Second, to be effective, it must eliminate as many national caveats and restrictions on troops as possible, and add a substantial number of additional US combat brigades. Experts differ, but this could mean anywhere from three to nine brigades above the 21,000 additional forces that President Obama approved in the spring of 2009.

Third, it must create a larger and more effective mix of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Many experts believe this means roughly doubling the targets from 134,000 men for the army to 240,000, and from 82,000 to 160,000 for the police by 2014. Equally important, member nations must provide the trainers, mentors and money to make this force effective. They must put them in the lead as soon as possible to show the Afghan people that security has an Afghan face, that it can last, and that every step is being taken to limit civilian casualties.

The military dimension, however, is only part of the story. The fourth issue is the corruption and incapacity of the Afghan central Government. Nato/ISAF’s member countries must openly fight this corruption, the abuses of power brokers and misuse of Afghan forces. They must bypass the corrupt, provide direct aid at district and local level, and reward honest Afghan officials and officers. Nato/ISAF can win every battle and still lose if the Afghan people see no reason to support or be loyal to a government that fails them.

The fifth challenge is to force unity of effort and integrity on a divided, grossly inefficient and corrupt international aid effort. Countries don’t meet their pledges, and support corrupt and incompetent Afghan and foreign contractors. Groups such as Oxfam estimate that they spend as much as 40 per cent of their funds on overheads such as security, which provide no benefit for the Afghan people. What is done largely ignores the plight of the Afghan urban poor and the needs of a population that is 70 per cent rural. There can be no victory without jobs, without giving Afghanistan’s poor real hope, and without the roads, power and water projects that directly affect farmers in the areas where most of the war is being fought. “Shape, clear, and hold” won’t work without “build”.

Finally, Nato/ISAF nations need to co-operate in dealing with the fact that the sixth centre of gravity is outside Afghanistan. Limiting the threat from Pakistan, Iran and other states will be equally critical to success in Afghanistan. This is particularly true of Pakistan, where it will take a mix of constant diplomatic pressure and aid to get the Government to take serious action in the border areas.

Even a practical set of goals for victory will be difficult to achieve. Nato/ISAF governments will need to be more honest with their peoples, explain the risks and reasons for fighting in more depth, and show why they should have strategic patience and make a long-term commitment.

They must also define victory in achievable terms. Afghanistan cannot become an instant model of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Victory means a reasonable level of security and stability for the Afghan people; a decent standard of living by current Afghan standards; and the end of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for international terrorism. That may not be much to most of the rest of the world, but for the Afghans it means real hope and an end to three decades of war and suffering.

Anthony H. Cordesman. He holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He recently returned from Afghanistan, where he served as a member of General Stanley A. McChrystal’s Strategic Assessment Group, but the views in this commentary are purely his own.