So Much for that Brutal Afghan Winter

by Joshua Foust on 1/18/2007 · 8 comments

Reports on the ground are that Taliban attacks have actually increased since September, to nearly triple their summer frequency. I’m pointing this out because someone told me that it was fine to cycle troops from Afghanistan to Iraq because winters are so cold and terrible the fighting dies down. While that may have been the case before, it is clearly not the case now, and partially withdrawing from a war you started because the weather got tough is very… well, French. Or German, depending on the century.

Regardless, it’s the same old story: our troops are getting smacked by border-crossing Taliban, the Pakistanis are deliberately turning their heads, and everyone blames it on Musharraf’s idiotic autonomy agreement with the western provinces. And still, there looms that terrible manpower crisis: NATO can’t be bothered to fulfill its current obligations, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands troops that will be necessary to really tamp down the Taliban.

Why do we even bother, if we’re going to be so half-assed about it?

Troops aren’t the only reason Afghanistan is falling. It is also governance. Since at least 2003, the use of unrestrained foreign aid, which is a significant percentage of the country’s GDP, moving outside the bounds, controls, and supervision of Kabul has been systematically undermining confidence in the national government. This ignores the very real problems of corruption spurred by the drug trade; from a fundamental policy level, the system of governance in Afghanistan denied President Karzai any say in how his country was to be administered. Doing something as simple as channeling all foreign aid through official government channels would go a long way toward establishing Kabul as the actual center of political and government life in Afghanistan.

That’s why I was pleased to see Karzai make a move to establish more control over PRTs, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (like that USAID dam project). Doing so, despite their severe limitations in manpower and resources, will help to stabilize the central government. That being said, they have to have more Afghanis, and a far more visible connection to Kabul; otherwise, they’ll remain as untrustworthy foreigners telling the locals how to run themselves.

Here’s the trick: these PRTs are supposedly going to be tasked with eliminating opium production—a strategy that is doomed to strengthen the Taliban. Fighting poppy, which is another way of strangling the only real way Afghanis have of making any money, will not curtail the influence of the drug runners. A more realistic policy would be partial legitimation, coopting the drug lords and their Taliban allies out of the trade entirely. If a farmer gets the same price for his opium, but one buyer is legal and affords him police/NATO protection, while another buyer is not legal and affords him nothing but their vague promises of security and retributions, it is likely the influence of the drug lords, and their corrupting influence on the outlying provinces, will be deeply curtailed.

Furthermore, why is it taking them until 2007 to realize they need to train their PRTs, and be sensitive to local concerns? Robert Perrito, of the US Institute for Peace, actually wrote in a 2005 report that a learning process resulted in the fairly common sense conclusion that local language and cultural training, and a deep regard for local concerns, is the most effective way to rebuild an area. Why this was a revelation escapes me, though it does point to a darker conclusion: no one had any idea what they were doing, and didn’t think to find out for years.

It’s good that they are recognizing the deep changes that need to be made if the mission is to have any hope of success. But I am worried at the lack of policy flexibility. When entering a country that is so unstable as to have no effective government, there must not only be highly trained cultural experts on hand, but also the capability to rapidly change tactics and funding as the situation on the ground changes. So yes, these changes to reconstruction policy are positive. I just fear they are years too late to have an impact.

P.S. An Afghani troop surge? Perish the thought—where would they come from?

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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 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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Nick January 18, 2007 at 6:38 am

What are those two fine military commanders called? Generals Janvier and Fevrier. I think the point about Winter fighting is that it is best done by small, self-sufficient groups – such as the Russian guerillas on the Eastern Front or Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan war. Whilst Coalition forces are more likely to be ensconsed in major bases, the Taleban and their allies will be scooting around from village to village. But I’m no student of military matters, and can only hazard a guess that an increase in Taleban activity is only to be expected precisely because it is so unexpected. In any case, whilst the Coalition is engaged in clock-watching, the Taleban have all the time in the world.

Joshua Foust January 18, 2007 at 6:58 am

You’re absolutely right that we (i.e. all western countries) are saddled with electoral politics, which tend to prevent multi-year engagements. Previous militarist empires didn’t face such pressures, at least not nearly to the same degree.

As for the Taliban, I’d venture that they’re just as well aware of the domestic political situation as anyone else – they can see discontent brewing, as well as war fatigue. Timing their own surge to coincide with a desperation move in Iraq is just smart planning.

dream.dragonfly January 18, 2007 at 7:41 am

“Since at least 2003, the use of unrestrained foreign aid, which is a significant percentage of the country’s GDP, moving outside the bounds, controls, and supervision of Kabul has been systematically undermining confidence in the national government.” — I don’t quite agree with your assessment here. Regionalism and ethnocentrism is as much a problem as common run of the mill extortion and bribery. The only consistency that Karzai has displayed so far is his inconsistency in dealing with the Taliban: he is a Pushtoon and has a soft spot for the Taliban so away from the glare of the foreign media he spews one set of sentiments and another when foreign journalists swarm around him.

To drive the point further, when it came time to sacrifice a project in order to meet budget constraints, the first road to be axed was the one in Hazarajat. The education ministry in Kabul was resolutely against granting official status to the Bamyan University insisting instead of granting it a community college status. The stated reason: Bamyan University is not world class (a big joke considering the state of other universities in Afghanistan). However, the University status for the institution was granted and the school was funded by the New Zealanders. The Ministry of Education took notice and demanded to be the conduit for the funds. They got their way and now the University languishes with half its original staff and operating out of dilapidated buildings. To insist on centralization when there is no institutional guarantee (not to mention the bureaucratic wherewithal) is to ignore the history and reality of the country. It’s not necessary to fall into this default position of “centralized” government and basically bury the problem for a short period of time (Nigeria, Indonesia, and even Spain).

If there is anything to be learned from the current situation and the attendant analysis is this: if any region in Afghanistan wants to get some reconstruction funding, then the way to go is to blow up buildings and behead teachers and other government employees.

Laurence January 18, 2007 at 9:03 am

Josh, Thank you for your posts on Afghanistan. I keep learning…

Brian January 18, 2007 at 9:48 am

I too enjoy your posts, however can I make one small suggestion? For some of your longer posts could you only show, say, the first paragraph or so on the front page, and have on the bottom a ‘Read More>>>’ link to access the entire post? This is similar to now Nathan does most of his large posts, and it means that the other posts aren’t bumped so far down the page.

Andy January 18, 2007 at 10:43 am

I wonder if, as well as the weather, the increase in the frequency of attacks is also affected by the strategy which the British Army (and possibly others) have been employing over the last six months or so, of plonking a platoon or two down in an advanced position, trying to pacify the immediate surrounding area.

Effectively, all it is doing is inviting almost non-stop, but small scale attacks against a fixed, fortified advance position. If each of these attacks is counted, then the overall count of attacks recorded would also increase dramatically.

Joshua Foust January 18, 2007 at 11:01 am

Brian – I certainly can, and I apologize for it. I always forget the jump.

And Andy, I think that’s very much the case. A flypaper strategy isn’t by default invalid, supposing you have the backup in airpower and ground troops to enable a rapid, almost instantaneous response to flareup. Right now, NATO doesn’t. It doesn’t even have the men to place small units in all the districts, to say nothing of responding to individual attacks.

I also suspect, though I’d need far more insider knowledge to make it more than conjecture, that any of the NATO successes are the result of such bait tactics, rather than actual expeditionary operations meant to fully clear an area then hold it for the PRTs.

Andy January 18, 2007 at 1:07 pm

Certainly the perception in the UK is that the strategy is failing. I haven’t kept up with things in recent weeks, but I think the Army is backing away somewhat from the plan as, although the casualty ratio is massively in favour of UK forces, the overwhelming number of Afghan attacks means that the UK casualty rate is still considered unacceptably high on the home front.

Especially as the the Army are finding it hard to pick up any ‘successes’ that they can report in the press that an un-informed public can easily understand.

(Not denigrating the public as such, just that this is a faraway conflict with, on the whole limited media coverage, which is not well understood by many).

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