As President Obama and his national security team confer this week to consider strategies for Afghanistan, one point seems clear: our current military forces cannot win the war. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander there, has asked for 40,000 or more additional United States troops, which many are calling an ambitious new course. In truth, it is not new and it is not bold enough.
America will best serve its interests in Afghanistan and the region by shifting to a new strategy of off-shore balancing, which relies on air and naval power from a distance, while also working with local security forces on the ground. The reason for this becomes clear when one examines the rise of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan in recent years.
General McChrystal’s own report explains that American and NATO military forces themselves are a major cause of the deteriorating situation, for two reasons. First, Western forces have become increasingly viewed as foreign occupiers; as the report puts it, “over-reliance on firepower and force protection have severely damaged the International Security Assistance Force’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.”
Second, the central government led by America’s chosen leader, Hamid Karzai, is thoroughly corrupt and viewed as illegitimate: “Local Afghan communities are unable to hold local officials accountable through either direct elections or judicial processes, especially when those individuals are protected by senior government officials.”
Unfortunately, these political facts dovetail strongly with developments on the battlefield in the last few years. In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban and kicked Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan with just a few thousand of its own troops, primarily through the combination of American air power and local ground forces from the Northern Alliance. Then, for the next several years, the United States and NATO modestly increased their footprint to about 20,000 troops, mainly limiting the mission to guarding Kabul, the capital. Up until 2004, there was little terrorism in Afghanistan and little sense that things were deteriorating.
Then, in 2005, the United States and NATO began to systematically extend their military presence across Afghanistan. The goals were to defeat the tiny insurgency that did exist at the time, eradicate poppy crops and encourage local support for the central government. Western forces were deployed in all major regions, including the Pashtun areas in the south and east, and today have ballooned to more than 100,000 troops.
As Western occupation grew, the use of the two most worrisome forms of terrorism in Afghanistan — suicide attacks and homemade bombs — escalated in parallel. There were no recorded suicide attacks in Afghanistan before 2001. According to data I have collected, in the immediate aftermath of America’s conquest, the nation experienced only a small number: none in 2002, two in 2003, five in 2004 and nine in 2005.
But in 2006, suicide attacks began to increase by an order of magnitude — with 97 in 2006, 142 in 2007, 148 in 2008 and more than 60 in the first half of 2009. Moreover, the overwhelming percentage of the suicide attacks (80 percent) has been against United States and allied troops or their bases rather than Afghan civilians, and nearly all (95 percent) carried out by Afghans.
The pattern for other terrorist attacks is almost the same. The most deadly involve roadside bombs that detonate on contact or are set off by remote control. Although these weapons were a relatively minor nuisance in the early years of the occupation, with 782 attacks in 2005, their use has shot up since — to 1,739 in 2006, nearly 2,000 in 2007 and more than 3,200 last year. Again, these attacks have for the most part been carried out against Western combat forces, not Afghan targets.
The picture is clear: the more Western troops we have sent to Afghanistan, the more the local residents have viewed themselves as under foreign occupation, leading to a rise in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. (We see this pattern pretty much any time an “outside” armed force has tried to pacify a region, from the West Bank to Kashmir to Sri Lanka.)
So as General McChrystal looks to change course in Afghanistan, the priority should be not to send more soldiers but to end the sense of the United States and its allies as foreign occupiers. Our purpose in Afghanistan is to prevent future attacks like 9/11, which requires stopping the rise of a new generation of anti-American terrorists, particularly suicide terrorists, who are super-predators able to kill large numbers of innocent people.
What motivates suicide attackers, however, is not the existence of a terrorist sanctuary, but the presence of foreign forces on territory they prize. So it’s little surprise that Western forces in Afghanistan have provided a key rallying point for the insurgency, playing a central role in the Taliban’s recruitment campaign and propaganda, which threaten not only our troops there but also our homeland.
The presence of our troops also works against the stability of the central government, as it can rely on Western protection rather than work harder for popular support.
Fortunately, the United States does not need to station large ground forces in Afghanistan to keep it from being a significant safe haven for Al Qaeda or any other anti-American terrorists. This can be achieved by a strategy that relies on over-the-horizon air, naval and rapidly deployable ground forces, combined with training and equipping local groups to oppose the Taliban. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, the United States is going to maintain a strong air and naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean for many years, and these forces are well suited to attacking terrorist leaders and camps in conjunction with local militias — just as they did against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001.
The United States has a strong history of working with local groups, particularly the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the old Northern Alliance, who would ensure that the Taliban does not recapture Kabul and the northern and western regions of Afghanistan. And should more substantial threats arise, our offshore forces and allies would buy time and protect space for Western ground forces to return.
Further, the United States and its allies have made some efforts to lead Pashtun tribal militias in the southern and eastern areas to abandon their support for the Taliban and, if not switch to America’s side, to at least stay neutral. For instance, the largest British gains in the southwest came from winning the support of Mullah Salam, a former Taliban commander who is the district governor of Musa Qala.
Early this year the United States started what it calls the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program, offering monthly stipends to tribal and local leaders in exchange for their cooperation against the Taliban insurgency. The program is financed at too low a level — approximately $20 million a year — to compete with alternatives that the Taliban can offer like protection for poppy cultivation that is worth some $3 billion a year.
One reason we can expect a strategy of local empowerment to work is that this is precisely how the Taliban is gaining support. As General McChrystal’s report explains, there is little ideological loyalty between the local Pashtuns and the Taliban, so the terrorists gain local support by capitalizing on “vast unemployment by empowering the young and disenfranchised through cash payments, weapons, and prestige.” We’ll have to be more creative and rely on larger economic and political carrots to win over the hearts and minds of the Pashtuns.
Changing strategy does not mean that the United States can withdraw all its military power from Afghanistan immediately. As we are now seeing in Iraq, changing to an approach that relies less on ground power and more on working with local actors takes time. But it is the best strategy for Afghanistan. Otherwise we will continue to be seen and mistrusted as an occupying power, and the war will be lost.
Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.