The Magazine

Nation Building, After All

From the April 11, 2005 issue: With the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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Perhaps the most important consequence of Afghanistan's 20-plus-year experience with internecine conflict, however, is simply the country's exhaustion. War is a grinding, tiring business, as Europeans used to discover periodically during their own continental bloodlettings. For all the stereotypes about Afghans' indomitable warrior spirit, jihad doesn't have quite the ring it once did, and plenty of former combatants are more than willing to beat swords into ploughshares, especially if there's a monetary incentive to do so.

For American troops in Afghanistan, this means that as much if not more of their time is spent collecting and disposing of weapons as actually using them. Thus, one recent bitterly cold winter day found soldiers from the 116th Infantry Division of the Virginia National Guard on a three-hour drive to pick up an arms cache from a village in Wardak province. A towering heap of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank mines, and other deadly ordnance was loaded onto an Army truck for transport back to the American firebase--a seemingly insignificant fraction of the hundreds of millions of weapons scattered throughout the country, but enough to kill every person in our convoy several times over. The villagers had decided they were no longer especially keen on having them lying around their homes.

Before heading back, the soldiers paid a courtesy call at the headquarters of the provincial chief of the NSD, Afghanistan's internal security service. After a few minutes of pleasantries over platters of pistachios and almonds, the official's son--no more than 7 or 8 years old--peered into his office to get a better look at his father's strange, armor-clad visitors. "You must be very proud of your son," one of the soldiers volunteered. "Perhaps he'll grow up to be NSD chief, too."

"I hope not," the spymaster of Wardak province quietly replied. "Better if he becomes a doctor."

AFGHANISTAN'S POSTWAR EXHAUSTION was a crucial but by no means sufficient prerequisite for the improvements in the security situation there. Unsurprisingly, it took time for the U.S. military and the new government in Kabul to find their footing in the country they were ostensibly running. As in Iraq, the Bush administration initially made more than its share of blunders, and a year and a half after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan was arguably headed in the wrong direction.

The administration began to overhaul its Afghan strategy in the second half of 2002 and first half of 2003, coincident--ironically enough--with the planning and execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (The U.S. government, it turns out, occasionally can walk and chew gum at the same time.) The most important contribution of this policy review--which included individuals both inside and outside of government--was the realization that America's national security objectives in Afghanistan were ultimately inseparable from the emergence of a decent political order there. Thus the Pentagon quietly expanded its mandate from strict counterterrorism to a broad-based strategy of counterinsurgency.

The new plan of attack identified not just one, but three interconnected wars to be waged in Afghanistan: a war against senior terrorist leaders; a war against networks of predominantly Pashtun, Islamist insurgent groups like the Taliban and Hizbi Islami; and a war against other centrifugal forces, such as warlords, that sap the strength and legitimacy of the central government in Kabul. Rather than envisioning the conflict in terms of rapid, decisive operations geared at destroying the enemy, the U.S. military instead began to adopt a mindset that emphasized the Afghan people and Afghan government institutions as the critical centers of gravity in what was likely to be a long, drawn-out struggle.

While previously the bulk of American troops had been concentrated around the U.S. garrison at Bagram and dispatched forward only on specific "boom-and-zoom" strike missions, they were now redeployed in smaller formations at firebases throughout the country. Consistent with classic counterinsurgency doctrine, this new force posture allowed the military to stay close to the local population, yielding better intelligence and shaping the political battlefield. The coalition also began an innovative program of aggressively expanding the number of Provisional Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs. These small groups of civil-affairs officers are based at sites around the country, where they work directly with Afghans on a range of development projects--everything from renovating schools to running free health clinics to handing out blankets in the winter. Whereas 4 PRTs were in place in June 2003, today there are 19, with plans to eventually establish one in each of Afghanistan's 32 provinces.

The number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan also began to creep upward during this period, from 8,000 in April 2003, to 11,500 in December 2003, to 13,000 in March 2004, to between 17,000 and 18,000 today. It bears emphasizing that this was not simply a matter of throwing more bodies at Afghanistan's myriad security problems; rather, force size and force posture alike were realigned as part of an overarching shift in American strategy.

The fact that the Pentagon managed to more than double its footprint in Afghanistan at the same time the U.S. military has been engaged in another, much larger counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq should give pause to those who argue the Bush administration abandoned one conflict for the other. At the same time, it's undeniable that Iraq did impose significant limitations on the manpower available for Afghanistan.

Interestingly, however, the unavailability of U.S. troops--coupled with the failure of Western allies to contribute any more than a few thousand of their own--prodded the Pentagon to do what it otherwise might not have done: get serious about building the Afghan National Army. Historically, at least, the American military has not treated the indigenous forces it has raised particularly well, except when they have been the only available troops on the field. The latter was the case in El Salvador during the 1980s and in the Philippines a century ago--two counterinsurgencies the United States won. It is also true in Afghanistan today.

Indeed, there is no better symbol of America's progress in Afghanistan to date than the Afghan National Army, or ANA. As of February 2005, the ANA had approximately 21,000 troops out of the planned 46,000-strong ground force--a threefold increase over the past year. In a country where shelter and food remain elusive for a vast share of the population, being an Afghan soldier is a pretty good gig. Troops live indoors, enjoy the benefits of electricity and plumbing, and receive warm clothes and regular meals. The pay is also extremely attractive by Afghan standards--$100 to $110 a month, on average, as of late 2004.

Responsibility for building the Afghan defense sector falls to Coalition Task Force Phoenix, made up predominantly of U.S. Army National Guardsmen. Visiting the string of facilities along the Kabul-Jalalabad road that form the nucleus of the ANA project, one is immediately struck by the effort the Guardsmen are making to show respect for Afghan norms and traditions. Instructors assigned to Phoenix wear badges that spell out their last names in Dari, the language used for most official business in Afghanistan. They greet ANA counterparts by exchanging kisses on the cheek, and make small talk about the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Because Afghanistan has little in the way of a banking system, its soldiers have a tendency to disappear after receiving monthly salaries to take money home to their families--a practice their American trainers have largely given up trying to curb. "Sometimes you have to step back and say, okay, that's the Afghan way," says Maj. Eric Bloom, a spokesman for Task Force Phoenix.

The Task Force has been less forgiving on other points, however. Despite initial resistance from the Ministry of Defense, the U.S. military has insisted that the proportion of each Afghan ethnic group recruited to the ANA should reflect its overall share of the population, plus or minus a few percentage points. This affirmative action policy has ended the Panjshiri Tajik domination of the defense sector that characterized the initial post-Taliban period and created one of the few genuinely multiethnic institutions in the country. It also marks an important victory for the Karzai government, which has been eager to stress a nonsectarian national identity. In addition to stamping out ethnic tensions, Task Force Phoenix has striven to eliminate doctrinal prejudices in Afghan military culture, such as the weakness of the noncommissioned officers corps and the terrible treatment of conscripts, inherited from the Soviet Union.

New Afghan recruits go through basic training at the Kabul Military Training Center as "kandaks," battalion-sized units of approximately 800 men, but--critically--American efforts do not end there. When kandaks are deployed downrange to fight, U.S. military trainers go with them, reinforcing the lessons they have learned and keeping a careful check on their discipline and professionalism. These American officers are embedded with the Afghan National Army from the company to the corps level, mentoring generals and rallying grunts. They also provide an invaluable link between Afghan units and U.S. troops in the field, facilitating their interoperability, pushing opportunities for cooperation, and building trust on both sides. "Why do we work well with ANA? Because they're Army," explains one American infantryman in Ghazni. "We speak the same language."

All of this is a capital-intensive investment, to be sure. "Everything we take for granted in the U.S. Army has to be created here," says Brigadier General Richard Moorhead, commander of Task Force Phoenix. At the same time, however, the cost of feeding, clothing, housing, training, and arming an Afghan soldier is markedly less than that of his American equivalent, and in theory, an Afghan corps--with 350 American trainers--can replace a 4,000-man U.S. brigade, generating enormous savings in manpower.

It's projected that Afghanistan's army will reach target strength by December 2006, at which point its basic training programs will begin to be scaled back. Professional military education will continue to expand, however, with the establishment this year of a national military academy in Kabul modeled after West Point. In addition, U.S. military planners are looking well past 2006 in developing the "sustaining institutions" of the ANA, so that it can manage its own acquisitions, logistics, recruiting, and communications. In marked contrast to Iraq, where there has been intense political pressure from Washington to stand up indigenous forces as quickly as possible, the emphasis in Afghanistan has been on the sustainability and quality of the army for the long haul ahead.

Counterinsurgencies typically reward such patience, and there are hopeful signs that the U.S. approach in Afghanistan is producing dividends. "What is happening here will be studied as classic counterinsurgency leading to nation-building," says Colonel James Stopford, the British officer who serves as the strategy and planning chief for Combined Forces Command Afghanistan.

Attacks on coalition forces, for example, are down from an average of 10 to 15 a week last year to fewer than 5 today. There are indications that the Taliban is splintering internally, with former combatants eager to come in from the cold as part of a series of national reconciliation programs. Likewise, the failure of insurgents to disrupt the October 2004 presidential election was a major psychological blow to them. They proved unable to carry off successful attacks during the voter registration process, the balloting, or the inauguration. "Three strikes and you're out, even in Afghanistan," says Colonel David Lamm, chief of staff to Lieutenant General David Barno, the top U.S. general in the country.

Indeed, democracy itself is proving to be an incredibly powerful weapon in Afghanistan's counterinsurgency campaign. In addition to conferring greater legitimacy on the Karzai government, Afghanistan's emerging political order is co-opting a broad range of actors and creating the basis for stability in the country.

Nowhere is the evidence of this more apparent than in Afghanistan's "disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration" process. As its name suggests, DDR seeks to break the power relationship between Afghanistan's warlords and their foot soldiers. It is specifically aimed at the "Afghan Military Forces"--a collective term for the anti-Taliban militias voluntarily if nominally placed under the authority of the country's new Ministry of Defense in December 2001. Run by the United Nations and funded largely by Japan, DDR has officially disarmed more than 44,000 of the estimated 45,000 Afghan Military Forces.

Much of the progress has come in just the past few months, as militia leaders like the notorious General Abdurrashid Dostum have rushed to clean themselves up to qualify for this year's coming parliamentary elections. "The Panjshir Valley is demobilizing in the middle of winter. Why? They are running like mad so they can participate in a democratic political process," says Colonel Lamm. (In order to lead a political party, the Afghan constitution requires that a candidate not have "military or quasi-military aims and organizations.")

In addition, President Karzai's dismissal of Defense Minister Marshal Muhammad Quasim Fahim, a Northern Alliance commander who had resisted disarmament and demobilization, and his replacement with General Abdur Rahim Wardak, a strong supporter of the program, has sent an unmistakable signal about the central government's growing authority and confidence. The Kabul rumor mill has it that Fahim has been telling friends that his failure to participate in demobilization was a big mistake. To some extent, whether the story is true is less important than the very fact it's circulating. "These guys are very clever. They want to be on the winning side," says one official involved in overseeing DDR.

Still, a number of questions associated with the process remain. First, it's worth noting that determining the precise number of militia fighters is more art than science, since these are not regular soldiers, but forces that are rounded up ad hoc by their commanders. While it was initially estimated that there were more than 260,000 Afghans eligible for DDR, it was later realized that the warlords were vastly inflating their figures, in the hope of boosting their prestige and receiving salaries for soldiers who did not exist.

There are also doubts about how effective the reintegration component of DDR actually has been. "If Dostum feels threatened and he snaps his fingers, how many men will rally to his call?" asks one coalition official. "Is it tribal loyalty, or will he have to pay money? Has that power structure really been broken? DDR simply hasn't accomplished that--not across the board."

Skeptics cite a dearth of small arms being handed in and argue that participation in the program reflects a tactical decision on the part of the warlords to surrender stocks of heavy weapons and instead maintain lighter forces, but that there is no deep, strategic commitment to a new political order in the country. "There are a lot of people who live in Kabul, in this glass house, and they believe the figures on the little pieces of paper," warns another official of DDR.

CERTAINLY, there remain plenty of reasons not to be sanguine about the security situation in Afghanistan. Even accepting the most optimistic appraisals of DDR, for example, the program doesn't begin to take into account the problem of "informal" militias. In contrast to the Afghan Military Forces, whose leaders voluntarily placed themselves under Karzai's Ministry of Defense, the coalition is just now coming to grips with the armed groups that have intentionally avoided appearing on anyone's radar screen. And as one might expect in a place like Afghanistan, these come in every imaginable shape, size, color, and flavor.

First there are the private security corporations that provide protection to Kabul's alphabet city of international organizations, embassies, foreign commercial firms, and nongovernmental entities. Many of these companies are highly professional, disciplined, and effective outfits, employing retired Western military officers who take their work very seriously; others, unfortunately, are a motlier bunch, mercenaries who are not above provoking incidents in order to drive up their own marketability. "They scare the crap out of the NGOs," sighs a coalition official. "They need to be controlled."

Corralling and registering the security firms, however, is relatively straightforward compared with the headaches caused by the illegal militias that populate the countryside. Some are simply local groups organized for civil defense--neighborhood watches with AK-47s--but many others are engaged in criminal activities, smuggling drugs, antiquities, and people across Afghanistan's porous borders. Many also carry political loyalties, filling a vast gray area between the Karzai government and the declared insurgent groups.

As of November 2004, there was virtually no sense of how many of these groups existed. Today, it is believed there are at least 850 unofficial militias in Afghanistan, with some 65,000 members. A plan is being spun out of the DDR process that would provide incentives for their disbanding, but it's deeply unclear how much this will actually achieve or how hard the U.S. military and the Karzai government are willing to push the issue.

Then there's the drug problem--and what a problem it is. Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the opium in the world; processing and trafficking in heroin is believed to be growing, estimated at $2.2 billion in 2004, up from $1.3 billion the year before. In a recent raid in Nangarhar province, 17 tons of heroin were seized--enough for every person in the United States.

"It's an opium economy," says one official involved in the counternarcotics effort. "It's the growing. It's the processing. It's the trafficking. It's everything."

For now, the drug problem in Afghanistan is extremely wide but not particularly deep. Unlike in Colombia, international cartels have not yet established a foothold inside the country, poisoning its politics, but everyone agrees that this won't be the case for long. "Right now, the Afghan drug business is controlled and run by Afghans," explains Doug Wankel, a former DEA official who is the counternarcotics point man at the U.S. embassy. The networks haven't extended into London or New York yet, but unless they are rolled up quickly, they will.

A five-year counternarcotics strategy is being developed jointly by the U.S. embassy, the British embassy, and the foreign military forces in the country, with the stated goals of marginalizing the drug trade, reducing the drug economy, and increasing Afghan counternarcotic capabilities by late 2009. President Karzai, for his part, has declared a jihad on drugs, appealing to his countrymen's national dignity and religious morality to prevent the emergence of a narco-state. There's also a big push on the part of the U.S. government to land the arrest of a major trafficker in the next few months.

There are already a few signs of hope. Poppy cultivation this year appears to be down--perhaps as much as 40 percent--and the Karzai government is a committed partner on this issue. Indeed, some officials, like Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Daoud Khan, are close to being over-committed; Khan famously has announced a 100-percent eradication policy. In private conversation, he's more realistic, aware of how delicate the issue is politically: "I'd settle for 70 percent," he says.

Finally, the U.S. military is deeply troubled by the state of the Afghan police and judiciary, both of which, unlike the Afghan National Army, remain stagnant, corrupt, and unreliable. Reforming these institutions has been the declared responsibility of the German and Italian governments, respectively, but no one in Kabul has nice things to say about their management to date. Consequently, it is increasingly likely that the United States will assume a greater leadership role in both areas in the coming year.

Even more important than the specific facts and figures associated with each of these security problems, however, is the extent to which they are interlocking--and the implications this has for U.S. policy. In some cases, the solutions are mutually supportive. Consider, for example, the relationship between stamping out drugs and building an effective police force and judiciary. "If you arrest someone, you need to have a courthouse and a jail," says Colonel Lamm. "Whoops! You don't have them."

Matters are more problematic when the components of the Afghan security sector are not immediately complementary, pitting different parts of the established organizational charts against each other. The challenge then becomes for the coalition to get its priorities and the various parts of its internal bureaucracy synchronized--and that's a lot easier said than done. It's unclear at this point how effectively the command arrangement in the country, which has evolved into a complex and decentralized structure, will be able to cut through this Gordian knot of interwoven issues.

Take the case of Asadullah Khalid, the dapper young governor of Ghazni province. It's an open secret that Asadullah has his own private militia, likely numbering 800 to 1,200 men, which the governor has tried to hide, albeit not very effectively, by disguising them as highway police. But Asadullah is also regarded as a competent administrator, deeply devoted to humanitarian reconstruction projects in his province. To boot, U.S. military officers in Ghazni say he uses his militia to fight the Taliban. What to do?

The answer, needless to say, depends heavily on where you sit and what portfolio you carry. No U.S. military officer in Ghazni expressed any enthusiasm for doing anything to disrupt their relationship with the governor, given Asadullah's usefulness in fighting bad guys and helping rebuild the country. In Kabul, on the other hand, several officials indicated that their patience with the situation in Ghazni was fast running out, and that--barring certain behavioral changes on the governor's part--he might soon be ditched.

Similarly, even where priorities are ostensibly complementary, their respective timelines may not be. For instance, although the counternarcotics effort would benefit immeasurably from police reform, the former simply can't wait for the latter to happen. Consequently, Afghanistan's counternarcotics strategy is expected to rely more heavily on people than institutions--even if that means the institution-building project itself is impeded in the process.

Another source of tension--inevitable in any counterinsurgency campaign--is the proper balance between humanitarian reconstruction and strategic pacification. In Kabul, more than one official expressed frustration that the Provisional Reconstruction Teams were reluctant to dirty their hands on issues like disbanding illegal militias and fighting the drug trade. A recent policy paper on counternarcotics from the U.S. embassy, for instance, called for the involvement and inclusion of PRTs in developing alternative livelihoods for poppy growers and eradicating their crops.

"PRTs are not involved in counternarcotics--period," counters Colonel Randy Brooks, the Canadian reservist responsible for overseeing the Provisional Reconstruction Teams in Kabul. "Folks have been very emphatic that PRTs, in order to maintain the support of the Afghan people, cannot be seen to be involved in eradication," he explains, speaking with the careful diction and soft-spoken authority of a school teacher, which he happens to be in his civilian life.

On the ground, in Ghazni, by contrast, the tension flows in the opposite direction, with many members of the combat arms battalion arguing that the PRT should stick to reconstruction and leave pacification to them. Both the Ghazni PRT and the combat arms battalion, for example, consider the reform of the local police to be their responsibility--and both have been providing supplies and training to local cops. (In fact, neither of them has a mandate to do this, technically speaking, but Ghazni is a long way from Kabul.)

"STRATEGY IS FIVE YEARS, and it's what we're doing here," insists Colonel Lamm, chief of staff to General Barno. Indeed, a commitment to a prolonged U.S. presence is one of the few constants across the Afghan security sector--and the final cause for optimism about the future here.

In Ghazni, projects are being planned through the end of the decade, many rotations after the current group of soldiers there has moved on. At Camp Phoenix, officers describe a timeline for the Afghan National Army that runs through 2013.

No doubt many of these plans will be overtaken by events or radically altered to reflect unexpected developments. But the fact remains, the U.S. military expects to be here for the foreseeable future, and it is planning accordingly. At least in Kabul, the myth of disengagement is dead, and that in itself is no small accomplishment. The security situation in Afghanistan is going to require a long-term presence; indeed, it is the only way for the tensions and contradictions within the U.S. mission to be resolved.

A tougher question is whether other members of the international coalition have similar staying power. NATO's peacekeepers, who are responsible for the less problematic northern parts of country, might last as much as a decade. But is the Atlantic Alliance really willing and able to build a strategic partnership with Kabul beyond that, as it has with the Eastern European states of the former Soviet Union? Will Brussels accede to a long-term involvement in the Hindu Kush?

At the very least, many in Kabul are skeptical, arguing that the multilateral coalition that is currently helping to secure the country is likely to fade in the coming years. In its place, a bilateral alliance with the United States will become the cornerstone of Afghan national security policy, much like those the United States maintains with Japan, Australia, and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Afghanistan certainly has plenty to offer Washington, beginning with its location. "Strategically, this is a great foothold for us," says Colonel Crawford, the U.S. military operations chief in Kabul. At the crossroads of Central, South, and East Asia, as well as the Middle East, Afghanistan shares borders with Iran, Pakistan, and China--three states that pose significant access problems for the U.S. military. At the very least, having stable U.S. basing arrangements in Afghanistan would help to keep pressure on our strategic competitors in the region.

Inversely, the Afghans themselves would benefit from a U.S. security guarantee, making their less-than-democratic neighbors think twice before interfering in their internal affairs. And even as the country begins to develop the semblance of a functional economy in the years ahead, the government in Kabul should be devoting resources to raising its people out of poverty, developing infrastructure, and improving education, rather than having to commit massive outlays to provide for its defense. As far as beachheads of freedom go, we could do a lot worse.

It's easy, of course, for Americans to project their hopes and fears onto Afghanistan's landscape. What's harder for us to manage, much less predict, are Afghans' own perceptions and expectations of what lies ahead.

Most of the surprises in this regard have thus far been happy ones. A people who have known nothing but war have proven eager for peace; the country that gave rise to the Taliban has proven hungry for democracy. Even back in Ghazni, the expansive ice, so bleak and depressing to American eyes, emblematic of all the limitations on Afghanistan's progress, turns out to be a symbol of hope for the locals.

In addition to suffering more than 20 years of war, Afghanistan has endured almost a decade of drought. The blanket of snow that has settled over the country promises water after the thaw. For many superstitious Afghans, it's no coincidence that the coming of democracy coincides with the end of the drought; it's proof, despite winter's bitter hardships, of a better future. For now, Afghanistan is a country patiently waiting for spring.

Vance Serchuk is a research associate and Tom Donnelly a resident fellow in defense and security policy at the American Enterprise Institute.