Afghan Awakening

Afghan Awakening

Mini Teaser: Can Kabul be saved? More troops are on the way, but a one-size-fits-all surge is not enough. We also need to change our tactics.

by Author(s): Bing West

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates worked with what was available. He streamlined the command structure, placing all U.S. forces under one four-star commander who reported to NATO. But so far, other than unifying the battlefield command structure, it appears that the new American approach is simply to double the size of the security forces while continuing with the same strategy. As we begin to make Afghanistan a priority, we need to rethink our basic strategy-beyond the troop increase.

TO DATE, our strategy has been one of containment aimed to repulse Taliban forces when they surge across the border. But shoring up Afghanistan to ward off cross-border attacks is just playing defense against the Taliban, a second-tier enemy. "We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan," Admiral Mullen said in September, "but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming."

The fundamental reason the war in Afghanistan heated up in the first place is the presence of a Taliban and al-Qaeda safe haven inside Pakistan. Both groups maintain several camps and headquarters in an area about the size of New Jersey, with a population of around one million. The Taliban is deeply rooted inside Pakistan's mountainous western frontier, called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Estimates of the Taliban's strength vary enormously, from five thousand to twenty thousand. The central core of the Taliban is perhaps five thousand, with thousands of auxiliaries and tribal allies joining and deserting as the mood strikes them. But with a population of 5 million, FATA provides the Taliban with a steady stream of recruits. The Pakistani government has ceded control of these areas.

Dealing with Pakistan, where America's mortal foe al-Qaeda is nestled alongside the Taliban, is clearly the most pressing problem we face. The Pakistani army is configured for conventional war against its archenemy, India. And the Pakistani intelligence service gave advice and training to the Taliban as a means of controlling politics inside Afghanistan and of preventing India from gaining influence. The Pakistani military understands that the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists must be contained. But the military is not willing to deploy into the FATA region to eliminate their safe havens.

Given the complexity of politics and religiosity in Pakistan, it is doubtful if American advice, even when delivered along with aid by our most senior commanders, will be a decisive factor as the Pakistani leadership determines how to limit the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the fall of 2008, following terrorist bombings deep inside Pakistan, the Pakistani army engaged in brigade-size conventional offensives against fundamentalist strongholds that seemed to have a punitive intent, rather than the counterinsurgency method of clearing in order to hold.

That leaves two unpalatable options. The first is to continue the current course that accepts the sanctuary until Pakistani forces solve the problem. Our military is trying to persuade Pakistan's military that Islamic fundamentalism is a growing danger to the state that requires a counterinsurgency campaign in the FATA aimed at assisting the tribes against the Taliban. But to date, the Pakistani army has lacked the motivation, internal unity, discipline, tactics, logistics and willingness to accept casualties needed to move decisively against al-Qaeda. Since the gambit of persuading the Pakistani army to take decisive action is unlikely to succeed, the fallback is a continuation of our defensive strategy.

The dilemma posed by these strategic choices is as disconcerting as it is obvious. The tribes inside the FATA must be organized and supported to throw out the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Pakistani government has shown neither the will nor capacity to do so. One option is to slowly but deliberately build up the size and intensity of American air and ground strikes inside the FATA, with the intent of destroying al-Qaeda as a distinct entity of Arab foreigners. The gamble is that the Pakistani government and people will gradually accept the strikes as a fact of life. A large raid merits serious consideration if the chances of inflicting major losses on al-Qaeda are high. But the downside risk is portentous. Such strikes may provoke riots that bring down the government.

Hence, President Bush allowed the problem of sanctuary to fester because there were no good options. It is likely that the new administration will launch a few more strikes on a selective basis, while the Pentagon holds in readiness a severe response if al-Qaeda succeeds in a second attack against American civilians. An intact al-Qaeda inside a sanctuary is literally a ticking bomb. The strongest message to Pakistani officials is to point to the response from an outraged America if there is a second severe attack on American soil.


GIVEN THAT the Pakistani sanctuary cannot be removed and that it will be years at best before the tribes inside Pakistan are organized to reject the Taliban, what U.S. conventional troops can accomplish will occur inside Afghanistan. With withdrawals from Iraq, it makes sense to take U.S. units that have years of experience in counterinsurgency in Iraq and deploy them to the contested provinces like Helmand and Kandahar. The marines, for instance, have volunteered to take responsibility for the southeastern provinces, where our NATO allies have been less than staunch. No one has ever accused U.S. Marines of ducking a fight. In Iraq they were able to turn Anbar Province around by patiently working with the Sunni tribes and by supporting the "Awakening" when it was first proposed by a sheikh named Abu Risha.

There is the argument that the Awakening does not apply to Afghanistan because the tribes are too fragmented. However, in Anbar in 2006-2007, the Awakening proceeded on a very local basis. What was happening in, say, the city of Husaybah differed from Haditha and that differed from Ramadi. In each case, the American soldiers and marines worked on a local level to improve security.

We should apply the techniques that worked in Iraq to Afghanistan. The operational concepts of small-unit outposts and aggressive patrolling should be applied universally. Because the Taliban can mass and fall upon such smaller outposts, living among the villagers requires quick-reaction forces and a willingness to tolerate risk. Assuming NATO skittishness persists, we will have to send troops that want to fight-i.e., U.S. troops. U.S. units should "homestead," rotating on seven-month tours back, time and again, to the same areas, so that they get to know all of the local leaders. The troop-to-task ratio to do this on a large-enough scale undoubtedly exceeds the two to three brigades currently being discussed. And those units should partner from the first day with Afghan battalions permanently assigned to the same area. We can enlist the tribes and the villagers in self-defense units, and pay them modestly. The surest engine of local economic growth is the provision of local jobs.

Although NATO countries will object, a standardized operational approach has merit. For too long we thrashed around in Iraq, allowing each division, brigade and battalion to determine its own tactics and operational plan. Generals Petraeus and Odierno were the first senior commanders to lay down general operational principles to be followed by all combat units, with stress laid upon partnering with Iraqi units.

Similarly, American soldiers must patrol with Afghan forces. This is the most difficult of tasks-to train reliable Afghani soldiers and police when the Afghan political power structure is untrustworthy. As Admiral Mullen said in September, "Until those Afghan forces have the support of local leaders to improve security on their own, we will only be there as a crutch-and a temporary one at that." The goal is to increase Afghan forces to about two hundred thousand by expanding the army to one hundred thirty thousand by 2014, at a cost of $20 billion, and increasing the size of the national police from sixty thousand (half of whom have received formal training) to eighty thousand.

This plan is also similar to the one executed in Iraq in many ways. There, U.S. commanders worked to knit together Iraqi commanders with the leaders of the Sunni tribes and Sunni irregular forces. The Americans slowly molded the local leaders, while weeding out the unfit. In turn, the American military gradually became an advocate for the local areas, pressuring the sclerotic and sectarian Baghdad government to deliver services.

Iraq has demonstrated that the embedding of American small units among the population, partnered with indigenous security forces, can bring about local security. This model would link Afghan police and army commanders with local leaders to build a more stable society. It also involves the Americans in local disputes, in arguments about imposing the rule of law and in insisting that the central government deliver services to the local level. In Iraq, corruption was rife and Prime Minister Maliki controlled all indictments. This ensured his influence over a host of politicians and officials. But there were ample petrodollars to disburse, and the American advisers could glimpse some progress, albeit faltering, in moving funds to the local level.

Essay Types: Essay