Afghanistan may be the most complex theatre of irregular warfare in the world . The country is a black hole of physical, religious, social, ethnic, cultural, political, economic, military and historical cross-currents, rendering conventional strategy there awkward at best and impossible at worst. In re-thinking Afghanistan—and assessing the Pentagon’s new Afghanistan strategy—we need first to confront some hard strategic realities head-on. Four, in particular, stand out.
First, there is just one war: the global holy war that the Salafists are waging against us and the rest of the world. This is not one of our fathers’ 20th century wars. This is Islamic religious war, fought using 7th and 21st century tactics in a dozen major theatres from Mali to Mindanao. Afghanistan is an Islamic state surrounded by Islamic states, and an emerging epicenter in the global jihad. Our Afghan strategy cannot be divorced from our strategy for the Salafist holy war, nor from our strategy for Pakistan—the other half of the Af-Pak theatre of the war.
Second, there is no ”win” or “lose” in Afghanistan. While some experts characterize insurgencies for research purposes as wins and losses, they are in fact messy affairs and virtually none result in unambiguous success. Many, including 17 of the 71 completed between 1944 and 2010, end in negotiated settlement. That is almost certainly how the Taliban insurgency will end, at some unforeseeable future date. The win/loss concept does not apply to Afghanistan, and it obfuscates the debate over strategy. This is a transgenerational war, and what’s needed is a flexible strategy that guides U.S. action in the Af-Pak theatre as the long road to negotiated settlement unwinds.
Third, we can’t just walk out. The likelihood is far too high that Afghanistan would go the way of Iraq after the last administration naively pulled the plug there. That executive decision will cost us more in blood and treasure over the long haul than if we had stayed put, with far less salutary effect. We need a modest but robust long-term military presence in Afghanistan, and now is the time to secure that presence. The worst outcome would be wishing in retrospect that we had built and maintained that capability when we had the chance, and suffering the consequences for not having done so.
Finally, given Afghanistan’s extreme political volatility, there is no long-term guarantee that the current open-door policy for U.S. engagement will endure. Former President Hamid Karzai, or an equally anti-U.S. partner, could return to power. Our strategy must therefore be flexible, adaptable, and resilient.
ENDS AND WAYS
There is nothing wrong with our existing strategic objective in Afghanistan. Preventing terrorists from using the country as a safe haven to attack the U.S. homeland is as appropriate an America first strategy today as it was when formulated—maybe more so, since twenty of the 61 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations operate in the Af-Pak theatre. That is the largest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere, and neutralizing their ability to support the global jihad is critical to U.S. national security.
There is no wiring diagram for pursuing the Afghan sub-theatre of the war, but the best way to the stated end is what others have already proposed: an enduring partnership between our two countries, and the use of Afghanistan as an enduring platform for counterterrorism operations. These are military and security imperatives.
A negotiated settlement is a fine target to aim for, but it is not something that we should pursue either naively or as the primary objective. First, so long as the Taliban don’t recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government there’s not much to talk about. Second, there’s not much incentive for the Taliban to negotiate unless the military momentum shifts decisively against them.
Third, it is unlikely that the Taliban would accept any government that does not operate under the Pashtun version of sharia law. Few Afghans are eager to return to stonings and public amputations, however, and kidnapping of their wives, daughters and little boys for use as sex slaves.
Fourth, a negotiated settlement would almost certainly lead to the end of a robust U.S. military presence there. And, if it led to Taliban rule, to reconstitution of Afghanistan as a petri dish for transnational extremism, and as a springboard for operationalizing the global jihad.
In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, characterized the security situation with the Taliban as a stalemate, with ‘equilibrium favoring the government.’ He also testified that we are attaining our counterterrorism objective there, and that Afghanistan is a ‘critical partner and platform for CT operations.’
Nicholson pointed out that some 76% of Afghans ‘express confidence in their security forces.’ In addition to extremely high Afghan casualties, however, he identified three critical factors affecting the military mission: government stability, the convergence of terrorist organizations, and the influence of external actors.
Nicholson testified that the approach of pushing the Taliban into remote parts of Afghanistan can succeed if external support to them can be eliminated. That “if” constitutes the single biggest roadblock to Afghan national security, and it needs to be fixed. External support to the Taliban comes from state and private sources in Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and China, but support comes first and foremost from Pakistan.
Pakistan is not our friend. A “poster child for proxy and terrorist groups,” it has provided safe harbor to the Taliban since 2001, not to mention Osama bin Laden and seven of the 20 terrorist organizations in the Af-Pak region. Most of these are concentrated in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Both countries claim they are under attack from terrorists on the other side of the Durand Line, but ultimately there will be neither resolution to the Taliban insurgency nor stability in Afghanistan so long as terrorist groups in Pakistan operate with impunity and the support of the Pakistani government. Pakistan has no incentive to crack down on the Taliban, however, as long as they are useful to it in dealing with India.
A 2009 assessment of fifteen Af-Pak terrorist groups concluded that the common denominator between fourteen of them was the influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The ISI is in charge of Pakistan’s internal security and counterintelligence operations, but it also finances, trains, equips and gives sanctuary to jihadist groups.
It’s time to boil the frog. This is the right time, and this is the right president, to turn up the heat on Pakistan. An incremental but full-spectrum approach would make it both costly and painful for Pakistan to continue protecting the Taliban and other extremist groups. Pursuant to Article 6 of our Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan, we should start by more aggressively targeting insurgent sanctuaries inside of Pakistan. We have already allegedly neutralized high value targets in tactical strikes there twice in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, which if true would be a good start.
Other elements of leverage against Pakistan include phasing out development funding, reducing or eliminating military assistance, imposing restrictions on travel to the U.S., targeting Pakistani-terrorist financial networks, and imposing economic sanctions. We should also strengthen our strategic alliance with India, one of the few real friends we have in the region, and support—or at least not subvert—development of overland routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan. These include the existing Northern Distribution Network, and the evolving Hairatan-China and Chabahar-Herat rail connections.
The Afghan government has major and systemic problems, and stabilizing it is a work in progress. But it has come a long way in comparison to Taliban rule, and some 87% of Afghans ‘now believe a return to Taliban rule would be bad for Afghanistan.’
The key to stabilizing the national government is for it to get the support of its major ethnic groups. These are overwhelmingly tribal and rural, and include Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen and Baloch, as well as Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri, Gujjar and others. Not surprisingly, there is no strong tradition of centralized national government in Afghanistan.
The key to getting buy-in from these geographically isolated and culturally insulated tribes is decentralization of power, leaving local groups largely in charge of their own governance like they have traditionally been. The role of the national government should focus on security and basic economic infrastructure—roads, rail, aviation, power, water, and communications—and creating the conditions for economic growth. It should also make basic health services available, and education to those communities that want it.
Aside from this, the national government should devolve authority to the local level and empower traditional leaders to govern in their own traditional way. Devolution of authority is particularly suited to Afghanistan; one model for how it could work in Pashtun territory was started in Kandahar by then-Brigadier General Kenneth Dahl and others in 2011.
No observer seems capable of discussing governance in Afghanistan without obsessing over corruption. Corruption is a problem there, and a big one. Afghanistan is the eighth most corrupt country in the world, and it permeates every level of society. The country is, in effect, a kleptocracy. But corruption is universal, and while we need to continue the kind of anti-corruption work used to mitigate the impact of corruption in many other countries, we also need to recognize the limits of anti-corruption work and stop hand-wringing over it as an element of strategy.
The priority should be on closing off opportunities for corruption rather than trying to change the culture, and focusing on those corruption opportunities which divert U.S. tax dollars or undermine the combat effectiveness of the military mission. Measures taken to minimize the problem of ‘ghost soldiers’ in Afghanistan are good examples.
This is a counterterrorism mission, and it’s important that it stay that way. But there is also an element of stabilization to the mission, since a stable Afghanistan is on the critical path to ensuring the sustainability of the partnership. What is in our manageable interest is not classic stabilization in the military sense, much less ‘nation-building,’ but rather a focus on economic stabilization. The international community is already heavily bought into economic development there through 2020 (see below), so we may as well be good at it.
The biggest challenge for stabilizing Afghanistan may be neither security nor governance, but rather economic growth and job creation. Basic service delivery has improved dramatically since 2001, but service coverage is still low and economic opportunities are few. That and the security situation are why Afghanistan is the second biggest source of refugees worldwide after Syria.
Generating economic growth requires work at three levels. At the level of economic governance, the focus is on macroeconomic policies related to trade, investment, business, taxation, banking, the financial system, property rights, and major economic sectors. At the tactical end of the hierarchy, the focus is on developing small businesses, local industries, and local job creation.
The biggest need in Afghanistan now, however, is work in the middle: on medium to large industrial, agricultural and service sector businesses. This includes sector development, marketing, export linkages, business support, and skills development, with a focus on those sectors with the greatest near- to mid-term pay-off: agriculture, mining, power, construction, and transportation.
What’s needed urgently is an expeditionary capability for business and sector development. The best model for this is the now-defunct DoD Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), especially in Afghanistan from 2009-2011 before it hemorrhaged senior leadership. Options for capturing that kind of lightning in the bottle again are few, but two possibilities that should be looked at are creating a new Stability Command in DoD where a reconstituted TFBSO could thrive, and establishing a Task Force-like capability run out of the Office of the President in Kabul through an on-budget grant.
A lot of development money is still pouring into Afghanistan. Seventy international countries have pledged $15.2 billion for 2017-2020. The World Bank budgeted $717 million in 2016 alone, and the Asian Development Bank over $550 million. The planned U.S. budget for FY 2017 was $1.1 billion for non-military assistance, but only about $227 million of that is planned for economic development.
The new administration should re-focus U.S. development money there on economic growth, especially work in the critical power sector. The model used by USAID to finally install the third turbine at the Kajaki power house in 2016—paying for the national power authority to contract the work through a moderate Islamic (in this case Turkish) construction company—worked in spades, and should be applied to other power sector projects.
The administration should also evolve its thinking about the multilateral development banks, which play a major stabilizing role in almost every country where we are at war. Instead of cutting funding to the banks, we should focus our money on bank projects in countries of special national security importance, and on the economic and other sectors most critical to U.S. security objectives. Asia Development Bank work on strategic infrastructure in Afghanistan is a case in point.
U.S. membership in the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is especially needed. The new administration should reject the Obama administration’s parochial opposition to AIIB membership—it already has 70 members—and use the bank as an agent for economic stability in Afghanistan. The bank wants us on board, it’s eager to prove itself in kinetic environments like Afghanistan, and joining would both strengthen our strategic ties with China and promote economic growth in this critical theatre of the war.
In addition to donor funding, several very large regional projects are in play that will affect Afghanistan’s near future. These include the Chinese One Belt/One Road (OBOR) strategy, funded by the China Development Bank. OBOR will spend about $890 billion for over 900 projects, but it only plans to spend $100 million in Afghanistan. The Chinese are also establishing a $40 billion Silk Road Fund to invest in businesses in the region.
Four countries are developing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline—since broadened in concept to include power, rail, roads and fiber optics. This will cost an estimated $10 billion, and have major power sector and connectivity implications. An economic stabilization priority is to help Afghanistan attract investment from these and other regional projects.
Another priority is attracting private sector investment to Afghanistan by making it more competitive. In addition to the mining sector, there are a number of projects—including large economic infrastructure projects—with substantial private sector interest. President Ghani has cited $500 million in Afghan private sector investment in the power sector in 2016 alone. Major projects include Kajaki Hydropower Phase II, and multiple hydrocarbon projects. Hydrocarbons especially need a hard and independent second look, something that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is well-suited to ensure.
Afghanistan is far too important to U.S. national security for us to either walk away or let this theatre of the global jihad spin out of control from simple neglect. The long-running objective of ensuring that Afghanistan never again serves as a sanctuary for international terrorism serves American interests as much today as it did fifteen years ago.
What we need is an enduring military partnership with Afghanistan, including a long-term platform for conducing counterterror operations in south and western Asia. This means breaking the stalemate with the Taliban, continued support for the Afghan military, and destroying the jihadist groups that operate there and out of Pakistan. So long as sustaining that effort is a priority, so is stabilizing both the Afghan government and Afghan economy.
For the next four years, an enduring partnership strategy is the most realistic and least risky way to pursue American interests in Afghanistan. It is also the most likely to lead ultimately to national stability. What we need to go with it is the narrative to deliver this compelling approach convincingly to the American people.