A Coalition special operations forces member scans an area for insurgent activity as an AH-64 Apache helicopter provides air support during an operation to destabilize insurgent drug trade near Kajaki village, Afghanistan on June 2, 2011. US Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Ryan Whitney.
Despite the vigorous beginnings of the Taliban’s “Badar” offensive, including several high-profile attacks, definite signs of ISAF momentum in Afghanistan have accumulated over the past six months. A thorough article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the Washington Post in April detailed the startling evolution in southern Afghanistan:
In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.
In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.
And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar’s northern fringe where dozens of U.S. soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.
Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.
And a Pentagon study published on April 29 also asserted that much headway has been made across the rest of the country, and exhaustively documented positive developments in everything from force levels of the Afghan security forces to reconstruction and drug interdiction. In addition, a handful of unusually optimistic statements from US officials, including the assessment from the typically candid Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Afghanistan could be nearing a “turning point,” have bolstered the perception that ISAF is gaining traction in the conflict.
But aside from the anticipated test the Taliban spring offensive will present for these gains, much larger questions cloud ISAF’s conduct of the war and its overall strategy. Chief among these issues are: the failure of Western powers to adequately address the infrastructure of the opium trade, the continuing existence of an insurgent redoubt in Pakistan, and the failure of US political leadership to articulate a strategy and timeline that are in sync with the realities of the conflict.
Drugs are down, but far from out
A few statistics highlight the importance of opium in Afghanistan: agriculture employs 79 percent of the country’s workforce; although opium output was halved by disease in the past year, two-thirds of the world’s opium still flows from Afghanistan; and the Taliban and narco-insurgents derive an estimated $100 to $500 million annually from the proceeds of widespread poppy cultivation and the distribution networks that pour out of the country.
The Pentagon study cited above details a host of enforcement efforts designed to reduce this drug trade and cut off insurgent funding. For example, between October 2010 and March 2011, American and Afghan security forces seized 38,184 kg of opium; 4,776 kg of morphine; 6,749 kg of heroin; and 124,574 kg of hashish, among other contraband and precursor chemicals. In addition, security forces arrested “274 suspects,” presumably mid- or high-level facilitators in the narcotrade. And now a significant US bureaucracy, including the DEA and State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics of and Law Enforcement Affairs, coordinates with specialized units within the Afghan police on counternarcotics operations. All of these numbers are improvements; the DEA had less than 30 agents in country as late as 2009, and the seizure numbers have increased as a result of the added manpower, though they still represent a tiny fraction of the contraband in the country.
But those efforts seem considerably narrower than the sweeping programs needed to develop Afghanistan’s legitimate agricultural infrastructure as an alternative to opium. To be truly effective, enforcement needs to be coupled with the establishment of storage and distribution facilities and networks for legal crops; the implementation of concrete plans to increase irrigation across the dry, salty south; and the development of alternative seed programs that employ the proper seed (i.e., more crops with profit margins that are greater than wheat or opium) and scope the distribution appropriately. Some of these projects are underway, but they fall short of the scale necessary to truly address the problem.
The report notes that 107 employees of the US Department of Agriculture are working in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock to assist with the development of Afghan agribusiness. But there is no stated scope or timeline for these efforts, and seemingly no frank estimation of how they will coordinate with counternarcotics enforcement so as to effect an enduring shift in Afghanistan’s drug economy.
Further complicating the current situation, ISAF policy toward drugs is fractious and confusing at the company and platoon levels, where soldiers and marines executing counterinsurgency grope their way through inconsistent local enforcement regimes while trying to win over farmers who grow poppy to make a living.
Overall, ISAF’s effort to address Afghan poppy production suffers from two glaring omissions:
1. While the overall campaign involves a detailed a list of initiatives, it seems to lack a frank assessment of whether such projects are sufficient to shift the Afghan farming economy away from illegal crops, and in what timeframe. The potential result of this isn’t merely ineffective; it can be counterproductive. For example, in a manner similar to the idealistic Helmand Valley Project of the 1940s and 50s, the net impact of increasing irrigation to Helmand province followed by prematurely withdrawing US forces will be an enhancement of opium production after America’s departure.
2. The current effort leaves intact the strong incentives in Afghanistan to grow opium. With the looming prospect of US withdrawal, the failure to significantly diminish these incentives will fuel government corruption by means of selective enforcement and continued double-dealing within the hypocritical religious and political culture that surrounds Afghanistan’s drug economy. This corruption will gnaw at the government’s legitimacy while continuing to empower the insurgents and narcolords who have a vested interest in the failure of Afghanistan as a state.
In short, if one accepts the rational proposition that enforcement alone is an insufficient strategy for reeingineering Afghan society away from the widespread cultivation of opium, then ISAF seems to be punting, or playing status quo, on one of the most critical factors contributing to Afghanistan’s long-term instability.
The spring offensive and Pakistani ratlines
As previously noted here at the Long War Journal and Threat Matrix, Chandrasekaran’s article on progress in the south quoted military officials who posit that Taliban tactics during the fighting season will modify to IEDs, brief small arms attacks at a distance, and assassination attempts in place of stand-up engagements with American forces. The article also details another troubling, yet predictable adaptation – a Taliban shift to operations in provinces that have become less challenging than the task of projecting into Helmand and Nimroz provinces to fight Marines.
As has been the case in both of America’s recent major wars, the insurgency invariably moves along the path of least resistance. And true to predictions, the Taliban have increased IED attacks and conducted several high-profile infiltration attacks and assassinations, primarily in the Afghan east and north, although they have maintained emphasis on their spiritual homeland of Kandahar.
The significant and quite real progress in the Pashtun belt, a cornerstone of ISAF’s strategy to challenge the Taliban on their home turf, has placed additional pressure on other areas of Afghanistan. And this pressure will become intense in the eastern and northern provinces after the recent American withdrawal from significant portions of Kunar and Nuristan, especially in locales suffering proximity to the jihadi training grounds and ratlines snaking from Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Thus, another fundamental challenge to ISAF’s strategy remains: even if security, reconstruction, and governance gains in Kandahar and Helmand are held and built upon despite the ongoing Taliban offensive, the overall effort in Afghanistan will be imperiled by a reinvigoration of the insurgency in areas traditionally considered even less amenable to Taliban dominance than the southern Pashtun belt. And this danger will be magnified exponentially by the beginning of a drawdown of American forces and the failure of US policymakers to adequately address terrorist safehavens in Pakistan.
A failure of political leadership
This reality reinforces the obvious conclusion that President Barack Obama’s latest affirmation of a July withdrawal commencement is incompatible with either a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy or a strategy of pressuring the Taliban into a negotiated settlement via punitive counterterrorism operations. Failing to keep ISAF boots on the neck of the Taliban will render ephemeral many of the hard-fought gains of the past two years, a view notably expressed last year by General James Conway, former Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Many have questioned whether the war in Afghanistan remains worth it, and whether current US policy has coherent and achievable goals. These are excellent and difficult questions, and I’ll punt on the first for the sake of brevity. What is clear, however, is that in order for the following:
1. to achieve sustainability in population-centric counterinsurgency,
2. to achieve sustainability in acceptance or basic tolerance of national governance in the south,
3. to achieve sustainability in the competence of indigenous security forces, and
4. to maintain sufficient pressure on enough non-ideological Taliban to drive accommodation
… ISAF will need more time.
At the very least, momentum in punishing the Taliban requires another year or two at the current operational tempo. But ideally, if the goal is to keep the country from reverting to a redoubt for violent extremists, the stabilization of Afghanistan is more of a generational development project than it is a war.
Petraeus himself has testified to Congress that the military gains are fruitless if they are not sufficiently supported by civilian reconstruction funding that contributes to the enduring stabilization of a splintered, difficult Afghan society. This view was well-argued by Paul Miller at Foreign Policy:
Nation building, as I’ve argued earlier, is not international charity. It is not a superfluous and dispensable exercise in appeasing western guilt, an expensive tribute to humanitarianism, or an act of unvarnished selflessness and goodwill. Nation building is a response to the threat of failed states that threaten regional stability. It is a pragmatic exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests. In the context of Afghanistan, nation building is the civilian side of counterinsurgency, the primary objective of which is to “foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government,” according to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual Petraeus wrote.
Afghanistan’s weakness threatens America’s security. State failure, chaos, or Taliban rule in Afghanistan will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, destabilize western Pakistan and endanger its nuclear weapons, become a worldwide headquarters for narcotics traffickers, discredit NATO, invite Iranian and Russian adventurism, and sully self-government and civil liberties in the Muslim world. We must rebuild Afghanistan to prevent these catastrophic outcomes.
One can certainly disagree with Miller on whether Afghanistan is worth it, and others will doubt it’s even possible. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is the realization that the current strategy cannot achieve its goals and also wrap up a neat American withdrawal within a couple of years. Success in Afghanistan will take time, and yet granting ISAF that additional time may still turn out to be an insufficient condition for success, in light of the well-stocked jihadi factories in Pakistan, and the frustrating combination of reticence and incompetence demonstrated by America’s putative Pakistani allies in cleaning up the cancer on their side of the border. So far, none of these issues have been adequately addressed by the political or military leadership of the US or its ISAF partners.
Which makes stories like this one from Chandrasekaran’s article more difficult to rationalize:
The Marines had not traveled more than 250 yards when the shooting started. First a few pops. Then a volley. And then a fusillade from not just AK-47 rifles but belt-fed machine guns as well.
Pinned down amid the corn, the platoon radioed for help. A reinforced machine-gun squad from 2nd Platoon threw on its gear and left the outpost to set up a blocking position so the Marines from 1st could withdraw. But as soon as the backup squad neared the scene, it was ambushed by a dozen insurgents.
Within minutes, the squad’s leader was shot in the leg. The only place his comrades could take cover was an adobe compound to the southwest marked on their maps as Building 3.
It was then that those Marines — and soon the rest of Kilo Company — would come to understand why Sangin had become the killing fields of the war in Afghanistan.
As the squad rushed toward the compound, one of the machine gunners stepped on a homemade mine on the southern corner. He was blown into a nearby canal.
On the north side of the building, a Marine seeking cover behind a wall was struck by a bomb planted in it. When the squad’s medic rushed over to help him, he stepped on a pressure-triggered makeshift bomb. He lost both his legs, and the Marine he sought to save died before the medevac helicopters arrived.
There were so many explosions, so close together, that others in the platoon assumed fellow Marines were firing mortar rounds at the Taliban. Only later would they understand that the sound was from their buddies stepping on mine after mine.
Attempting population-centric counterinsurgency strategy – which requires endless foot patrols exposing Marines and soldiers to IEDs that could have been easily defeated by up-armored MRAPs – only to fritter gains away by withdrawal a short time later, calls into question the point of undertaking the strategy in the first place. Similarly, further questions are raised by a policy that attempts to sway the population via establishing governance, reconstruction, and economic incentives, without devoting due attention to addressing the instability caused by Afghanistan’s opium economy or the radical redoubts in Pakistan.
And yet, despite charting this counterinsurgency course as recently as December 1, 2009, the Obama administration has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to a withdrawal timeline regardless of conditions, and is even floating trial balloons about the possibility of a faster pullout, something that is inciting natural pushback from the military.
The bottom line: Whether one agrees or not that long-term commitment is worth it, that is exactly what is needed to achieve an outcome in Afghanistan that roughly approximates the original goal of leaving behind a country less amenable to radical Islamic terrorism than it was in 2001. With the war now in its 10th year, the most coherently defined American strategy to date remains a muddle, in which the strategy and its execution on the ground are at complete odds with domestic political deadlines and characterizations of the war by civilian and some military officials. American policy requires more commitment and more clarity. Otherwise, individual opinions on the war won’t matter, in light of the predictable outcome.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.