Examining Afghanistan

The Fundamental Need for Greater Commitment and Efficiency in Afghanistan

Marco Vicenzino takes a look at the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.
The increasing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has been significantly undermining the level of support of ordinary Afghans for the international military presence and the central government. This should not be interpreted as support for the return of the Taliban, but rather disenchantment and disillusion with the results of the central government and international community since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.  Although cautious optimism is often expressed about Afghanistan’s long-term prospects, greater emphasis must be placed on caution and less on optimism for the foreseeable future. 

Western leaders and NATO officials have expressed deep concern about the continuous loss of innocent civilian life, blame the Taliban for intentionally exposing non-combatants to hostile action and vow to improve coordination between coalition and Afghan security forces.  However, military tactics and the status quo are unlikely to change dramatically any time soon.

The current Taliban summer campaign marked by increased attacks and suicide-bombings is not necessarily symbolic of a successful Taliban strategy.  If the purpose is to gain headlines internationally and domestically and create the perception of Taliban “success”, the operations are yielding dividends.  In reality, this apparent “success” has less to do with increased Taliban strength and more to do with the consequences of the lack of a serious and unequivocal international commitment, rampant inefficiency and endemic corruption.  Over time, the shortcomings have become increasingly apparent.

2006 proved to be an extraordinarily difficult year with a significant surge of violence, particularly in the south and east.  By early 2006, it was clear that the international military presence in these areas had been too low for the task at hand and by mid-2006 additional coalition forces arrived, primarily US, British and Canadian.  The Taliban deliberately focused its efforts on non-US NATO forces, with the objective of eroding internal support and increasing opposition within many NATO states.  This policy appears to be yielding results gradually.     

The growing Afghan army has slowly increased its effectiveness but continues to struggle in direct confrontations with the Taliban.  Although the recent killing of Commander Dadullah, a notorious and feared Taliban military leader, was carried out by Afghan troops, greater NATO training and support is still needed.  Widespread incompetence and corruption continues to plague the police forces, particularly at the district levels and principally in the south where local administrators are often engaged in the drug trade.  The southern province of Helmand alone is responsible for the majority of poppy growth in Afghanistan, which as a nation accounts for over 90% of global opium supply.   

The drug trade has grown exponentially, principally in areas controlled by the Taliban.  For a nation predominantly dependent upon agriculture, the promised alternative sources of agriculture have not been delivered, leaving farmers at the mercy of local warlords who are more than willing subsidize their poppy cultivation, often by force and coercion.  At the same time, drug demand from developed countries, predominantly in the west, relentlessly continues to fuel the supply side.

Furthermore, the continuously deteriorating security situation makes these areas practically inaccessible to international development assistance, particularly for investment in infrastructure.  Despite the recent announcement of an increase in US aid ($4 billion for security forces, $1 billion for infrastructure), US spending for Afghanistan remains extremely marginal when compared to Iraq.   The health sector, which most directly impacts ordinary Afghans, remains the most critically under-funded and neglected area.  In order to win “hearts and minds”, it is essential to feed and nurture the body.  The life expectancy of an ordinary Afghan is 46 years of age and even less for women.  The maternal mortality rate is among the world’s highest since many Afghan women give birth without qualified medical assistance.  Despite relentless efforts, the Minister of Public Health is still unable to acquire two basic helicopters for rescue and relief efforts.  The helicopters would secure the transportation of medical supplies and critical patients to and from remote rural provinces in mountainous areas inaccessible by car or plane, particularly during the harsh winter months in places such as Pamira, Afghanistan’s extreme northeast region.  Hundreds of lives are lost annually, mostly from easily curable ailments.

The mounting loss of innocent civilians continues to underscore the fundamental need for improved communication between international forces and Afghan security personnel.  Having a more noticeable Afghan presence on the front lines and a less visible international footprint may reduce tensions and hostilities, particularly in rural areas where foreigners are often resented and ignorance of basic cultural sensitivities can transform an ordinary misunderstanding into tragic violence.

Furthermore, the general tendency to assume a simplistic “black/white” approach and brand any opposition to the government as terrorist, Taliban, Al Qaeda, subversive or sympathizer has further complicated matters, particularly for foreign troops in rural areas struggling to grasp the intricate nuances of local culture.
This highlights the necessity for enhanced “network analysis”, that is, better understanding the grassroots network of tribes and clans that dominate the daily lives of ordinary Afghans, particularly in the rural regions and most importantly in the war-torn areas of the south and east of Afghanistan.  Increased knowledge of the intricacies and internal dynamics of tribal structures and the effective implementation of complementary tactics and policies will vastly contribute to the mission.   Intelligently assessing citizens’ needs, requirements and grievances and skillfully addressing them will significantly alter realities and perceptions of the intended beneficiaries, that is, ordinary Afghans.

In principle, Afghans remain proud of having achieved a form of representative government that is still a work in progress.  It would be naïve to expect political change to occur overnight, that is, to undo what thirty years of violent conflict created.  It is even more naïve to expect political change to produce a replica of a Western-style democracy.  Change may only occur gradually within the complicated historical context, and real paradox, of a society still deeply rooted in its traditions yet uprooted, transformed and significantly displaced by years of turmoil triggered by internal and external forces.

The society’s ability to move forward despite the enormous obstacles and challenges is a testament to the resilience and pride of ordinary Afghans, who value individual initiative more than dependence on international aid and relentlessly struggle to create a better future for the next generation.

Liked by many as a well-intended leader but seen as increasingly ineffective, President Karzai is simultaneously caught between pressure from foreign powers and competing demands by domestic constituents, including the divergent factions in parliament and powerful leaders in the provinces.  Briefly summarized, he means well but cannot do much.  Recent events involving the loss of innocent civilians has further reinforced this sentiment among many and eroded support for the President. 

In fragile states, it is not only advantageous for a leader to exude a sense of fairness but possess a certain aura of invincibility, omniscience and omnipresence, which can greatly contribute to national unity and purpose revolving around the strength of character of a single individual.   In theory, Afghanistan requires such an Ataturk-style leader but in reality rampant sectarianism and widespread factionalism complicates the task for any leader and significantly reduce the chances of any such national savior from emerging.  No Ataturk in Afghanistan appears on the horizon, nor should one be expected anytime soon.

President Karzai is trying to maneuver as effectively as possible within increasingly narrow political limits and physical security constraints.  Instead of Ataturk (“father of Turks”), the founder father of modern Turkey, Karzai is often referred to as the Mayor of Kabul since he rarely travels to the provinces due to risk of assassination.  Even within Kabul, his security situation is tenuous.  The inability to travel to the provinces due to security concerns further impacts his credibility with ordinary Afghans.  With a more effective fighting force he could possibly do more, but to what extent remains subject to debate.   

In essence, Karzai plays more the role of chief intermediary and overseer of the different competing factions and groups.  Any potential successor, regardless of strength of character or rhetoric, may be fundamentally confined by similar constraints.

Afghanistan’s current political party system is still in flux and is unlikely to achieve full consolidation for the foreseeable future.  Shifting coalitions and ad-hoc alliances of convenience will continue dominating the political landscape.  The recent creation of a new political party composed of an ideologically incoherent cross-section of former enemies and allies may further complicate Karzai’s task.  It may also offer him the opportunity to gain political capital if he can skillfully exploit their differences through a divide and rule approach.  The unfortunate reality is that Karzai will ultimately be forced to simply muddle through for the remainder of his term as president.

The reality of Afghanistan’s current system of patronage will persist in Parliament, and particularly at the local levels.  It is a system based on “cutting deals” and “give-and-take”.  Generally, it would appear no different from practices throughout the world, but what many in the west consider corruption, others in Afghanistan may view as standard operating procedure.  It will require significant time for western standards of transparency and accountability to become part of the fabric of Afghan society, and particularly developing the institutions of civil society.  One must accept the possibility that it might not occur, or not to the extent accepted in the west.  International aid donors should bear in mind these realities and demonstrate a degree of flexibility with the objective of reaching realistically achievable standards at a given point in time, while making constant efforts for long-term improvement.

A long-term threat to “success” in Afghanistan remains the potential for the irreversible loss of legitimacy of the central government.   From the very beginning the expectations of ordinary Afghans was very high.  The central government’s failure to deliver in the non-military sphere combined with the lack of a full international commitment, endemic corruption and pervasive inefficiency have taken an enormous toll on public support.

Although the international community can still improve its engagement in most sectors, it can only buy time for Afghanistan. Ultimately, failure by the central government to deliver, or at least create the perception of delivering, will make the fundamental difference in determining Afghanistan’s future.

The Afghan public needs assurance that the commitment of the international community will be long-term, consistent and reliable.  The memories of international neglect after the Soviet withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban remain fresh.  Therefore, how committed to Afghanistan is the international community?  Although the level of support varies from one country to another, overall the signs have not been particularly encouraging, particularly for ordinary Afghans.
Obtaining additional funds and supplies from NATO states for Afghanistan has been comparable to “pulling teeth”.  Fierce debates have taken place in the parliaments, media and courts of public opinion of many NATO states.  In Italy, the government coalition nearly collapsed.  In Germany, vocal calls for withdrawal ensued after German soldiers were killed by suicide bombers in Kunduz.  Holland’s parliament struggled over the decision of transferring soldiers to Afghanistan’s conflict-ridden south.  The recent deaths of Canadian soldiers sparked furor in the Canadian parliament and media.  British military resources are over-extended by various engagements around the world.  

Although all 37 nations involved in Afghanistan are providing some form of contribution, as a whole the efforts and resources are still inadequate for the mission.  In addition, greater burden sharing is required on all fronts.  US, British and Canadian are bearing the brunt of heavy combat in the south and east of Afghanistan.

The threat of national parliaments of NATO member states not renewing mandates beyond another year or two remains real.  The level of public support in many NATO states is cause for concern.  Much has to do with the failure of political leaders to engage in direct dialogue with the public and explain the importance and magnitude of the mission.  This failure, or perhaps more accurately lack of will, derives primarily from politicians’ fear of retribution at the polls  Although  some states, such as Italy and Germany, have developed strong pacifist traditions after two bloody world-wars, this no longer provides an excuse for inaction, or limited action, in a post-9/11 globalized world of growing unconventional threats.

Forces from beyond Afghanistan, particularly from bordering states continue to complicate matters enormously. Few doubt that significant Taliban and Al Qaeda elements operate from Pakistani soil, particularly in the rough mountainous border region.  The debate continues to revolve around the level of Pakistani government control of these areas, the extent of its efforts to combat the threat and whether any support, either actively or passively, is being provided by local tribes or government sources.

The US may be overestimating Musharraf’s ability to deliver, particularly in light of competing interests and loyalties within Pakistan’s security and intelligence establishments.  On the other hand, Musharraf may be publicly under-selling his ability to deliver. He does just enough to secure the US government’s seal of approval as a “partner in the war on terror” and ensure his own survival but nothing beyond which may risk further exacerbating relations with his religious opponents who already consider him a US “stooge”.  “Doing more” will also require Musharraf to invest additional political capital and resources of which he is currently in limited supply.  His recent removal of Pakistan’s chief justice has triggered a growing civil opposition movement which increasingly challenges his rule.

It appears likely that the more militant elements of Iran’s security establishment provide a degree of support to the Taliban, but far less than for the insurgency in Iraq.  Encircled by Americans on their borders, with Afghanistan to the east and Iraq to the west, Iranian officials choose to resist through third party pressure and proxy violence.  The objective is not to allow for the return of the Taliban, Iran’s sworn enemy, but to ensure they are sufficiently supplied to keep American and allied forces occupied, that is, to provide a good fight and bloody nose.

As Iraq continues to dominate the US political debate with the approaching 2008 elections, Afghanistan continues to receive scant media attention for different reasons.  When compared to Iraq, the US casualty rate and taxpayer money spent are relatively low.  The fact that Afghans are generally in favor of the foreign presence and more than willing to assume their responsibilities on the front lines makes the conflict far less controversial than Iraq.  For those with no interest in foreign affairs the conflict in Afghanistan has become “yesterday’s war”.  For some with limited interest it has become the “other war” which generates the occasional campaign sound-bite to contrast with Iraq or sporadic headline covering a gruesome suicide bombing or Taliban attack. 

American leaders from across the political spectrum have a responsibility to begin a wider debate with the American public over the conflict in Afghanistan.  It requires an insightful and substantive discussion beyond mundane sound-bites and colorful rhetoric.  Simply put, what is at stake will impact national security, international stability and future generations.  Many need reminding that 9/11 largely emanated from Afghanistan and it is there where the challenges remain and continue to pose a regional and international threat.

Political leaders have an obligation to clarify an approximate time-line and magnitude of the operation.  It must be emphasized that the struggle in Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, will require at least a generation of commitment and resources.  A lack of support on the US home-front will seriously discourage the Afghan public, which needs to be convinced by words and, above all, actions that long-term US support exists and is sustainable.

The aim is to buy time in the short-term with the long-term objective of Afghans becoming self-sufficient and assuming control in all spheres, particularly with greater effectiveness in the security realm.  After three decades of war, the task appears overwhelming but success is far from impossible.

In order to sustain public support, US political leaders must provide regular, and not sporadic, progress reports, particularly in the non-military sphere.  People simply want to see results for their tax money.  This becomes even more challenging due to systemic difficulties, principally the inadequate level of expertise in the non-military sector of the US government and the short duration of experts’ appointments to a specific location overseas.

Therefore, even if the funds for aid programs are available, there is often a lack of experts able to implement them efficiently, particularly in sectors such as agriculture, education, health and rule of law programs.  Even if a qualified expert is found, his posting usually lasts no more than a year and then is rotated elsewhere around the world.  This shortage of competence and lack of continuity has seriously hampered aid programs.

Greater technical training and lengthier stationing in hardship countries may ensure greater long-term development and growth and will better serve the national interest and the well-being of the intended beneficiaries.

On the US home-front, a strong disconnect has developed between the American public and the members of the armed services, particularly in the army and marines, who are operating on full combat mode.  Many in the military view ordinary citizens as completely detached from their realities, including direct combat, extended tours of duty, strains on family life and ensuing consequences.  After the high expectations created by the architects of the Iraq war, it is somewhat understandable that many ordinary Americans remain wary of overseas engagements particularly when such expectations were not even closely realized.  This is where responsible political leadership plays an essential role in (i) explaining the serious consequences of failure in Afghanistan, (ii) helping to restore credibility to the mission, and (iii) reassuring public support for the armed forces and Afghan public opinion of America’s long-term intentions.

Furthermore, political leaders must emphasize that with a volatile Pakistan to Afghanistan’s east and an increasingly assertive Iran to its west, the US and its allies cannot afford to lose Afghanistan

For the US, failure in Afghanistan will further damage its credibility and prestige as a global power and expose it to greater international threats.  For NATO, failure in Afghanistan could mean the end of the most successful military alliance in history after its first ever deployment beyond its immediate perimeter.  Furthermore, failure in Afghanistan would seriously undermine the transatlantic relationship and international stability since NATO remains a linchpin of global security.

For the Afghan people, failure would mean another tragic missed opportunity.  Should failure prevail, history will record that their resilience and commitment to rebuild their nation after thirty years of conflict was not matched by the international community which over-promised and under-delivered.

Ultimately, failure in Afghanistan would mean a collective defeat for all with disturbingly unpredictable and irrational repercussions. This underscores the fundamental need for greater efficiency, complete engagement and a long-term commitment by the international community in Afghanistan, principally by the US and its NATO allies.  Anything short of this will have serious implications for regional stability and grave consequences for international order.
Marco Vicenzino is the founder and executive director of the Global Strategy Project and served as deputy executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies - US (IISS-US) in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Oxford University and Georgetown University Law Center and has taught International Law at the School of International Service of American University. He has provided commentary on BBC World, CNN International, CNN Spanish, Fox News and Al-Jazeera and is a regular guest speaker at conferences around the world.


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