Edging closer to the Soviet Trap
International Affairs Forum posed the following question to eight commentators on Afghanistan:
"The report by the Afghanistan Study Group warns the conflict there could become a 'forgotten war' and that Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a 'failed state'. Is this a fair assessment, and what can and should be done to stop this happening?"
CMI's Afghanistan and peacebuilding expert, Astri Suhrke responded:
The Washington-based Afghanistan Study Group claims in its report (January 2008) that "there is a weakening of resolve in the international community to see the efforts in Afghanistan through to a successful conclusion." (p.5). In reality, "the weakening resolve" reflects growing European concern that the strategy staked out by Washington may be neither realistic nor desirable.
The big, divisive issue in NATO at present is the reluctance of many members to send combat troops to the embattled south and east of Afghanistan. Transatlantic differences surfaced again early this year when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bluntly told Germany to send more troops - and without national caveats. The German government equally bluntly refused.
The German position reflects scepticism towards the role of military forces in addressing the conflict in Afghanistan, and, as die Welt noted, a certain Angst that the very word "war" arouses. (1) This scepticism is shared by broad segments of public opinion in other European countries. It is not simply a reflexive reaction in a political culture that mistrusts the efficacy of military power - the Mars vs Venus difference in Robert Kagan's universe - but rests on an assessment of the limits of what NATO combat forces can achieve in this particular conflict.
First, there is a lack of clarity about the purpose of the mission. Is it to defeat Al-Qaida, an objective that is premised on a domino theory of international terrorism that itself is questionable? Is it to bring good (liberal) governance and economic development to Afghanistan? Or is it increasingly to protect the credibility of NATO in its first combat mission ever, and hence the relevance of the alliance as an instrument of Western-led order and stability in the 21st century? By now, all three objectives appear to be quite intertwined. The experience so far, however, shows that inserting more combat forces have not brought any of them much closer. On the contrary, a tenfold increase in Western forces since early 2002 seems to have had the opposite effect. The militants have responded by adopting new tactics and recruiting more members, Al-Qaida has entrenched itself on the Pakistan side of the border, and Afghan public confidence in the Karzai government and the future has declined. All these negative developments are acknowledged by the ASG report. Yet it recommends more troops - i.e. more of the same.
A more radical, but arguably more logical, conclusion is that there are some good reasons why the sharp increase in Western forces over the past seven years has failed to turn the tide. The main reason is not lack of numbers, but the limitations of the military approach that governs OEF and ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan.
There are four main constraints:
- Military operations that destroy local lives and property - whether or not the community is sheltering the Taliban - create a residue of hostility that reconstruction money cannot easily overcome, even if money is rushed into areas that NATO forces have cleared, as the ASG recommends. After U.S. and NATO troops had driven the Taliban out of Sangin district in Helmand in June 2007, a local elder noted that the valley was now quiet enough for reconstruction to begin. But, he added, NATO forces would not be welcomed. "They have destroyed people's houses and their lives. So, what do they expect?"(2)
- The OEF/NATO use of airpower that causes large-scale, and especially civilian, casualties has negative effects far beyond the target area. The political fall-out is widely recognized, but so is the importance of airpower to enable coalition forces to fight effectively, operate in forward areas, and keep their own casualties down.
- Limited knowledge of local affairs, combined with the complex and fluid nature of Afghan politics, increases the probability that OEF/NATO forces will be manipulated by local rivalries to engage wrong targets. Several such incidents have been reported. Interestingly, recent reassessments of the key to the only victorious counter-insurgency campaign by a Western power in the modern area - the British in Malaya - emphasize the importance of local knowledge. (3) The British had been in the peninsula for almost two centuries.
- The OEF/NATO strategy of "clear, hold and build" rests on a fundamental contradiction. More NATO forces may enable the coalition to hold areas they have cleared - which is a main reason behind Gates' demands for more forces - but the more territory NATO succeeds in holding, the more it will appears as an occupying power.
The premise for the initial 'light' military footprint in Afghanistan was precisely this: American military planners did not want to walk into the Soviet trap by appearing as an occupying power that would mobilize national resistance. The U.S. and its allies now have around 50 000 troops in Afghanistan. That is almost half of what the Soviet Union had during most of its occupation. Regardless of the role of the sanctuary in Pakistan and foreign support for the militants, by repeatedly asking for more NATO troops, the U.S. is edging closer to the Soviet experience of sustaining an inconclusive and costly war in Afghanistan.