The Weak, the Bad, and the Ugly: Policy Options in Afghanistan

After years of systematic underprovision of security in an intervention carried out on a shoestring, the Bush administration has finally woken up to the dire situation in Afghanistan. Washington is now in a frantic scramble to come up with a new strategy. Unfortunately, the options batted around have a slim chance to fundamentally reverse the worsening trends.

Violence has increased dramatically and now paralyzes much of the country in the south and east. Not only are the numbers of casualties and attacks the highest since 2002, but the psychological effect of violence has been profound. Spectacular operations like the Taliban’s attacks on Kabul’s Serena Hotel and on Kandahar’s prison have sent a powerful message that the momentum is on its side. The Taliban has opened an eastern front and there may not be a winter lull in the violence this year.

International advisors, NGOs, and even Afghan government officials have been locked in to the provincial capitals, with minimal capacity to travel outside of the city gates. Few dare travel on the Ring Road. Even the North is not completely stable, with many commanders there rearming.

The lack of security has paralyzed reconstruction efforts while public impatience has grown. A lot of money has been sunk into large projects, like the Kajaki Dam, which have failed to provide any immediate benefits to the population. And the entire Kajaki project will be jeopardized when the Taliban blows up the pylons.

Governance has collapsed. Kabul is isolated and unresponsive. Throughout the country, much of the political leadership is corrupt, incompetent, and focused on tribal parochial and personal gains. The corruption is endemic, affecting critical institutions, like the Afghan National Police (ANP), who are uniformly seen as thieves in state-issued uniforms. Personal insecurity from ordinary crime is great and even rudimentary justice is not being delivered.

U.S. military actions in FATA have failed to reduce Taliban’s safehavens. The air strikes have alienated the local population from the U.S. and the fight against terrorism. However, the violence in Afghanistan has become self-sustaining and even if the safehavens were removed, the Taliban would carry on.

Three policy options have lately received attention: A military surge combined with an enlargement of the Afghan National Army (ANA); an tribal option; and negotiations with the Taliban.

An infusion of sustainable security is absolutely critical for any progress. Increasing the number of troops is one way: it is the insufficient density of NATO forces that results in overreliance on air power and civilian casualties. Unfortunately, the planned surge of three American brigades is not enough. The real, though unspoken, number of troops necessary is around three divisions. Such troop numbers are of course not available, and the rise of Pashtun nationalism stoked by the Taliban may have already precluded the Afghan tolerance for increases in foreign troops. The default strategy is therefore one of relying on increasing the ANA. But the ANA is currently not ready to take on the Taliban. In many areas, it cannot even hold the territory after the Taliban are pushed out, with critical districts like Panjwayi, Maywand, Musa Qala, caught in cycles of clear and failure to hold, never progressing to build.

Hence option 2: arming tribal militias. While informed by “the tribal awakening” in Anbar, Iraq, this policy is not wholly a foreign import. Many frustrated foreign forces in the Afghan-Pakistan region, be they British or Soviet, sought to rely on tribes. But, the tribal complexity is far greater than in Iraq. The tribal leadership in Afghanistan is frequently critically weak. Both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban has further weakened the tribal structures by assassinations and discrediting of tribal leaders, such as those who agree to drug eradication, while replacing them with its own mullahs. Moreover, the tribal option is equally open to the Taliban: they have a long history of playing the tribes and are already coopting them through protection against poppy eradication. Even if successful in halting the progress of the Taliban, it is hard to see how a tribal option could be made consistent with the dream of a strong central state. More likely, it would speed up the fracturing of the country into fiefdoms.

If you cannot beat them, then negotiate with them, as many Europeans are urging. Strategic negotiations with the Taliban need to be distinguished from a reconciliation process for those who lay down their weapons. Such an amnesty process has brought hundreds of fighters out, though not enough to make a strategic difference. Such a minimalist scenario could hardly be appealing to the Taliban leadership who feel that the trends are going their way. Rather, in any strategic negotiations, such as the recent feelers in Mecca, the Taliban would likely not be satisfied with less than full participation in the political process –which could result in their takeover of the south and east. In fact, Mullah Omar recently stated that the only matter for negotiations is the terms of NATO withdrawal. But this Taliban central goal of all foreign troops out needs to remain unacceptable: to avoid further feeding the global salafist ego of running the infidels out and at minimum, to preserve the necessary means to disrupt the extremely dangerous al Qaeda safehavens in the region.