Afghanistan is not going well. Despite the conventional wisdom that is mouthed by all, it is not an unwinnable theater. The Soviets did not fail because this country is a meat grinder that is so inhospitable to foreigners that none could be successful. They failed because they prosecuted it poorly. We are on the same path, and can either choose victory, or the slow humiliating defeat that will come with declaring the nation a losing proposition for modernity. What follows are a few enumerated frustrations that my comrades and I voice daily over coffee, cigars, and cup after cup of steaming chai tea.
The Taliban are not terrorists or bandits. They are a movement that is rooted deep in the consciousness and reality of the Afghan people. They are a part of the country whose raison de etre extends further back than the birth certificates (if they had them) of most of the Afghan soldiers. To defeat a movement, you must create a counter-movement. To create a counter-movement, you must change the reality of the Afghan people. This requires nation building. Nothing short. Nation building requires organization. If we don’t have the stomach for that, then we should resign ourselves to abandon these people to their fate and bomb this country every 10 years to keep Al Qaeda at bay. But that didn’t work well in the past.
The NATO command in Afghanistan is known as the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF has been written about ad nauseum for its inability to create a unified, executable campaign plan for the theater due to its lack of command and control of its subordinate units as a result of “national caveats” that prevent contributing nations from executing the tasks that are necessary. Many of the ISAF contributors are restricted by their home governments from conducting the riskier missions for fear of casualties. This is understandable. The contributing nations are not committed to the fight enough to accept casualties that would be politically untenable for their civilian leadership. No people should be asked to suffer casualties that they do not believe are worthwhile and do not serve their interest. Since this is the case, these nations should not be given command of entire regions of the country that require serious action and dedication. As it stands, contributors that do not wish to do all that is necessary should not be entrusted with responsibility to do so.
It is my opinion that ISAF and NATO should be allowed to retreat with honor from Afghanistan. This is not the war they signed up to fight. When many of these nations sent their sons and daughters to this country they did so under the banner of reconstruction and humanitarian aid. The rub comes when reconstruction must be accompanied by military offenses, defenses, and great risk. This coalition of the unwilling should be replaced with a slimmer, better organized coalition of the willing in a style similar to that in Iraq. Multi-National Forces- Iraq was not NATO and consisted only of forces that reported directly to the theater commander (a US four star general). The chain of command was single and unified and allowed the commander to plan and execute a long term vision that included political, military, economic, and social goals.
A Multi National Forces- Afghanistan organization would also command the effort to develop the Afghan Army and Police forces. Currently, this effort is US led, and exists outside the ISAF chain of command. It is built on a vestigial organization known as TF Phoenix, and its higher command Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan (CSTCA) that was designed to build an army before there was a war on. CSTCA reports to central command and ISAF reports to NATO headquarters in Brussels. As the situation in Afghanistan worsened, the organization was not redesigned to face the threats inherent of building security forces under fire.
These two separate chains of command, the Advisor mission and the Security mission, do not meet until they get to the Washington DC. This is unacceptable. Counterinsurgency, like politics, is a wholly local affair. We can not pursue goals and endstates that are not organized and unified. Each province in Afghanistan has its ISAF task force that has no direct or indirect relationship with the advisors that operate in the same battlespace. No one is required to talk to each other.
The separate organizations that do reconstruction, security, and security force development have only informal relationships based on mutual need and friendship rather than clearly and universally defined systems.
We need many more Advisors for the Afghan Army and Police. The Advisor mission has been filled to 50% of its personnel requirement for the past 2 years. We are preparing to send additional fighting units to Afghanistan, but to what end? If their focus is on hunting the Taliban and searching the villages for fighters they will meet locals with the same sentiment that I heard on a recent search of a village from a local Mullah, “I would rather shoot myself than have an American enter my house.” These units must have, as their primary mission, the focused development and reinforcement of the local security forces.
The Afghan people continue to pay the price for our misappropriation of effort. All goals are tunnel visioned; all efforts are too broad to be effective in individual districts or provinces; and all parties report to different masters. There is still only one real road in this country, Highway 1. The populace are sprinkled thin like pepper on rice across the countryside living much the way they did 500 years ago. The water resources drain from the mountains into a myriad of pre-historic canals known as karezes that water individual fields and crops. This allows people to continue to exist in isolation from each other and the government. They need roads and reservoirs. These two things can change the Afghan’s reality and will drain the Taliban’s pool of uneducated, angst ridden teens, and idealogues they recruit from to prey on the isolated and unprotected. Roads can bring commerce, connection, and modernity. Reservoirs and aqueducts can encourage a more organized life style that creates cities rather than villages. First we must have roads, roads, roads. And roads.
Unify the chain of command now. Create provincial security czars that have command over all international security forces, local security force developers (advisors), reconstruction task forces, and special operation forces in every province. Allow these commanders to develop reasoned long term plans for the province in accordance with the Afghan government’s vision. Allow these czars to pursue development and combat the isolationism that cripples this nation.
This country may be resource poor, but the few resources it has are squandered on either building fortresses around provincial capitals and district centers rather than on the isolated and disconnected villages that may not know that the Russians have left- or were even here. As it stands, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and our allies continue to fumble along as we hunt the Taliban rather than draining the pool from which the Taliban drink. We are constantly reminded that we must kill more Taliban to demonstrate that theirs is a losing proposition. There is a limitless supply of fighters for the Taliban as long as the people’s reality does not change. Should we fail to change their reality we are sprinting toward failure. We will continue to mount large scale operations into “enemy safe havens” only to find that the enemy has fled and all that is left are impoverished locals that don’t reap any benefit from our presence. A cursory read of Soviet operations in Afghanistan bare a striking similarity to our plans. Compare our current operational focus in this counterinsurgency to the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgencies that Dr. Kalev Sepp, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Special Operations, wrote of and determine for yourself whether we are on the right path. We wish to hunt the bear in his cave, destroy his weapons caches, and capture their leadership. We must instead focus on the people, build them roads and demonstrate the benefits of modernity. Or we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.