Thursday, July 2, 2009

Afghanistan: An Incomplete Strategy

Yesterday, Bob Woodward had a piece in the Washington Post titled "U.S. Says Key to Success in Afghanistan is Economy, Not Military."

The BBC reported late yesterday: "U.S. Opens 'Major Afghan Offensive.'"

One could imagine a Monty Python sketch originating from the titles of these two stories; sadly, they are indicative of a stillborn U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. The heart of the problem is a failure to elucidate the United States’ attainable objectives in the country, and to link appropriate means toward those ends.

The Woodward piece chronicled National Security Advisor James Jones and his meetings with commanding officers in the field. It was a depressing article, largely because it underlined how transitory U.S. efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan have been, and revealed that despite the rhetorical emphasis on economic development, U.S. policymakers view the problem through military optics.

This passage struck me:
"This will not be won by the military alone," Jones [a former Marine General] said in an interview during his trip. "We tried that for six years." He also said: "The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed."
First of all, it is disingenuous to say that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan during the Bush Administration was solely a military effort. The Bush Administration contributed significant efforts toward reconstruction and development, and worked with the international community to forge the Afghanistan Compact (full text available here), which laid out the Interim Afghan National Development Strategy.

Second, economic development takes more than one year. The vaunted “Ring road” linking the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif is reportedly 18 months away from completion - work on the road began in late 2002. And what kind of development are we talking about? Infrastructure? Agricultural? Private sector? What will Afghans produce? Who will buy their products? How will they be transported? Is the United States supposed to make these decisions?

What is most striking is that after seven years of efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan, the United States faces the same problems. The majority of the Woodward article deals with U.S. lamentations over the lack of capacity among Afghan National Security Forces - despite several years and billions of dollars of investment in training and equipment. American soldiers and Marines, as well as those from a few NATO countries, continue to engage in fierce firefights and suffer casualties under the auspices of extending the writ of the Afghan national government. Yet the ANSF are neither sufficient in number nor in quality to fill the void after coalition forces have secured an area. The Obama Administration’s declaration that building the capacity of the ANSF is a top priority calls to mind 2006, the Bush Administration’s “Year of the Police” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is to say nothing about the Obama Administration’s counter-narcotics strategy, which appears to be a rehash of the strategy used over the last few years, with more of a focus on “Alternative Livelihoods” to wean farmers off of opium production. These efforts likely will not bear fruit unless and until: European demand for opium goes down, someone identifies a lucrative cash crop suitable for Afghanistan’s climate, crop financing is extended to farmers (the Taliban act as bankers), and the Afghan people trust that their government will keep them safe at night. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

After seven plus years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, perhaps policymakers should be chastened and come away with a lesson about the limits of American power and capabilities. There seems to be a mismatch between the “inputs” of U.S. power and its ability to affect sustainable outcomes, or at least in how policymakers conceive of them. Despite the hard-fought counterinsurgency successes, at the macro level Afghanistan is in a state of paralysis.

And the Bob Woodward article may help to illustrate where the mismatch between inputs and outcomes lies. In the article the word “force(s)” appeared 17 times, “economy/economics” 5 times, and “development” 3 times.

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