America's Fantastical Afghan Mission
Posted by Michael Cohen
There's a new report out from the Pentagon on the current situation in Afghanistan. It does not make for easy reading . . . because it lays bare the fundamental contradictions and unrealistic assumptions that underpin the US effort in Afghanistan. It is truly a snapshot of precisely how incoherent and fantastical our mission in Afghanistan has become. Much of the press reporting from yesterday focused on this key takeaway:
The overall assessment indicates that the population sympathizes with or supports the Afghan Government in 24% (29 of 121) of all Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.
This is obviously of great concern and suggests precisely how difficult the challenge will be for the US to extend the legitimacy of the Kabul government, particularly in the areas where US operations are focused. As the report indicates, these operations are overwhelmingly occurring in the South and East of the country - and right there is a big part of the problem. Consider this observation, in the report, about the nature of the Taliban:
They operate mainly in the Pashtun-majority areas of Afghanistan in the south and east, and in Pashtun pockets in the north. The common goals of these groups are to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan (although there is no mention of foreign fighters allied with them or al Qaeda) and to undermine the central government.
Isn't the somewhat obvious takeaway from this insight that the very presence of "foreign fighters" in Pashtun-dominated areas actually feeds the insurgency. Now granted this wouldn't be an issue, per se, if ISAF's presence in these areas was providing security, good governance and development. But as the report makes clear - it's not. So one could actually draw the conclusion that the focus of US troops on stabilizing the South - rather than consolidating gains in the North and West - is actually undermining the achievement of our overall mission goals, namely slowing the insurgency's momentum.
Not that this stops the report from sounding an occasionally optimistic tone about US and NATO capabilities in the South and elsewhere:
The establishment of effective governance is a critical enabler for improving development and security. As the operational plan progresses, ISAF is working closely with the Government of Afghanistan and the international community to coordinate and synchronize governance and development in the 48 focus districts prioritized for 2010.
But actually if you read the report closely you'll see that, from the military's own perspective, that challenge may be unachievable. Unfortunately, I'm not able to cut and paste the map here, but on pg. 45 of the report (figure 15) is a map of District Level Governance Assessment. Literally, there are only 3 out of hundreds of districts in the country that are considered to have "Full Authority" from the district government. The lion's share of governance in the country is either non-existent, dysfunctional, unproductive or wasn't assessed.
What possible reason is there to then believe that the governance and development can be synchronized, no less sustained - particularly in a region of the country wracked by a fearsome insurgency. Truly the mind reels.
Indeed, on page 23, the report notes that "Despite some progress, improvements to national infrastructure remain insufficient to provide tangible benefits for the populace."
Again, all of this contradicts any reason for optimism about the ability of the US to work with the Afghan officials in extending governance - particularly since the US has committed itself to begin troop withdrawals in a mere 14 months and particularly in the South and East where, as the report notes, the presence of foreign fighters only inflames the insurgency. But the report's flights of fancy on governance are nothing compared to its delusions on security:
A March 2010 nationwide survey indicates that 52% of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1% believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perceptions of the government.
Let's ignore for a moment that this represents an incredibly simplistic definition of how states achieve "legitimacy." For example, just because Afghans in Marjah believe the Taliban is the source of insecurity that doesn't mean they are more likely to view the government in Kabul as legitimate Indeed, the very fact that only 29 of 121 Areas of Interest or Key Terrain support the government would suggest that even though Afghans view the Taliban as the primary source of insecurity . . . it isn't having much impact on "popular perceptions" of the government. If anything, the exact opposite. Yet, it doesn't really matter, because as the report indicates, ISAF and the ANSF is unable to provide any sort of security anyway:
Security and stability conditions in the 80 Key Terrain districts and 41 Area of Interest districts
are presently far from satisfactory.
So even if we buy the notion that providing security would improve state legitimacy - it probably isn't a realistic aspiration in the near-term. Now this might be different in areas of the country that are non-Pashtun and fear the Taliban; but this seems a much harder mountain to climb in a region of the country that is broadly sympathetic to the insurgency. (And on this note the report regularly cities polling that suggests most Afghans are more supportive of the government, in general, and view the security situation as improved but doesn't break these numbers down by region - which basically makes them useless.) And as if all this wasn't enough, check out this incredibly revelatory passage:
Finally, in order for the ANSF to successfully transition to security lead, there is a requirement for a minimum acceptable rule of law capacity (i.e., governance, courts, judges, prosecutors, and correctional capacity) to support the security effort. Defining sufficient rule of law capability, and the resources required to achieve it, is outside the scope of this report but is being addressed by the interagency and international community. Without the necessary supporting rule of law structures, the ANP will become ineffective over time. No matter how many police we train or how well we partner with them, without sufficient rule of law and governance, transition will fail.
So not only is the ANSF unable to provide security in the key districts where they and US troops are located . . . even if they were able to muster up a military force that was even marginally competent the lack of "rule of law structures" would make such security basically illusory. And as the report does mention, one of the sources of Taliban legitimacy has been their ability to provide a forum for resolving grievances, i.e. a very rudimentary rule of law structure.
I could go on in this vein, but I think you get the idea. Those who are looking for optimism about the mission in Afghanistan are not going to find it in this report. But it really does beg the question; why are we continuing on a mission - that by the military's own analysis - is almost certainly out of the scope of our capabilities and the capabilities of our host country partner? And perhaps more directly, why aren't our civilian policymakers asking this question of the uniformed military?