Sometime in the last twelve years, someone moved the goalposts. We’ve gone from wanting to crush the Taliban like the backwater illiterates they are, to wanting to abide their trouble while we slowly secure the country.
And according to then-outgoing commander of our troops in Afghanistan, General John Allen, “This is winning, this is what victory looks like.”
What he did not add was that winning would look like this for years to come. 2014 has come to be seen as what one Afghan official has called a “magical date”, a make-or-break date by which the conflict will effectively be determined one way or the other. But the truth is that there is little reason to believe that it will all be sorted out by then.
This is a sad result for the most powerful military the world has ever seen, but realizing the limits of our ability to drive the outcome is an appropriate and helpful adjustment to the factual situation.
The time in which a decisive battlefield victory over Taliban was possible ended sometime in late 2001 or very early 2002, and was given up when we decided not to press Pakistan to seal off its border (or allow us to do so). Since then, the US and the Afghan government it helped into being have been engaged in a cross-border insurgency, and it is by the fundamental laws of insurgency that the conflict will be won or lost.
We need to abandon the naïve idea that we can crush the Taliban on the field of battle, and realize the truth that has been recognized by the Taliban since the beginning: winning will be determined by which side can be relied upon to provide basic governmental services like security and justice.
And while some may have read my earlier post as entirely pessimistic, there is reason to hope that Afghanistan is at least generally headed in the right direction. First, Afghans themselves are making the investment, in very real terms. According to General John Allen:
“[E]very Sunday when we’ve read the names of our Coalition dead, the Afghan National Army steps up to recognize the sons of Afghanistan, also who have sacrificed in this conflict. And every week there are 25 or 35 or 45 killed in action and 50 or 60 or 70 wounded. There can be no doubt that Afghanistan is investing in its own future. The cost is paid in the blood of their finest young warriors.”
A report by CSIS indicates the total ANSF deaths are now well over 4,000, and it seems likely they are growing faster than those of ISAF.
In addition, the Afghan Army have been largely successful in keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, despite the increased combat pressure they are bearing and the fact that are not yet as professional as their mentors. According to the CSIS report:
“Between 1 January and 30 June, UNAMA documented 20 civilian deaths and 12 injured from search and seizure operations by Pro-Government Forces, a decrease of 27 percent compared with the same period in 2011. This is consistent with the downward trends documented in the same periods in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Civilian casualties as a result of ANSF and ISAF escalation of force incidents continued to decrease in 2012.”
The Afghan Government is also working to reduce its reputation for brutal interrogation and detention. For example, in response to recent reports detailing the prevalence of torture in Afghan detention centers, President Karzai has ordered that all interrogations be video recorded to ensure that the detainees are properly treated.
Such hard-fought successes can be short-lived, as can be seen in Karzai’s ban on ANSF calls for close air support in residential areas in response to an incident that caused severe collateral damage. However, this may be a good development in the long run. Remember that the Taliban cannot be defeated on the field of battle: the flip-side of that coin is that the Government can lose the population’s support by a too-aggressive approach. The French learned this same lesson in Algeria, where their brutal tactics won them a very shallow and self-defeating victory over their insurgent foes. Reducing civilian casualties is an important component of providing civilians a sense of security.
The other major good that the government must provide to the people in order to bolster its legitimacy and weaken the Taliban’s appeal is in the area of governance, justice and civil conflict resolution. Here, the vast majority of the damage done to its reputation has been entirely self-inflicted: endemic corruption in the courts and police has caused many in the south to turn to the Taliban to help them resolve their disputes with one another. While the Taliban verdicts are swift and harsh, they are also perceived as untainted by biased and corruption.
Unfortunately, there is little indication that the highest levels of the US or Afghanistan governments are very interested in tackling the corruption issue. Few official statements by either government ever mention the issue as more than a passing reference. Furthermore, little progress has been made in the past decade. Indeed, a recent report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime found that while the number of Afghans who have to pay bribes has been dropping since 2009 (from 59% of Afghans to a mere 50%), the total cost of the corruption has risen 40%. And those who find themselves in the position where they must pay a bribe are subjected to higher bribes more often.
While there is good news in that there has been a 10% drop in the incidence of police bribery, this is counterbalanced by the fact that there has been no improvement in the judicial branch. Indeed, while the reporting rate of bribery appears to high by international standards, only one fifth of these reports lead to any investigation.
Since it’s speedy and reliable night courts are the one of the Taliban’s greatest selling points, it is imperative to Afghanistan’s long term stability that the epidemic of corruption be brought to heel. While it would be pie in the sky to think that success ending corruption could be quickly and easily be achieved by any means, the Afghan government and the US as its partner must secure steady and visible progress in reducing the corruption that impacts the day-to-day lives of Afghan citizens. This is perhaps especially important in the sectors that are mandated to combat corruption, such as the police and courts.
Thankfully, the lower levels of the US government have begun to take some steps in this direction. In the last few years, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has quietly begun to tackle the US military’s enormous contribution to the climate of corruption (as well as some of its absurdly wasteful practices), while USAID’s Assistance for Afghanistan’s Anti-Corruption Authority program has helped Afghanistan develop its High Office of Oversight and supported civil watch-dog groups. Clearly, much more must be done, but it is precisely these sorts of quiet efforts that will prove most effective in the long run.
Even if the Afghan government is able to reduce the corruption that encourages support for the Taliban, the insurgency will continue to drag on for years so long as they have a sanctuary in which to rest, recover, and prepare for the next operation. This is even more true if they may continue to rely on a state sponsor for support. Because of this, Pakistan plays a pivotal role in determining the longevity of the Taliban movement.
Thankfully, here too there is some reason for hope. With its increased internal instability, Pakistan has recently changed its strategic goal, limiting their references to “strategic depth” (read proxy government in Afghanistan) and calling instead for “power sharing” between the Afghan government and the Taliban. With its interest in stability along its border, the more Pakistan can be convinced that the Afghan state will not crumble in the wake of the US withdrawal, the less support it will provide to the opposition.
As with governance and security, progress in this regard will likely come in small and barely-noticeable form. It will not come as an announcement of a new policy or realignment on the part of Pakistan, but as changes in the attitudes of Pakistani leadership, declines in public support for the Taliban or in opposition to the US, or incremental reduction of support from the military.
This is What Victory Looks Like
Afghanistan has not been a stunning success by any metric. It was badly bungled, then pushed onto the back burner for years. By the time Americans noticed that it was still going on, the Taliban had regained much of their previous strength and had plenty of opportunity to hone their skills.
Yet it may yet be true that, from our current vantage point, this is what success looks like. Securing Afghanistan will require the long and tiring process of building state legitimacy while wearing down, coopting, and waiting out the insurgency.
“[O]ur victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring. Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”
General John Allen
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research