Afghanistan: What are we fighting for?

Taliban in front, citizens behind

Before discussing success in the war in Afghanistan, we must first define our objective. Our objective, as stated by President Obama, is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda.” Starting from this point, we must then confront a series of questions. Specifically, how important is stability in Afghanistan to success? Is our strategy, as it’s currently resourced and implemented, likely to achieve this goal? Are the costs of this operation proportional to our interests? And finally, what are our alternatives?

President Obama has declared Afghanistan a “vital national interest.” Implicit in this statement is the assumption that a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan will result in a Taliban takeover, restoring al-Qaeda’s primary safe haven. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supports the Afghan government and fights a range of insurgent groups for this reason.It is unclear, however, whether this mission can disrupt al-Qaeda operations sufficiently to justify a large international presence.

Al-Qaeda is an international organization able to relocate its leadership and planning centers strategically. Having arrived in Afghanistan after years in Somalia and Sudan, Yemen has become al-Qaeda’s latest safe haven. Achieving and maintaining stability in Afghanistan only incentivizes al-Qaeda to operate from other weak but sovereign states.

Although religious radicalism defines our understanding of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, much of the Afghan insurgency is local – disparate groups fighting for a variety of goals. By aligning itself with the Afghan government against any and all opposition, ISAF fights insurgents that have neither the desire nor the ability to threaten the U.S. directly. These groups differ in scope, size, and allegiance to al-Qaeda. In our broader mission of building an Afghan state, therefore, we are pouring resources into combating anti-government elements with weak or uncertain links to international terrorism.

If, despite these issues, we continue to assume that a stable Afghan state is vital to our national security, we must next review our current strategy, resources, and deadlines and assess the likelihood of their success.

We are conducting counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan. COIN theory asserts that an insurgency cannot be defeated by force alone – that only a long-term, social, political, economic, and military effort can win the hearts and minds of the population. Therefore, COIN depends upon political legitimacy; citizens must perceive their government as a superior alternative to the insurgency, thereby isolating insurgents from their base of support. COIN theorist John Nagl estimates that, to implement the strategy effectively, we need a ratio of one counterinsurgent for every 50 civilians.

In terms of resources, the population of Afghanistan is approximately 30 million, 80% of which lives in rural areas. By Nagl’s rule of thumb, we would need 600,000 troops to effectively clear, hold, and build. With the surge complete, including coalition forces, we’re capping our troops at 140,000. It is unlikely – given the resources allocated to the conflict, the timetables in place, and domestic political sentiment – that COIN will succeed in Afghanistan. According to best practices, our effort is dramatically under-resourced.

In response to these shortcomings, ISAF has focused the surge capacity on population centers in the south and east, where the insurgency is strongest. The rural, diffuse nature of Afghanistan, however, undercuts our ability to break insurgent momentum in these areas. Even as ISAF works to build local governance in these areas, our efforts in securing upcoming national elections have fallen short. A rule designed to keep warlords from running for parliament was used instead to remove opposition candidates. Yet – because it was allowed under current election law – an American official told us she preferred to “keep our powder dry” than to speak out against this perversion of the process.

This is not to say that progress is impossible or that our efforts have been wasted. Even in a district as insecure as Marja, development projects have been implemented with reasonable success. This past summer in Bamyan, a secure province in central Afghanistan, we witnessed considerable gains in development and human rights.We spoke with many Hazara, an ethnic minority persecuted and massacred by the Taliban, who were able to return to their homeland because of U.S. intervention. And it would be nothing short of unreasonable to expect profound successes and significant institutional growth over short periods of time.COIN demands time, but unfortunately, patience and domestic political will are two things our effort lacks.

President Obama has made clear that troops will begin coming home in July of 2011, although the rate at which they will return will be determined by “conditions on the ground.” While this statement, however ambiguous, has strong political appeal, it decreases the likelihood of success in what is fundamentally a war of perceptions. The heart of COIN is the need to win influence by providing a viable, long-term alternative to an insurgency. This deadline, however loosely defined, contributes to the perception of our impermanence as an ally. It therefore reduces the incentive for Afghans to support a frail and nascent government over a ruthless Taliban.

These problems – combined with the perceived illegitimacy of the government, the lack of a credible partner in Karzai, and Pakistani support for the Taliban – all point towards a protracted stalemate between NATO-Afghan forces and the insurgency. Therefore, if our objective in Afghanistan is solely to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda,” we have overcommitted our resources, and the costs of our effort are disproportionate to our interests.

Afghanistan’s importance in regional security, however, makes it an interest beyond the presence of al-Qaeda. Going forward, we should reframe our effort in terms of regional security. In doing so, we need to redefine our objectives and commit to a sustainable, long-term presence in Afghanistan. This will not produce a model democracy easily recognized as a success – however, it could prevent the large-scale instability that would result from a dramatic troop drawdown.

By investing heavily in a strategy of rapid progress before next summer, we lose sight of the bigger picture. The process of development and stabilization will be slow and should begin with a small but enduring commitment to an Afghan state independent from Taliban autocracy. To define and prosecute success in Afghanistan, therefore, we first need to reexamine and redefine our objective.

(Photo: Tracy Hunter)

Afreen Akhter and Kathryn Peters are both second year students at Harvard Kennedy School, who spent this past summer in Afghanistan. Afreen worked on development and women’s rights in Bamyan province and Kabul, and Kathryn monitored political rights with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul. This article was previously published in The Citizen, the student newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School.

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