The Human Failure of the Afghanistan Mission

by Joshua Foust on 1/8/2007 · 8 comments

A recurring theme in the situation in Afghanistan is the desperate manpower situation: there are so few troops to do the job that European countries like Germany had been criticized (by me, but also policy makers) for not allowing their troops enough leeway in joining combat operations. Indeed, NATO commanders have practically begged member countries to contribute more troops, especially the hard-fighting Canadians.

Now comes the kicker: in the face of a well-documented surge by the Taliban from their Pakistani sanctuaries, our own troop ‘surge’ in Iraq is poised to siphon off critical U.S. military units from the critical battlegrounds in the east for ‘strategic redeployment’ to Iraq. What’s worse, many member countries, who once saw the mission in Afghanistan as a critical and necessary response to the 9/11 attacks, have lost faith: Canada, for example, which has lost almost 45 soldiers to combat (a high percentage, given the size of their deployment), overwhelmingly wants its boys to return home. Many European countries, in various opinion polls, feel the same.

The security situation is simply unacceptable.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation delves into the (dare I say) quagmire in Afghanistan, and though there has been improvement, it’s not terribly hopeful—basically, anything was better than the Taliban, though right now the seeds are being sown for their triumphant return. The whole thing is worth reading.

Of particular interest is the talk of how warlords and the drug trade have seriously, possibly fatally, undermined the central government. (Not to toot my own horn, but this was the subject of a paper I wrote last year.) In a similar vein is how the U.S. is shouldering far more than its share:

Under the ‘lead nation’ approach, each lead nation was supposed to contribute significant financial assistance, coordinate external assistance, and oversee reconstruction efforts in its policy sector. But in practice, the United States provided the bulk of assistance in most sectors. In 2006, for example, it provided seven times the resources to counternarcotics activities provided by the United Kingdom (the lead nation for counternarcotics), nearly 50 times the resources to the police provided by Germany (the lead nation for police reform), and virtually everything for training the Afghan military (for which the United States was responsible).

The ugly manpower crisis rears its head. Now, even the U.S. can’t keep its fairly minimal personnel commitments, to say nothing of the other, more skittish members of NATO. For comparison: NATO mustered up about 40,000 troops to occupy the troubled Kosovo province of Serbia (an area in which troops remain today, barely keeping a lid on the simmering and murderous ethnic tensions). Kosovo has about 2 million people. Afghanistan, a country of about 31 million (according to the CIA), received about 30,000 NATO troops. Though the comparison is a bit unfair, to achieve the same troops per capita as Kosovo would require well over 600,000 troops—far in excess of anything any number of countries would be willing to deploy. Has anyone in history been able to pacify a restless (to put it charitably) country of over 30 million with a mere 30,000 troops? That’s less than one troop per thousand people, sheer foolishness for a military occupation.

The RAND report delves into other issues as well, some barely touched on. After deep dissatisfaction with the Germans’ attempt at training a police force (written off as too slow, too high-level, and underfunded), the Americans brought in DynCorp, a large contractor focused on security and, weirdly, aircraft maintenance, to handle police training. Infamous paramilitary organization Blackwater, whose employees were burned alive and strung up in Fallujah, has taken over counternarcotics training for the DEA. The impact of these private contractors, who until the FY06 Defense budget were immune from prosecution if they committed a crime is unspoken. Before basically now, if a defense contractor got out of line, he could be sent back to the U.S. but face no further consequences—the military has jurisdiction, but is only allowed to try American civilians in a tribunal during a declared war. Thankfully, those rules have been changed to any kind of deployment, but that was this year—what impact have these two well-connected private security firms had?

Finally, though human rights abuses by the government or security forces are thankfully rare (the vast majority by the Taliban and its franchisees targeting mostly women), the security forces are slammed by the RAND report for being ineffective. Suppressing the “no duh” allows one to look at their data in evidence: a major increase in attacks in 2005-6, a precipitous drop in public confidence in the militaries or police units to protect them, the gigantic increase in opium trade over the last two years, and one of the most corrupt justice systems on the planet. For all intents and purposes, if a wealthy drug lord, warlord, or Taliban harms you in some way, you have no recourse, because it is most likely the local police and courts have been either purchased or intimidated into compliance.

The big problem, all along, is manpower. Those unaccountable contractors were purchased in the first place because the military never developed the personnel or expertise to handle a nation-building mission (and has no plans for a working policy framework until 2014). The lingering security problems, which are manifested in insurgent abuses, political and legal corruption, and the opium trade, are the ultimate result of having about 5% the number of troops one would assume are necessary to pacify a war-scarred nation.

In short, we apparently don’t care. By now it should be obvious that Rumsfeld’s RMA daydreaming was in fact ruinous to both missions—far from making foreign policy easier, it instead led to a disastrous overreach that now threatens to sink both. Our actions in Afghanistan have demonstrated that we simply do not have the stomach to handle legitimate strategic threats to the U.S.—that, apart from just brushing aside a weak military, we really don’t care to fix a broken system, even one that will inevitably lead to further attacks on American interests and territory. One country the RAND report singled out for scorn was Pakistan (it even got its own chapter). Our relationship with that country is toxic, and our complicity in allowing them to provide a safe haven for the very same fighters who attack and kill not only our troops but innocent Afghanis is simply criminal. Afghanistan will be lost if the current U.S. leadership does not take drastic action to change policy… and all the death will have been for nothing.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 8 comments }

Ehsan Azari, Sydney-based Afghan journalist January 9, 2007 at 1:21 am

Why Europeans Don’t Kill in Afghanistan?

Copyright © Ehsan Azari

There is a strategic difference between non-Anglo Europeans and the US over war in Afghanistan. The Europeans are wary about the aims of the US in the ongoing fight in this country between the Taliban and NATO, for the Bush administration has virtually failed to address the real cause of terrorism and violence in Afghanistan. Pursuit of military solution and indulgence in protracted guerrilla warfare in this central Asian country produced very dangerous conditions on the ground for both Afghan innocent civilians and Western forces.

Germany stationed its troops in the north of Afghanistan where about 35% of Afghans are living, and French troops play a peace-keeping role in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the Italian, Spanish, and Danish troops are also deployed in the non-Pashtun areas. Despite pressures from the US and NATO, many European countries refrain from killing and bombing civilians.

There can be seen wisdom and humanitarian concerns in European attitude. Firstly, there is a pathetic lack of transparency in US’s relation with Pakistan, which is the major factor in the growing violence and bloodshed in Afghanistan. Pakistani northern-western province which is virtually run by religious extremist groups, sympathizers of Al-Qaida and Taliban, has provided a safe haven to the insurgence and Islamic terrorist groups. Insurgency and terrorist operation of the Taliban is directly being planned, supervised, and run by Pakistani infamous Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan’s Waziristan is awashed with Taliban training camps and Al-Qaida centers. Still, the US and its allies see Pakistan as a valued ally and partner in war against terrorism. No one knows what is behind the US and Pakistan’s love affairs. The Europeans knows this very well, if the last Taliban be killed in Afghanistan, the US cannot win this war, because the Taliban is only a production a perverted ideology that was spawned and nurtured by Pakistani generals and mullahs. All relevant political analysts, journalists, the Afghan government, NATO’s officials, and Think-tank groups have been crying for years that Pakistan is the real source of both the ideology and physical infrastructure of terrorism and the Taliban, but the Bush administration turned blind eyes to this. The US must come clean with its policy. The US continues killing the Taliban and supporting its source, Pakistan, at the same time.

Secondly, foreign military presence with no end to it in sight brought about a condition most favorable for the insurgency, which manipulates Afghani proverbial xenophobia for escalating violence. The souring civilian casualties add to the dilemma. Thirdly, another dangerous trend is the rapid disintegration of political authority and legitimacy of Mr Karzai’s government. The government in Kabul is hold hostage by former communist and Islamic warlords, drug-lords, and a corrupt administration. Mr Karzai is only a cloak to the notorious gangs of the Northern Alliance. Last and fourthly, the US and Mr Karzai failed to initiate division among the Taliban, and isolate the heart of darkness, Mullah Omar and his perverted Islamic values. To be honest and fair, Pakistani generals and mullahs with their luciferous duplicity block the slightest reform among the Taliban. They left no stone unturned to keep the Taliban explosively radicalized. For the retrograde and the darkest core of the Taliban has been seen by Pakistani ISI as a strategic national asset that can be used for their regional claims in future.

In such conditions on the ground everyone see the futility of military solution and double-standard of the US. The Europeans are right to refrain from killing and bombing innocent civilians that will only give rise to the Taliban. The US’s various policy circles need to listen to the Europeans and Afghans, to bring war against terror to its source. Afghan war can only be won in Pakistan. The US must deal with Pakistani generals and mullahs that have been fooling the West into believing that it is its loyal ally. Pakistan has the key to the problem, it hides Taliban leaders in Quetta, Karachi, and Peshawar, to use them once the West washes its hands from Afghanistan and leave this unfortunate country.

The most critical element of a deal to end Afghanistan’s chaos is adoption of a broad and comprehensive strategy, which prioritizes the source of terrorism and perverted ideology that perpetuate it.

Nathan January 9, 2007 at 10:11 am

Regarding our relationship with Pakistan, I don’ t know if you saw this interview with Michael Scheuer in which he sings Pakistan’s praises. Just another reason why I don’t like the guy all that much.

Josh January 9, 2007 at 11:20 am

You just reminded me why I stopped paying attention to him a while ago 🙂 (and also why he was unable to catch bin Laden).

IMC January 11, 2007 at 6:59 am

Ah yes, Registan.net, where if you sing the praises of the wrong country, they stop paying attention to you. And basically blame you for 9/11.

Guys, is this really the kind of smug snippiness that you want this blog to be known for?

Joshua Foust January 11, 2007 at 9:49 am

I think you’re being a bit unfair. For one, both Nathan and I are honest and upfront about our biases, and who we consider non-credible (i.e. we dislike Ted Rall and S. Frederick Starr). Surely there is virtue in being upfront about biases.

But in this case, you’re being doubly unfair: read again that bit where Michael Scheuer says “America has probably never had a better ally than President Musharraf.” For a supposed expert to say such a thing with a straight face, knowing full well how complicit Pakistan has been in the insurgency and how open Musharraf was in his memoir that his decision to cooperate with Bush was done out of a fear of invasion, not any altruism, is simply mouth-dropping. Musharraf is looking out for Musharraf, and no one else — definitely not an immoral thing, but he’s not America’s BFF either. To say so is to deliberately cloud the very real problems in our relationship with Pakistan.

Scheuer also thinks rendition is just super. Despite his vast experience in unsuccessfully hunting OBL, the man is simply not credible. I’m sorry if it came across that as smug; I didn’t mean it to. But it isn’t a conclusion I came to on a whim, and though he hasn’t said so, I’d bet it’s the same for Nathan.

IMC January 11, 2007 at 10:12 am

I’m no apologist for Scheuer, esp when it comes to rendition, but you’re taking that line out of context: he goes on to list off all the things that Pakistan agreed to after 9/11 that Turkey didn’t agree to before the Iraq war. Turkey, who’s in NATO, which supposedly makes up our best collective military ally. Again, not that I’m apologizing for the Iraq war. His wording was perhaps infelicitous, but his broader point is arguably valid. And, his last line in that paragraph points to the increasing self-interest of Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan in the last couple of years.

As for his vast experience “unsuccessfully hunting OBL,” there’s a good number of folks with those kinds of credentials, esp since 2001. Just because they didn’t quite nab the guy, does that disqualify him from being a credible voice?

My comment was only meant to point out that this kind of quick dismissal of a voice you disagree with is a rarity, refreshingly, from you guys and I just hope that continues in the future.

Nathan January 11, 2007 at 10:40 am

I don’t dismiss him at all. In fact, I agree with his point to an extent. I do generally dislike the guy because of his — and to tell the truth, I don’t follow him closely, so I could be wrong — tone in interviews. He just grates on me.

Josh January 11, 2007 at 11:22 am

IMC, I’m a bit confused as to your point. You seemed to scold me for dismissing Scheuer in your first comment, yet seem to praise me for it in your second.

And he is still wrong about Pakistan. Musharraf has been fairly open that his fears of an American invasion informed his choices, many of which (Scheuer is right on this) were against what we see as Pakistan’s interest. Scheuer, of course was forgetting the one trump card: Musharraf’s hold on power. In his autobiography, (and even in his book tour interviews) he explicitly said that he was afraid of American attacks on his country. What Scheuer tries to spin as some kind of altruism (without saying so) is just plain wrong – aside from lacking historical context, seeing that on 9/10/01 Musharraf was actively funding, arming, and supporting the Taliban. It was still just self-interest.

But this isn’t about Musharraf, it is about Scheuer. And I just think it is wrong about Musharraf – so wrong that to pass himself off as a criminal is sort of disingenuous. My comment on his unsuccessful hunt of OBL is in a similar vein: if he was unable to do so for years and years, why do his insights on strategy carry extra weight? I’d rather say they should be discounted, since he has a proven track record of unsuccess.

It is those fundamental misunderstandings that I see as fatal to his credibility. Not, to address Nathan’s point, the arrogance that comes through. I sort of expect that.

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