“You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,” remarked Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. His North Vietnamese counterpart paused, then responded thoughtfully: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
The exchange between the two highlights the challenges of engaging insurgencies. The Vietcong patiently outlasted the American military juggernaut during the Vietnam War, countering U.S. maneuvers with deceptive guerilla tactics. America’s overwhelming firepower could not defeat the Vietcong insurgency, but some praiseworthy initiatives, such as the Combined Action Program (CAP), strengthened local security force development and repelled hostile attacks. Paradoxically, CAP was effective for its limited use of force — the program deployed small platoons of soldiers to live in rural Vietnamese villages, building trust with locals while training militia members.
It is disheartening, however, that lessons learned from CAP and other village-based counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Vietnam were not applied adequately to future American intervention in the Middle East. Today, COIN operations have proved especially disappointing in Afghanistan given the campaign’s high cost in lives and financial commitment.
To put it simply, Afghanistan is free-falling towards a security disaster. The U.S. has lost thousands of soldiers and has spent $773 billion over the course of its 17-year intervention, but Afghanistan’s government bureaucracy is still riddled with corruption, civilian casualties are rising, and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are alarmingly unprepared against the Taliban.
In light of the deteriorating security situation, the Trump Administration has promised to reverse Taliban offensives by committing a total of 15,000 troops, broadening their combat roles, and directing additional resources to the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) to support the ANDSF.
While some consider these changes refreshing, the new approach fails to consider the structural weaknesses embedded within the Afghan military and political system. To stabilize Afghanistan, the U.S. must address both the military and political deficiencies of the Afghan state. Specifically, the U.S. should pressure Kabul to diversify the armed forces and devolve greater security and political responsibilities to local and provincial officials. Combining these military and nonmilitary efforts at the local level can and will bring peace to the people of Afghanistan.
Troubled Past, Troubled Present
Afghanistan’s factionalized demographics are a major contributing factor to the recent security fallout. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state with large communities of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and dozens of other ethnicities. Afghanistan is no multicultural paradise — after centuries of competition and warfare between these ethnicities, discrimination and feelings of distrust are widespread, providing the basis for armed insurgencies. Afghanistan’s tribal culture further exacerbates these divisions. Afghans identify themselves by Qawm, the basic social unit that signifies an individual’s kinship, residence, or occupation. These localized social structures amplify ethnic tensions and circumscribe any sense of Afghan nationalism, weakening central authority and empowering insurrection.
Fig. 1: Geographic Distribution of Ethnic Groups in Afghanistan
America’s disregard for Afghanistan’s tribal culture has come at a high price. After deposing the Taliban regime in 2001, the U.S. supported members of the Northern Alliance, the opposition group fighting the Taliban, for political positions in Kabul. The new U.S.-backed government, primarily composed of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other ethnic minorities from the Northern Alliance, effectively sidelined Pashtun political leadership, igniting widespread anger across Pashtun villages. Pashtun hostility proved catastrophic for America’s stabilization mission.
The Taliban, a majority-Pashtun organization, exploited these Pashtun frustrations to mount a comeback against American forces and the ANDSF. After President Obama withdrew most U.S. troops in 2013, Taliban forces retook control of several provinces. Re-establishing security will be exceptionally difficult given the limited U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And if recent security setbacks are part of a recurring pattern, the ANDSF will likely lose more control to the Taliban insurgency if no changes are made to security force development.
The Taliban are not so much winning the war as the ANDSF is losing it. Much of the Taliban’s recent gains stem from poor security and weak local governance; the Afghan government controls just 56% of the country, while 44% of the country’s territory is either contested or under insurgent control. Ethnic conflicts and America’s pre-emptive withdrawal in 2013 empowered the Taliban, but the ANDSF’s poor performance also plays a significant role in the security meltdown. Since 2001, the ANDSF has received over $72.8 billion from the U.S., but rates of absenteeism, corruption, and illiteracy remain astonishingly high across all security branches. Such absurd funding levels, paired with such meager results, indicate that the U.S. needs to immediately reevaluate its security force development program.
Fig. 2: Control of Afghanistan’s 407 Districts (As of January 31, 2018)
As the largest financial backer of the ANDSF, the U.S. must pressure Kabul to adopt three changes by conditioning future funding on security force reform. First, the U.S. must persuade Kabul to diversify its armed forces. While the number of Pashtun soldiers and police is expanding, Pashtun representation from the southern provinces of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s stronghold, remains deficient. Recruiting from discontented areas is of paramount importance; as explained by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, integrating soldiers and police from disaffected groups bolsters the legitimacy of government forces while simultaneously weakening the legitimacy of ethnic-based insurgencies.
Second, the U.S. must deter corruption within the ANDSF by prioritizing the salaries of security force personnel over high-tech equipment. Afghan soldiers and police make roughly $1,872 per year, a paltry sum that enables corrupt practices. Meanwhile, the ASFF budget request for FY 2018 allocates over $1.52 billion to supply the Afghan Air Force (AAF) with American UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. While modernizing the AAF is made with good intentions, the resources are better spent on the salaries of soldiers and police who encounter direct insurgent resistance. Deterring corruption by raising soldiers’ wages would greatly enhance the legitimacy and effectiveness of the ANDSF.
Third, the U.S. needs to develop a stronger local police force. Building the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a village-level force of just 30,000 personnel, was defined as a “secondary mission” by the U.S. government after the 2001 invasion. This decision was a mistake. Given their close contact with civilians, local police are critical throughout COIN operations and offer vital intelligence on insurgent activities. But current resource allocation for the ALP is unacceptable — recruits undergo just three weeks of training and receive minimal oversight in the field. The U.S. should mandate Kabul to reorganize the Afghan National Police to the provincial and local levels while bolstering training resources for the ALP. Adopting these reforms will forge trust in local communities and disrupt Taliban networks.
Cronyism in Kabul
Tangential to the issue of security is the issue of governance. America and its allies falsely equivocate a centralized government in Kabul with a responsive government that is capable of providing security across Afghanistan. Such an assumption could not be further from the truth. The problem with Afghanistan’s government is deceptively simple: it is far too centralized.
Kabul exercises tremendous authority over provincial and local decision-making, with the president appointing every provincial governor, district chief, and police chief. The national government completely ignores local input and transforms politics into a zero-sum game between ethnic groups, fomenting hatred and violence. A powerful authority in Kabul will invite corruption, resentment, and armed insurrection. Look no further than the turbulent periods under the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime, and the current U.S.-backed government, and it is easy to recognize that centralizing power in Afghanistan yields poor outcomes.
U.S. policymakers must learn that politics and culture are deeply localized in Afghanistan; a centralized government in Kabul neglects this reality at a tremendous cost. The Afghan people must possess the ability to select their local representatives without direction from the president. Afghans do not require a powerful central government to achieve security. Paradoxically, decentralizing political power to the provinces and local districts will drastically enhance governance. Afghans need a responsive government that protects their security and freedoms — after decades of continuous warfare, they deserve no less.
Winning the Battle of Hearts and Minds
The U.S. government must inspire change in Afghanistan with a solution that fully considers the military and political shortcomings of the Afghan government. America must incentivize Kabul to adopt these solutions by attaching future financial support to specific reforms. Persuading the Afghan government to devolve greater security and political responsibilities to the subnational level would be a terrific accomplishment, but the U.S. must continuously monitor Kabul’s actions to ensure compliance with the aforementioned reforms.
Afghanistan is not a lost cause. The U.S. can achieve victory over the Taliban by demonstrating to the Afghan people that it offers the best chance for peaceful reconciliation. Enhancing security in Afghanistan and eradicating terrorist networks at the local level simultaneously enhances the security of the American homeland. America’s war in Afghanistan is full of errors and missteps, but new adaptations to America’s strategy can and will restore Afghan’s confidence in their security and, hopefully, their future.
Featured Image Source: U.S. Department of Defense