The following is the second of a two-part series on Michael O’Hanlon’s recent trip to Afghanistan. Click here to read the first part of this series.
A practical agenda is emerging for pushing extremists out of the population centers of Afghanistan and helping establish a legitimate Afghan government in their place.
It is not guaranteed to work, due to Afghan corruption and other issues – and indeed I am sympathetic to President Obama’s deliberatness in reaching his decision on Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s troop request as he wrestles with these challenges and complexities. But our odds of success are rather good if we pursue the following core elements:
- Reform of the police: If the army is known for its professionalism, the police force is often the opposite.
But there are reasons for hope. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar is one of the country’s stronger Cabinet members and is undertaking a serious effort to improve leadership in the police force. Afghan officials are likely to soon approve a pay and benefits increase that should help reduce the motivation for corruption (and for police defecting to the Taliban, where they can often get better pay today). Most of all, Gen. McChrystal’s concept of mentoring and partnering will give police the training and oversight they so desperately need (and also help us identify the individuals who should be fired so Afghan officials can clean up their ranks).
Until now, only 20 percent to 25 percent of Afghan police typically received any training at all. But under the new plan now being implemented, all Afghan police and army forces will be partnered with NATO “sister units” that will continue to train them in the field for months at a time.
- Growth of the army and police: With a sound concept in place for reforming the police, it also now makes sense to increase the size of both army and police forces. The former now total 95,000 and the latter 93,000; these forces will have to roughly double in size in the coming three years or so. They are growing at the combined rate of about 4,000 a month, a pace that should accelerate.
- Reintegration plan for “accidental guerrillas”: The Afghan government is now considering, with U.S. and NATO support, a plan for reintegration tailored to the country’s specific circumstances. Under current proposals, communities (rather than individual tribes) would strike deals with the government to reintegrate former insurgents. The communities would bear responsibility for the actions of these former fighters, who would have to keep hard-core Taliban out of their communities to qualify for the program. Economic inducements to the communities would only be provided if these conditions were met. The community militias would not be allowed to operate beyond their own local borders, and would have to accept supervision by government officials as well. This plan will probably not bring 100,000 former insurgents over to our side within months, as happened in Iraq. But it does seem realistic to sway tens of thousands of what Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen calls “accidental guerrillas” – those who fight out of frustration, or for money, but who do not share the extreme ideology of Mullah Omar and other true Taliban.
- A viable hybrid justice system: The Taliban is gaining influence in much of the country because it can administer an effective if crude form of justice. Afghanistan’s formal legal systems are too weak, and riddled with corruption, to compete effectively. It seems necessary to find a hybrid model of justice, perhaps employing village elders or public servants without formal law degrees but with some basic standing in their communities to settle as many cases as possible. Afghan activist and businesswoman Hassina Sherjan suggested to me that perhaps law students could spend a semester of their studies mentoring and training such individuals to improve the fairness and sophistication of their rulings. Specific models will probably vary from place to place, but the good news is that the basic concept of a mixed system employing some traditional mechanisms with government oversight is gaining acceptance as the right basic concept.
- Basic services for local districts and communities: Although still in its fledgling state, a new strategy is emerging to strengthen local districts and communities quickly after coalition and Afghan security forces clear them of insurgents. To date, even after we have cleared an area, it has not been possible to quickly build up government capacity there – leaving any gains fragile and subject to reversal. But Afghan and NATO governments are now trying to create a basic package of services for each such district, as well as small teams of foreign and Afghan experts to administer the efforts. They include Afghan line ministries in health, education, agriculture, and rural development, as well as grants for communities under the so-called National Solidarity Program to build infrastructure that the community itself chooses.
As coalition forces try to solidify control in the 80 key districts where they have a substantial presence today (out of a total of some 364 districts), and then expand further over time, this approach will be crucial. It is overdue, to be sure, and not yet up to speed. But a real strategy has emerged and the first teams are being built.
- A practical anti-corruption plan: Washington’s new conventional wisdom is that we cannot succeed in this war without a stronger and less corrupt Afghan partner. Given all of President Hamid Karzai’s shady friends, this would seem a tall order indeed. Indeed, fighting corruption in Afghanistan is important, but the good news is that Mr. Karzai need not become George Washington for our basic strategy to succeed. We need progress on the anti-corruption front, including a firing of the most extreme offenders from government service, greater transparency in the use of aid dollars, less subcontracting with all its potential for abuse, and greater use of ombudsman and inspectors general to monitor the performance of the government and give aggrieved citizens an outlet for their complaints. But there are several reformists in key government positions already, lending hope to the situation. And at the local level, where the insurgency’s fate will truly be determined Mr. Karzai’s influence is limited. It would be helpful if he would hire more officials like Gov. Gulab Mangal of Helmand province, to be sure. But even today, we are often able to work with the situation. And while Mr. Karzai is indeed a relatively weak leader, his vision of himself as a father of the modern Afghan state may be something we can leverage to induce greater cooperation over time. The situation here is serious, but not foreboding. The Taliban’s growth has been at least partially checked. We have numerous major assets working in our favor, including the credibility of a 42-nation effort, and an Afghan people clearly interested in moving into the 21st century. We have the best counterinsurgency military forces in the history of the planet fighting the war. And we have glimmers of hopefulness emerging in those places where additional forces have been added this year.
If Mr. Obama approves most or all of Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation for more NATO troops, and we build on other promising new initiatives, the chances of achieving our core strategic goals appear much better than even.
[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.
[Wess] Mitchell was a strong supporter of NATO, particularly in Eastern Europe where he will be sorely missed. His departure comes follows the resignation of senior Pentagon officials – Robert Karem and Tom Goffus – working on NATO along with Secretary Mattis. Without this pro-alliance caucus, NATO is now more vulnerable than at any time since the beginning of the Trump administration.