The simple answer to the Administration’s dilemma, in the minds of many in Washington, is to train and equip Afghans to do the job themselves. Obama reportedly rejected all four options offered by his national-security staff on Nov. 11 — ranging from a relatively light increase of some 10,000 troops, mostly for training purposes, to the 40,000 reinforcements requested by McChrystal to wage a counterinsurgency fight — because they failed to make clear how and when responsibility for the war would be transferred to Afghan forces. By doing so, Obama may have pointed to the elephant in the room. On present indications, the Afghan forces are unlikely anytime in the near future to be ready and willing to take over the fight against the Taliban.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) comprises some 94,000 troops, although even by the official numbers, only half of those are combat-ready. The reality of the recent U.S. and British operations in Helmand province, however, suggests that a lot fewer may be capable of being deployed to fight effectively alongside NATO forces, much less on their own. The desertion rate of troops trained in the ANA stands at 20% — and is reportedly even higher among forces deployed in combat. Afghan field officers are in short supply, and the top echelon of the officer corps is dominated by ethnic Tajiks who are often viewed with suspicion by Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group and the one in which the Taliban is based. And the recent killing of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman they had been mentoring, who then ran off to join the Taliban, highlights the risk of infiltration in efforts to expand the Afghan security forces.
The Karzai government’s poor standing among the Afghan people is generally acknowledged as a problem in that not many Afghans are going to be willing to risk their lives to defend it. [continued…]
Every morning, dozens of trucks laden with diesel from Turkmenistan lumber out of the northern Afghan border town of Hairaton on a two-day trek across the Hindu Kush down to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Among the dozens of businesses dispatching these trucks are two extremely well connected companies — Ghazanfar and Zahid Walid — that helped to swell the election coffers of President Hamid Karzai as well as the family business of his running mate, the country’s new vice president, warlord Mohammed Qasim Fahim.
Some of the trucks are on their way to two power stations in the northern part of the capital: a recently refurbished, if inefficient, plant that has served Kabul for a little more than a quarter of a century, and a brand new facility scheduled for completion next year and built with money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Afghan political analysts observe that Ghazanfar and Zahid Walid are striking examples of the multimillion-dollar business conglomerates, financed by American as well as Afghan tax dollars and connected to powerful political figures, that have, since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, emerged as part of a pervasive culture of corruption here. Nasrullah Stanikzai, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University, says of the companies in the pocket of the vice-president: “Everybody knows who is Ghazanfar. Everybody knows who is Zahid Walid. The [government elite] directly or indirectly have companies, licenses, and sign contracts. But corruption is not confined just to the Afghans. The international community bears a share of this blame.” [continued…]
The insurgents’ tactics are familiar. Night letters warn village elders to cooperate or face death. Religious “taxes” must be paid, and fiery sermons in mosques attack the Karzai government and international forces.
The locale is startling, however: Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province, which in the years after the fall of the Taliban emerged as one of the most stable – and in its urban hub of Mazar-i-Sharif – most prosperous places in Afghanistan. [continued…]
A growing number of people, led by Vice President Joe Biden, are advocating a so-called “small footprint” approach to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. They propose a significantly reduced military presence that focuses more on destroying al Qaeda than on building Afghanistan, and relies more on airstrikes and special forces than on conventional tactics. America will get about as much security as before, the argument goes, but at a much lower price. A return of the Taliban to power is not necessarily a problem, small footprint proponents argue, because the regime can be deterred from hosting al Qaeda by the threat of U.S. airstrikes or another invasion.
One of the many assumptions behind this tempting argument is that there is a certain level of proportionality between the amount of force we use and the level of resistance we encounter. If we stop occupying Afghanistan and limit violence to the really bad guys, al Qaeda will be unable, and other radicalized Muslims unwilling, to attack the United States.
This may be true for local insurgencies such as the Taliban, but not for small transnational movements such as al Qaeda. In fact, a significantly smaller U.S. presence in Afghanistan may paradoxically generate more anti-Americanism outside Afghanistan and ultimately more anti-Western terrorism than a more conventional military approach. This is because jihadi propaganda today relies on visually powerful symbols to mobilize people, and intermittent “surgical” strikes, and the casualties they cause, may create more such symbols than continuous conventional warfare. [continued…]
Editor’s Comment — Among the administration’s many considerations in revising its Afghan strategy, the one that has nothing to do with the internal logic of “success” or “failure” is the one the ultimately probably concerns Americans more than any other: how much this war is costing.
Upon learning that 25% of American children are now struggling to get enough to eat, President Obama is reported to have found that number “unsettling”. But knowing that the US government is spending a million dollars a year for every single soldier it sends to Afghanistan, Obama should be more than unsettled by the spectacle of poverty in this country. He should realize that his administration currently has its priorities upside down.