Thursday, February 3, 2011

Zenith Op-Ed - A Third Alternative for the War in Afghanistan

A Third Alternative for the War in Afghanistan

The current deliberation over how to defeat the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan is generally characterized as debate between two irreconcilable camps. One side wants to surge tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan to help stabilize the Kabul government and buy time to expand and train the Afghan national army and police. The other side believes that American military and intelligence capabilities, operating from regional enclaves, can neutralize al Qaida and their ilk without resorting to a costly and open-ended nation-building strategy in Afghanistan. However, a third alternative, a bottom-up approach to building Afghan governance and security, might be a more appropriate response to the actual military-political situation and avert the need for an expanded American military effort.

Nearly all reporting and polling data coming from Afghanistan indicates that both the Taliban and the Karzai government in Kabul are overwhelmingly unpopular among the population. The Taliban will never be forgiven for their atrocities and incompetence during the years they ruled. The Karzai government in Kabul is accurately seen as largely corrupt, incapable, and arrogant. We Americans, whom many Afghans dismiss as occupiers, are viewed by the majority as powerful and generally well-meaning--but we are, after all, outsiders without a true understanding of or lasting interest in the realities and subtleties of Afghan life. The population is tragically trapped between three competing entities—the Kabul government, the Taliban, and the Americans—none of which offers them clear hope for the future. So it’s small wonder that great swaths of Afghan society are disaffected and confused.

A bottom-up strategy would build on and restore, insofar as possible, the traditional Afghan approach to security and governance that for the past 30 years has been under assault from Kabul—first by the Communists and Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s, then by the mujahedeen and the Taliban in the 1990s, then by the American-backed Karzai government in this decade. Afghans, quite simply, prefer local governance, facilitated through their own village and tribal councils, and are suspicious of the central authorities in Kabul. The provincial level of government also enjoys widespread support among the Afghan citizenry, who traditionally have referred problems that local leaders cannot solve to that intermediate level of governance, not to Kabul. The political history of Afghanistan indicates the people favor a weak central authority, keeping governmental power immediately accessible and responsive to the people in the villages and towns in which they live.

So too with security. The traditional Afghan arbakai, an armed and unpaid local militia working under the direction of the local councils, historically secured their villages from threats and maintained public order. Security threats that exceeded the local capability would be referred to the provinces for solution. Only occasionally would the Kabul government levy the provinces for troops to use in a national cause. Even then, the bulk of the arbakai forces remained in their villages, providing the necessary local security.

As convenient as it would be for America to have a strong regime in Kabul, centrally directing a large national army and police force, such a scheme is largely unwanted outside Kabul. If we are to be successful going forward, we must align Afghan governance with the Afghan popular desires, and align the security system with the governmental system. A good initial step would be to have provincial governors elected by the people, not appointed by Kabul, making them accountable to the people, not Karzai.

What would the American role be? First of all, rather than pinning our security hopes on ballooning a national army and police force that cannot yet meet the Taliban challenge in the countryside, we should immediately begin arming local arbakai and provincial military forces which are willing to do the job. These forces could confront the local Taliban guerrilla forces and political cells, protecting their neighbors from threats and intimidation. Crucially, the U.S. military and the capable elements of the Afghan National Army (there are some) must find, intercept, and defeat the more centrally-directed Taliban mobile columns trying to infiltrate into arbakai-defended areas from sanctuaries in Pakistan or Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. Allowing the local populations to secure themselves, something advocated by a wide range of Afghan counter-insurgency experts, frees the American forces to do what we do best: fighting and destroying the Taliban’s more conventional forces. A proper division of labor would mean that fewer, not more, U.S. troops would be needed to help defeat the Taliban and assist in restoring Afghan security.

The U.S. military habitually tries to solve all problems itself. Often, especially in counterinsurgency, doing less is better. The Afghan people will defeat the Taliban and build a better nation if we support them in doing it their way.

During our formative revolutionary era, the American national system was not imposed from a central capital, but rather emerged from our local militias and colonial representative institutions in a bottom-up process. Only gradually, over the course of a century, did our local preferences yield to the centralized systems of government and security we know today. Yet in Afghanistan, our impatience wrongly compels us to demand top-down solutions we ourselves would have rejected when we confronted British aggression 235 years ago.

Stephen Melton is a retired Army officer and a tactics instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of The Clausewitz Delusion: How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (A Way Forward).

No comments:

Post a Comment