The Battle for Afghanistan: U.S. mapping new strategy in response to dire assessments of war
Stars and Stripes October 26, 2008
(First in a two-part series)
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Every week, it seems, brings a dire new assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
The most recent, a draft National Intelligence Estimate leaked to the press this month, warns of rapidly deteriorating conditions, with widespread corruption in the Afghan government undermining efforts to beat back a growing insurgency.
Violence has risen across Afghanistan, fueled by the drug trade and the flow of guns, money and fighters from sanctuaries in Pakistan. With three months remaining in 2008, U.S. and NATO casualties had already exceeded those of any other year since the 2001 invasion. There are currently about 70,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, including 33,000 Americans.
Civilian deaths are also up. The United Nations reported last month that nearly 40 percent more people in Afghanistan died during the first eight months of 2008 compared with the same period last year. More than half of those deaths were attributed to the Taliban and other insurgent violence. But deaths caused by coalition airstrikes are also rising.
According to the Pentagon, more than 6,500 people died in Afghanistan because of the war last year.
Top military advisers to the White House have launched an urgent review of U.S. strategy, with recommendations expected soon. The U.S. strategy to date — described as an attempt to bottle up the fighting in remote areas while relying on development efforts to turn ordinary Afghans against the insurgents — does not appear to be working in large swaths of the countryside.
Thousands of miles of roads have been built since 2003, and access to basic health care and education has been dramatically expanded. Yet, violent incidents in Afghanistan averaged 44 per month five years ago. This year, the figure stands at 573 per month. There were 983 incidents in August, according to the U.N.
"The trends across the board are not going in the right direction," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, told reporters this month.
On the ground, commanders are somewhat more optimistic. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, argued forcefully this month that the U.S. is not losing the war, though he said more troops are needed "quickly." Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of U.S. forces in the east, has described the war effort as a "slow win," but acknowledged that progress was not coming quickly enough to meet the expectations of Americans or Afghans.
Most expect harder fighting to come.
"I think there will be success, but I think there will be some darker days ahead," said Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, the deputy commander for operations in the east.
"I think it could get worse before it gets better."
U.S. officials and outside analysts say the Afghan insurgency is essentially composed of two distinct groups: the tribal-based Taliban network in the south led by figures who were ousted by the 2001 invasion, and a loose confederation of tribal fighters and foreign al-Qaida volunteers in the east, including bands led by longtime mujahedeen commanders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The size of the insurgency has been estimated at anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 fighters.
As the U.S. re-evaluates its strategy in Afghanistan, the outlines of a new approach are beginning to take form in a number of recent pronouncements and policy shifts. The new strategies amount to a more aggressive response to what have long been seen as the main issues in Afghanistan:
Afghanistan produces roughly 95 percent of the world’s heroin, with poppy production fueling corruption and helping to pay for the insurgency. Insurgent groups reportedly receive as much as $100 million a year through the drug trade.
NATO has long been reluctant to confront the drug problem, deferring to the Afghan government and the fear that a crackdown will alienate poor farmers. An agreement hammered out this month calls for NATO troops to take a tougher stance — targeting drug lords and processing facilities that can be tied to the insurgency.
Even that step came in the face of significant opposition from within the western alliance, an example of another problem in Afghanistan.
Troops from the various NATO countries operate under different rules of engagement, complicating efforts, especially in the south. The U.S., Britain and Canada, whose troops have done most of the fighting, complain that other NATO members aren’t sharing the burden, restricting their troops to humanitarian missions.
France recently bolstered its combat force, but the war remains unpopular in Europe, where it is seen as tied to the policies of a deeply unpopular U.S. administration. The U.S. this month launched a new command that will oversee all American troops in Afghanistan, whereas previously U.S. troops were divided between NATO and a separate American command in the east. All U.S. forces now fall under McKiernan.
Afghanistan’s most important cities, including Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, remain relatively peaceful. But the insurgency has grown in the rugged countryside and has staged increasingly bold assaults on roads and local government centers and "spectacular attacks" in the cities.
Confronting the rural insurgency will require more troops, but officials are also looking at other options. Defense officials are considering a proposal to stand up tribal militias. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently broached the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban.
A similar strategy based on tribal alliances worked in Iraq, but it’s especially fraught in a country with a long history of warlordism, tribal and ethnic infighting, and opposition to central government.
Insurgent safe havens in Pakistan undermine a key tenet of counterinsurgency strategy. As Milley puts it, even an unpopular insurgency could "go on forever" if the Pakistani havens remain.
The U.S. has long pressured Pakistan to launch a concerted campaign in the lawless tribal regions that border Afghanistan. But the Pakistani government appears more fragile than ever, and there are questions about the loyalty of some in the country’s military and intelligence services.
The Pakistani spy service, the ISI, funneled hundreds of millions in U.S. funding to Islamist mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s and supported the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The U.S. has also stepped up cross-border rocket attacks and launched unprecedented ground strikes into Pakistan in September, though some analysts warn that could weaken Pakistan’s government.
The Afghan government is perhaps the greatest cause for alarm among U.S. officials, according to published reports and more than a dozen interviews with top coalition military officers. Relations between President Hamid Karzai and the west have grown increasingly strained, most recently over a disputed bombing in western Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians. U.S. officials have also publicly linked Karzai’s brother to the drug trade, a charge both Karzais deny.
Military officials describe the core purpose of the war as bolstering the Afghan government so it can stand on its own. But what officials describe as "parasitic corruption" undermines the government’s credibility, something the Taliban has proven adept at exploiting.
Some officials have begun to talk about an overhaul of provincial reconstruction teams in relatively peaceful areas, with the focus turning to training administrators and encouraging transparency. Units that mentor Afghans are trying to coax accountability from a logistical system notoriously plagued by corruption.
But if the Afghan government has become a growing source of concern, many leaders take their greatest source of optimism from the insurgency itself.
Despite — or perhaps because of — growing violence, many officers say, the insurgency remains deeply unpopular and has failed to provide any services or outline a vision for Afghanistan’s future. The most recent independent polling shows roughly 10 percent of Afghans supporting the Taliban.
"They don’t have the political capability to win, because they don’t offer a vision that appeals to the population," Milley said. "But they do have the capability to make it a very bloody road."