I took part in a panel on Peacebuilding yesterday at the Center for International Governance Innovation [CIGI], which was part of the larger Canadian Political Science Association annual meeting. My panel was on Afghanistan, and it was most striking how most of the folks were already using the word “failure” to describe the mission. I was uncomfortable with that, not because I am a wild-eyed optimist about the international effort to help Afghanistan become a semi-stable semi-self sustaining state, but because I am reluctant to call it a day quite yet.
I have been arguing for a while that we have not really been doing “this” for nine or ten years, but that only in the past year or two have there been both enough troops and a relatively coherent strategy to do counter-insurgency. Before that, the Canadians in Kandahar and the British and Danes in Helmand and the Dutch/Aussies in Uruzgan and the Americans all over the place were mostly “mowing the grass” or serving as fire brigades–clearing insurgents out of a spot but not enough of them to hold the territory. The mantra of clear, hold, build was always problematic even before one factors in the Karzai government doing the building because there were not enough troops to do the holding. Anyhow, with the Obama surge, there are now enough troops to be effective.
So, the real test was not the violence last year but the violence this year. Last year was more violent with the influx of troops, which produced more patrols, more contact, and thus more opportunities for violence. This year, the expectation would be for less violence as the ISAF/Afghan National Army [ANA]would have more control over more territory (see Kalyvas for control and COIN).
Of course, the really big problem is that COIN and the surge are aimed at creating space for the politicians to do stuff to persuade the citizens that the government is deserving of their support–by providing services and improving their lives. Or, at the very least, not being rapacious and exploitative. We may be doomed to fail because our partners, Karzai and his pals, are so very flawed.
Anyhow, the second prison break at the Saraposa prison (in 2008, hundreds escaped when car/truck bombs were used to break in; this spring, hundreds escaped via a tunnel) suggests that progress even where much of the effort has been focused is quite limited.
And then I see this: a survey of military aged Afghan males (strangely enough, I got it via an email from the PR folks in the Canadian Department of National Defence).
Of course, the women, the old, and the young may have important and different opinions, but I guess the idea was to figure out the views of those most likely to pick up guns and shoot at us or at the Taliban (or both). The results:
- 68% think the death of Bin Laden is good news. Half believe it will make help in the fight against the Taliban. Ok, so far, so good.
- 80% in the North and 60% in the South think that the transition from NATO to the ANA is good.
- Now the bad news piles up: 37% of the folks in the north and 56% of those in the South have grown more negative about the foreign forces (that would be NATO and its partners).
- Worst still: “Among Southern Afghan men, 86% feel that working with foreign forces is wrong.” In the North, that figure is 45%, not a resoundingly positive sentiment.
- 76% of the Northern men and 87% of Southern men “Feel that NATO operations are bad for the Afghan people.” 49% in the North and 63% of Southerns “do not believe that foreign forces protect the population.”
- Then there are very big divides about democracy and girls’ education between the northern folks and the southern. Not so surprising.
Ok, surveys in conflict zones are problematic, that the Afghans might be telling us what they think we want to hear, but do they really think we want to hear that the international forces are not protecting them? That we don’t want them to want to work with us? Um, no. So, these attitudes, if they have any basis in reality, should be pretty troubling. I have always scoffed at the ” they don’t want us there, they are all xenophobes who hate foreigners, etc.” But the reality is that these attitudes exist even though the Taliban kill three times as many Afghans as the international forces do. They don’t want us there. They want transition now–so that the foreigners could leave. But the ANA and especially the Afghan National Police are not up to the job yet.
The temptation is to say: we got Bin Laden, we can declare victory and go home. That will eventually be the answer, not now but in 2014 or so. And, given what Karzai has said and done over the past couple of years, it is easy to say we should leave. Staying does involve wasting money and losing more lives and having more soldiers injured for what? Why stick around? All I can think about is: what happens then? I was asked that question quite directly during a break in the conference in Waterloo, Ontario (and, yes, I noted the irony).
Well, I can imagine a few scenarios:
- Civil war. The Taliban take back hunks of the south, but the former Northern Alliance, which tends to dominate the Afghan military, are in a better position to fight the Taliban to hold onto the north. It is likely that the US would arm the northerners to keep the Taliban from taking over the entire country. This is very bloodly and much worse for the Afghans than the current status quo.
- A coup. We have only created one legitimate national institution–the army. Armies often seize power when they see the government has corrupt and incompetent, as they fail to meet a significant threat. So, we could have a coup, but there may not be enough coherence in the military to fully take over, so we have a fractured military, fighting with each other. Not a great situation for the Afghans.
- The Taliban take over via a campaign of violence and intimidation. Bad for the Afghans.
What else could happen? I don’t know. I am just old enough to remember Cambodia, so I do fear that a bogus peace deal to facilitate a western exit might produce a horrific outcome. So, I have been ambivalent for quite some time about this war. Our opponents are truly awful. Our friends vary from being terrific to being just as awful. The neighbors are doing their best to undermine the effort, but they may be amateurs compared to the President and his family. But I worry about the alternative. So, I have hung my hat on the hope that there will be a turnaround, as there was in Iraq. But this surge is not the same–there is no Awakening yet to build upon. Which means I am advocating what Americans have done best in these wars–kick the can down the road just a bit farther and hoping that things get better.
But hope is not a plan, as my favorite football analyst reminds me.