Where Less Is More
Published in the New York York Times, 23 July 2007
America and its allies are in danger of repeating the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan.
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and even some Republicans are insisting on withdrawing from Iraq and sending more troops and resources to southern Afghanistan. The Bush administration’s gloomy National Intelligence Estimate last week on the fight against Al Qaeda will only lead others to make such calls.
But they should think again. The intervention in Afghanistan has gone far better than that in Iraq largely because the American-led coalition has limited its ambitions and kept a light footprint, leaving the Afghans to run their own affairs.
Much has been made lately of setbacks and the resilience of the Taliban. But given its history, Afghanistan is doing relatively well. International terrorist training camps have been eliminated (or at least pushed across the border to Pakistan); national wealth has nearly doubled in the last five years; Kabul’s population has expanded from less than a million in 2001 to almost four million today.
It seems ground is broken on another huge blue-glass commercial building every week.
The wage for an unskilled laborer in Kabul is now $4 a day, four times that in
neighboring Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Millions of Afghan refugees have returned home at a time when Iraqis are fleeing Iraq. The central regions of Afghanistan are safe enough for foreigners to travel alone unharmed.
There are, however, serious problems in the south and east of the country. Taliban forces raid villages and military posts before retreating to safety across the Pakistan border. In Helmand Province, the government is associated with kidnapping, murder and theft.
Thirty-five highway policemen were arrested this month, accused of robbing vehicles. This province alone produces 50 percent of Europe’s heroin. Afghans in such areas are justifiably angry.
NATO has tried to solve the problems of the south with more troops. This has only added to the problem. For example, Britain decided in 2005 to bring good government, security, rule of law and economic growth to Helmand Province. At the time, there were few Taliban attacks in the area. The British deployed some 4,000 soldiers last year and more civilian advisers to replace a few hundred international troops who had been in the province since the fall of the Taliban. The British effort failed. A year and a half later, with 7,000 British troops in Helmand, the provincial government is more corrupt, the streets less safe for citizens, the poppy crop larger and the legal economy and infrastructure more eroded. Worst of all, the foreign presence has provoked a wide Taliban insurgency. Dutch troops in Uruzgan Province and the Canadians in Kandahar have had similar experiences.
NATO’s failures in the south should serve as warnings to those who would intensify Western efforts here; the results were inevitable for fundamental structural reasons. Many Afghan officials are simply not committed to state-building in southern Afghanistan, and many are connected to the drug trade. Narcotics makes up more than half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product and there is no sufficiently appealing alternative crop for farmers.
Most important, none of the factors that led to success in history’s classic counterinsurgency campaigns are present in the fight against the Taliban. In British Malaya in the 1950s, for example, success depended on direct imperial control of the government, a powerful and cooperative local administration, large numbers of troops, active support from much of the population, a detailed understanding of local culture and politics, control of the borders and strong political support at home.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, the American-led coalition is not the government and has to operate in tandem with an Afghan civil service, military and police force that are at best ineffective and at worst actively undermine coalition operations. The dominant Pashtun tribes in the south and east are suspicious of foreign troops and are reluctant to side with them against the Taliban, who are from their own ethnic group.
Coalition-backed governments have been unable to prevent the insurgents from taking sanctuary and receiving armaments and money from across the porous borders with Pakistan and Iran. American and European voters will not send the hundreds of thousands of troops the counterinsurgency textbooks recommend, and have no wish to support decades of fighting.
Worst of all, an increased foreign troop presence will help the Taliban, who are unable to deliver government services and often live parasitically off the people, and whose best selling point is that they are fighting for Afghanistan and Islam against a foreign occupation. If we commit more troops we will find it very difficult to withdraw them later without losing credibility.
Our best hope in Afghanistan is to continue to manage the country through a light civil and military presence. Southern Afghanistan will remain unstable for some time to come. Although we cannot change this, we can contain the situation. We can prevent Qaeda units from using the area as a base from which to attack the United States, and we can prevent the Taliban from again mobilizing conventional forces or capturing major northern cities like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. This will not require large numbers of troops. If the Taliban tried to raise another conventional army, it would be an easy target for coalition forces and air power.
The most efficient and sustainable way to protect American soil from a terrorist attack is not to deploy tens of thousands of troops to occupy rural areas of Afghanistan, but to invest in intelligence to identify the few radicals who want to attack Western targets, and use special forces operations to eliminate them. We can do much more to show people the benefit of cooperating with the coalition.
Projects in hostile areas, where the local population is not working with us and where a minority wants to attack us, are not a constructive use of our limited resources. Our best hope is rather to focus on the many secure and welcoming parts of Afghanistan’s center and north. Efforts to jumpstart local economies led by members of those communities are more effective, more relevant and more sustainable than those dictated by outsiders. We have a great opportunity in the north, center and west of Afghanistan to lead development projects for which Afghans will still be grateful 50 years from now.
This does not mean that we should withdraw and partition the country, or that the Pashtun south is doomed. But only the Afghans have the power to end the insurgency and create a stable and democratic south. It will not be easy. Residents have not yet mobilized effectively against the Taliban. Other Afghan ethnic groups still see the insurgency as a Pashtun problem and would rather not be involved. Twenty-five years of war has left a power vacuum. Politicians concerned with Afghanistan continue to underestimate the power and autonomy of provincial groups and the appeal of tribe and religion.
Stabilizing southern Afghanistan will require uncomfortable compromises. It will certainly take 20 years for Afghanistan to develop an economy to match even Bangladesh, or a civil service or military to match that of Pakistan. In the meantime, the Pashtun areas may remain as wild and unstable as the tribal areas of Pakistan. But Afghanistan on the whole can become more stable, more humane and more prosperous than it is today.
American-led military occupations and counterinsurgency campaigns are unsustainable and counterproductive, not just in Iraq or Afghanistan but in all nationalist Muslim countries. But this is not a call for disengagement. We need a new strategy that can be applied not only in Iraq but also in Pakistan and wherever else these threats emerge. It should not rely on large amounts of troops and money but on intelligence, pragmatic politics, savvy use of our development assistance and on special forces operations. Rather than throwing more troops at Afghanistan and turning it into a second Iraq, we should use it as a model for a lighter, smarter approach.