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Afghanistan: Stability on the Cheap?

Col. Raj Shukla was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 17, 2009

    Eight winters since the launch of Enduring Freedom, the turmoil in Afghanistan continues. When contrasted with the progress in Iraqi Freedom, the gloom only deepens. Having applied the necessary mid- course corrections to the ‘ wrong war ’ (Iraq), there is hope on the horizon; despite the Obama administration’s shift of gaze and focus to the ‘ right war ’ (Afghanistan) to include a renewed and reworked military thrust, the initiative continues to rest with the Taliban. Is the war in Afghanistan, given the strong sense of tribalism, the lack of a larger pan–Afghan identity and deep resistance to foreign presence and influence, simply a losing battle? Or is it a winnable war which the civilized world seem to be losing only because of deep hypocrisies, ineffectual committal of instruments of force and pusillanimous drift? Does stability continue to elude us simply because we seek it on the cheap?

    Operational Tempo

    Are we on the right course to the stabilization of Afghanistan? One can no longer greatly fault the Americans. The American politico-military leadership has developed a distilled insight into the nuances of the counterinsurgency and is administering the right palliatives (more restrictive rules of engagement and greater oversight over fire and close air support to reduce collateral damage). The Americans could not have asked for a better team in Gates, Petraeus, McChrystal, Rodriguez and Greg Smith. It has through a bloody learning curve got its hunches right and its act together (the realization that insurgencies are a great deal about ‘armed social work’, more about brain than brawn and patience than aggression). The Commanders on the ground seem to be working the mechanics well (a more distributive presence of troops and the PRTs taking them closer to the people). Even the much maligned Pakistan Army is finally showing the intent (even a degree of resolve) to undertake stabilization operations on the Pakistan side of the Af–Pak border. Success in SWAT has enabled the return of more than 600,000 displaced residents, while the successful targeting of Behtullah Masud may well provide a window of opportunity to deliver a decisive blow to the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. Yet, we don’t quite seem to be winning. We might never ever, if we don’t address the fundamental malaise – a more resolute committal of instruments of force. Analysts in the West have been writing lengthy pieces on how historically it has never been possible to stabilize Afghanistan and how the mighty British and the mightier Soviets (despite committing more than 120,000 troops) were humbled and how Afghanistan will turn out to be the next Vietnam. That may be so, but if the last Vietnam was entirely an American misadventure, this one will largely be one of European making. Also, the comparisons may not be entirely accurate - did not the sceptics say much the same things before Petraeus’s carefully orchestrated surge turned things around in Iraq? Wasn’t much of the Soviet humbling brought about by the proxy efforts of the United States (the deadly contributions of the Stinger, for instance) and Pakistan? In the ongoing battle against the Taliban the proxies are much less powerful. The obstacles lie not so much in the enemy camp as in our own. If there was ever a time when we could be close to a favourable outcome in Afghanistan it is now - if (amongst other things) we embrace a more resolute committal of troops on the ground.

    A Familiar Cusp

    The cusp that we are now in is fundamentally similar to the one of 2001, when Tommy Franks and the CIA had dislodged the Taliban and sent the Al Qaeda scurrying for cover. An outraged West (EU/NATO) made all the right noises but failed to fulfil their lead nation commitments adequately as also provide the requisite military wherewithal. The British failed to invest the necessary resources in the fight against the narcotics trade, the Germans performed poorly in their assigned task of police training, while the Italians barely lifted a finger to fulfil their judicial reconstruction responsibilities. With more than two million soldiers on its rolls, NATO could not find the troops for combat missions in Afghanistan. Shoring up the Northern Alliance without putting own men on the ground was clearly a dubious, clever-by-half tactic that would not work. Consequently, an off-balance enemy was allowed to regroup and recover. Quite astonishingly, a military alliance like NATO placed all kinds of caveats (seventy-odd) in the conduct of combat operations. Ahmed Rashid tells us as to how the Germans said they would not operate after dark and how it was mandatory for an ambulance to accompany every patrol, making it impossible to conduct foot patrols in the mountains. At one point NATO promised an over-the-horizon deployment, meaning thereby that they would keep troops in readiness in bases in Italy and commit them in Afghanistan only on an as required basis. Any military mind will tell you that given the absurdity of it all, the military mission was bound to fail, which it inevitably did.

    This, coupled with American distractions in Iraq and some feisty double dealing by Pakistan, allowed the Taliban to resurge. The latter is now poised to wear down the West by a process of attrition (inflicting casualties and demonstrating greater staying power) and by capitalizing on a perceived asymmetry of interests (the West led by the Americans wish to stabilize quickly and leave while the Taliban is in no such hurry and only has to stay put). The military strain is proving to be stressful for the British and the Americans, manifesting in declining domestic support for continued operations. If McChrystal and his men cannot bring about a significant military turnaround quickly, Obama will feel the political heat to exit. And any military turnaround is predicated first and foremost on numbers and a more resolute committal to combat missions which is simply not forthcoming.

    Strategic Options

    In terms of strategic options in Afghanistan there needs to be a fundamental clarity. The numerous players/stakeholders must consider the following. If things don’t seem to be going well in Afghanistan, much of the blame must lie at the door of EU/NATO. If stability in Afghanistan is important for the world at large and for European Security (from terrorism), the military numbers for combat missions must be provided. If national interests determine that the threats are not significant enough for the countries to bear the military costs of stabilization, then they must cut out the sanctimonious humbug about the strategic criticality of Afghanistan and military pussyfooting in the form of operations by caveats. Such strategic ambivalence is the biggest roadblock to stabilizing Afghanistan. You either get your boots dirty or get out, leaving Afghanistan to find its own stability from the prevalent chaos.

    Despite its many past blunders , the moral high ground this time around is with the United States. From a global policeman it is now emerging as a global leader and stabilizer. It has walked its talk. Its political leadership, despite a series of mistakes, has demonstrated the necessary commitment to deploy force in defence of democratic ideals even as its Armed Forces, through a series of learning curves, have risen from the depths of Vietnam to a new high. They have been sagacious enough to unlearn and re-learn, and have in recent times done what was once unconceivable - put boots on the ground and stomach unprecedented casualties. It now needs military partners to bring peace to Afghanistan for stable political solutions to emerge.

    The EU/NATO along with their component nations need to pause and introspect. Public opinion cannot be an excuse for sustained inaction. Policy making, while being sensitive to public opinion, cannot be wholly driven by it. In any case public opinion waxes and wanes - if the West were to show signs of winning the war yet again, public support will return. It is also time to take realistic stock - if the EU/NATO is unwilling to commit troops in requisite numbers for combat missions over a sustained time horizon (8 to 10 years) the battle against the Taliban is as good as lost. At best the United States could continue to prosecute limited offensive operations against the Al Qaeda while reconciling to the return of the Taliban.

    The Challenge to Democratic Liberalism

    It may also be instructive to examine the military impasse in Afghanistan through the lens of democratic liberalism. One of the greatest democratic liberals of our times, Robert McNamara lost the Vietnam War because he failed to grasp the fundamental nuances of that conflict - surging forces to unprecedented numbers without getting the base strategy right. We may lose Afghanistan for precisely the opposite reason - because the neoliberals do not wish to provide the requisite military commitment when everything else is almost right, simply because they do not appreciate the importance of instruments of force even in modern conflicts. Admittedly, the nature of conflict has undergone massive transformation and the notion of wars as massive deciding events in international disputes is passe. Military force is unlikely to fetch definite victories that will resolve political problems decisively, but it will continue to support conflict resolution by other means. Afghanistan is a test case for the committal of legitimate instruments of force and their precise use. But much of the liberal West shirks from such commitments, seeking security through hope, rather than purposeful steps.

    In essence, we are witnessing a struggle between two forces. One led by the Taliban which is willing to commit force in pursuit of an errant ideology and the other (symbolized by the EU/NATO) which is unwilling to commit force even in defence of the right ideology. We refuse to learn even from our past mistakes and continue to rely on proxies to fight our wars. The US in the past refused to throw its lot sufficiently behind Karzai and his efforts at nation building. Rather than help him build institutions like the Afghan National Army (ANA) to fight the Taliban, they sought to confine his influence to Kabul and its neighbourhood, while propping up the warlords in the countryside, hoping that the latter will take on the Taliban. That did not happen - in the goodness of time many of these warlords returned to the Taliban fold. The British made similar mistakes in Helmand where their principal objective was to tackle the opium menace. They insisted on removing a Governor who had the support of Karzai and instead of taking on the Taliban (the principal beneficiary of the opium proceeds) head on, chose to nudge farmers towards other crops in the hope that in doing so opium production will fall. Such a policy did not contend with the farmers’ fear of the Taliban. Today, opium production in Helmand has increased by four times, making it abundantly clear that you cannot tackle the opium menace unless you tackle the Taliban. The many collateral casualties from airstrikes are often a consequence of a similar urge to avoid casualties to own troops even at the cost of deleterious effects on the nature of the counterinsurgency. No tenet of modern democracy/western liberalism tells you not to commit legitimate instruments of force in defence of your own freedoms. Yet the West continues to shirk and therefore pays the price.

    While the United States is willing to make amends, Europe has simply lost the stomach for a fight. It was perfectly alright for a post World War II Europe to arrest militarist propensities a la pre-war Germany. It is quite another to so civilianize its armed forces that they are no better than “civilians in uniform.” Even aid workers are displaying more gall - quite naturally they describe NATO troops as “ scared rabbits rather than professional soldiers.” Unless the West (EU/NATO) demonstrates the necessary military resolve and commitment, stability will continue to elude us. Afghanistan is a classic case where the Battle For Peace can be won only if we are willing to commit instruments of force for combat missions in requisite numbers.

    Implications for India

    What does all this mean for India? In the absence of willing military partners, is India an acceptable military option for the United States? Or will such a proposition simply not be acceptable to Pakistan? Does Pakistan have the right to exercise such a veto when it will not/cannot provide the military wherewithal to take on the Afghan Taliban? If the Taliban resurges as it most likely will, India’s diplomatic footprint will be under grave threat. We must seriously consider as to what an Indian presence means to our vital strategic interests. Are they vital enough to merit committal of the Indian Army? Can the Indian Army spare the necessary numbers when it itself is so heavily committed? Should we commit ourselves militarily, what will the consequences of possible failure be? Committing soldiers from two of the world’s most combat hardened armies (USA and India) may be our best chance to stabilise Afghanistan as also a unique opportunity for leadership. The strongest message that could be sent to terror groups in the region would be the conduct of combined operations in the region - USA, India, ISAF and other partners operating on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and the Pakistan Army conducting operations on the Pakistan side of the divide. Such committal, however, must stem not from some altruistic purpose or even from an urge to partner a new found ally (USA) but from a hard nosed survey of Indian strategic interests. These are critical issues that demand careful scrutiny. While we must not rush in militarily, we must also consider the grave consequences of not doing so to our diplomatic footprint and vital security interests. The time for such analysis is now and not when we are engulfed by a future crisis.


    There is a great deal that has been done as also a lot that still needs to be done in Afghanistan (diplomatic, social, economic, legal, political, financial and infrastructural) all of which is of overwhelming importance. But none of this will be of any consequence if we do not address the fundamental void - that of displaying the necessary military resolve rooted in providing adequate numbers for decisive combat missions .

    We are at a crease in the history of the most dangerous region on earth. There are many who contend that the key to peace in Afghanistan lies on what Pakistan does or does not do on its side of the Durand Line. That may only be partially true - the key to a stable Afghanistan may well be contingent on what Europe does or does not do. Saturday’s gruesome attack on the NATO HQ in Kabul may have come as a timely reminder - spending 70 billion dollars to lock yourself up in fortified barracks in Kabul will not beget security but that it has to be contested and won in the desolate stretches of Southern Afghanistan. More than anybody else, the Afghans understand well enough that without security there will be no economic development, and if the West continues to refuse to provide that security, then it is also insincere about rebuilding the country.