Afghans Aren't Helpless
NPR's All Things Considered featured an interview with Seth Jones, author of a fascinating new report about Afghanistan that he put together for the US Institute for Peace. The basic gist of the report is that America and its allies are losing in Afghanistan due to a lack of long-term planning and understanding about the realities on the ground and the various forces jockeying for power. The key recommendations, which Jones and his co-author call "game-changers," are here:
• Adopt a bottom-up strategy to complement top-down efforts: Security and stability in Afghanistan have historically required a balance between top-down efforts to create a central government, and bottom-up efforts to secure local support and protect the population. Since 2001, the U.S. and international community have focused predominantly on top-down security efforts, including the establishment of an Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. But the deteriorating situation and local nature of the insurgency require supporting district-level institutions that are Afghan-led and locally appropriate, with safeguards and oversight to establish order and deliver services.
• Shift from direct action to mentoring Afghan security forces: Successful counterinsurgency efforts hinge on the competence of local security forces, not international ones. More U.S. forces in Afghanistan may be helpful, but only if they are used to build Afghan capacity and to protect the local population. One critical need is to address the international partnering gap that has plagued efforts to improve Afghanistan's police and army. There is currently a 70 percent shortfall in international mentors for the police and a 30 percent shortfall for the army. This requires a crash effort to identify, train, and support mentors. European governments, the United States, and the UN should also devote more resources to mentoring and professionalizing the Ministry of Interior.
• Adopt a robust anti-corruption strategy and end impunity by prosecuting and removing corrupt officials: Pervasive corruption at all levels of the Afghan government is one of several factors fueling the insurgency by undermining local confidence in the government. Addressing this problem requires a serious and sustained campaign to prosecute corrupt officials through the justice system. This can include building better anti-corruption guarantors in all ministries, such as inspectors general offices, with mentoring and support from the U.S. and other NATO members. Recent Afghan efforts, such as the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, have failed to undermine corruption. The Ministry of Interior is a logical place to start since corruption in this ministry has undermined police reform, counter-narcotics efforts, and border security.
• Use the Afghan central budget: The chief problem in Afghanistan is not necessarily a lack of resources, but a better use of resources and one that builds governance, not weakens it. One key change would be to coordinate assistance through the Ministry of Finance and to develop a database that compiles and monitors international assistance to the country.
• Address relations with neighboring states and improve border security: Too few programs focus resources on fortifying Afghanistan's porous borders through which insurgents, narcotics, and other illicit goods travel with ease and often with the complicity of officials from Afghanistan and neighboring states. Greater programmatic attention should be devoted to improving Afghan-Pakistan relations and stabilizing the tribal belt. Admittedly, these efforts will not succeed without dedicated efforts to persuade Pakistan to fully engage in the effort to disable the Taliban and other militant groups.
While Jones doesn't reject the need for additional forces, clearly every one of these recommendations call for the use of existing people, money and power inside Afghanistan so the locals can provide for their own security and stability and the NATO footprint can shrink. Jones explained what has worked in Afghanistan to stabilize the country in the past has been a loose federal government with widespread autonomy in the rural areas controlled by tribes and jirgas. Michele Norris, who performed the interview, couldn't get around the fact that governance is supposed to mean that a President controls from on high. That is a Western view that doesn't have a place in talking about Afghanistan. The locals have rejected both outside invaders and centralized control for hundreds of years, and imposing a foreign system won't work, as we've seen. But the most interesting part of the interview was this:
NORRIS: Since so much of the problems in Afghanistan are so widespread, this strategy would seem to require many more troops, many more advisers to work at the tribal level to gain that trust and to build some sort of security. How do you envision doing that without pouring hundreds of thousands more troops into Afghanistan?
JONES: Well, I would actually say it's quite the reverse. What we've seen historically is that local elements can a) protect themselves, and b) provide services into their areas. So actually I think this would require, if one can tap into local resources, it would require less international presence rather than more in some areas.
This is the key point. Certainly the military and also the civilian control in the Pentagon are historically way too invested in what they have to impose upon a situation rather than allowing the locals to control it themselves. Afghans have been on this Earth for as long as Westerners have, and they'll still be around afterwards. While the society may be primitive, the basic priorities of security and service is something that tribes in the rural areas can handle for themselves. Americans can facilitate that stability, but too often the perspective is that poor, helpless Afghans must have everything done for them. That's bullshit. It does foreign occupiers no good to try to defeat a local insurgency through top-down tactics. There have been two major errors in Afghanistan - propping up a corrupt central government that is now feeding the insurgency because the Taliban elements are better at providing services than Hamid Karzai; and using airstrikes that massacre civilians in addition to the intended targets, also inflaming local populations and feeding the insurgency.
Afghan security forces from the top are ineffective, and at least in Helmand province, as many as 60% of them are addicted to drugs. A bottom-up security structure led by local tribes at the district level seems to be the only way out. And if the fear is that the Taliban will eventually overrun such a system and set up a safe haven for terrorists in South Asia, um, they call that the Swat Valley in Pakistan. That ship has sailed.
To effectively reach the only goals we can seek in the region, which is to disable the ability for terrorists to project power beyond their borders, we need a comprehensive regional strategy to enlist Pakistanis and Afghans in their own fight for their future, along with intelligence-sharing to stop attacks. That is achievable by locals working in concert with intelligence professionals. The military doesn't have a de facto role.