One of the more fun things I get to do as a would-be writer and pseudo-analyst focusing on Afghanistan is guest blog for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Collectively they’re a group of people with a deep, direct knowledge of events in Afghanistan, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for their work. The fact that they let a hack like me have a go at posting with them on occasion is still cause for genuine wonder on my part. This last week I took a look at the recent Center for New American Security report on the state and future of Afghanistan. Spoiler alert: no snark here. This is as close to genuine analysis as I get.
The report breaks its assessment and suggestions down to three focal points: the current security situation, the current political situation and a look at the future of US military involvement in post-2014 Afghanistan. The usual platitudes abound, including the always-troubling assertion that more dead Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are a sign of positive progress. The report also makes some suggestions with regard to a post-2015 “Enduring Force,” and outlines the supposition that the international community needs to take a more direct role in Afghan politics during the 2014 election process. This last bit of suggested US interference in the electoral affairs of a sovereign nation picks up on a co-authored op-ed article by Flournoy and O’Hanlon published on 16 April 2013 in the Wall Street Journal. It is in this section the report moves from banal to troubling, as it advocates for direct intervention in the Afghan democratic process.
More on that last part in a bit but this from their security situation assessment:
Finally, for two to three years after 2014, the United States may need an additional force package of several thousand personnel to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.
Using the phrase “may need” avoids the appearance of committing thousands of troops to post-2014 Afghanistan. The reality is that the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) are a long way from being able to operate independently. It is true that recent air assault missions have been conducted by the Afghans themselves, but always with US support in the form of Apache attack helicopters and other assets. As a skillset, being able to provide close air support (CAS) or close combat attack (CCA)(1) is far more complex than moving troops and supplies. Training the Afghans for those missions alone is going to take years, and aircraft capable of conducting those missions are only a small part of the weapons’ systems available to the ANSF.
Also worth noting is the buildup of Afghan SOF (see my earlier analysis for AAN here). US SOF are likely to be active in the region for years to come, and acting as “advisers” to Afghan SOF allows the execution of a wide range of counter-terror (CT) missions while operating in that advisory capacity. What is of concern here is the accountability for such forces with the drawdown of a large scale international presence in Afghanistan. Whether Afghan SOF will continue to operate under the same strict guidelines imposed by their American trainers or will conduct themselves as they have allegedly done in Wardak province remains to be seen, but this should concern both international observers and SOF mentors alike.
There’s more to be said about the AAF’s rotorwing capability, but in theory it’s going to be key to ANSF success in the future. More murky is the future of SOF in Afghanistan: recent revelations in Wardak indicate that US-supported Afghan SOF have been engaged in some pretty significant human rights’ violations. Whether that affects the US footprint in Afghanistan remains to be seen.
Beyond the security situation, Allen and company have some recommendations for political actions in Afghanistan by the US. Given the authorship, advocating for interference in Afghan sovereignty was pretty much invevitable.
Fourth, the international community should give technical, moral and if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties – provided they have inclusive, multiethnic memberships and platforms and promise to eschew violence.
There is no way to interpret financial support to Afghan political parties other than insurance that election outcomes will best serve US interests in the region. Apart from the fact that Afghan law bans foreign financial support for Afghan political parties, Karzai and others will see any of this as support for groups with strong ties to the old Northern Alliance, which will do nothing to bring stability to the process.
And they’re not done with “money as a weapons system,” not by a long shot.
Funds for local economic activities could be used by Kabul for subsequent leverage as well. This pocketbook approach to enforcing respect for central authority is of course a time-honored Afghan method.
The only time-honored Afghan method for dealing with a central authority is to try to overthrow said authority: that has always been the challenge with a Kabul-centric approach to Afghan government. Still, for those that would seek to rule, including those groups ostensibly forming “federalist” platforms, the seat of power is in Kabul, and as such it is still very much the “brass ring” in Afghan politics. I would also argue that the “pocketbook approach to enforcing respect” is a more polite way of saying “corruption and patronage,” which theoretically is not a phrase one would want to associate with efforts at insurgent reconciliation.
What’s unfortunate about this report is the lack of a clear path to Afghan sovereignty. It spends the first part spinning the same platitudes observers from Afghanistan have come to except from ISAF and sources like CNAS, and then gets lost in the not-so-subtle advocacy for establishing another US puppet in Kabul. If this were just the case in Afghanistan, that would be worrisome. However, this has been US standard practice for so long when dealing with developing governments that this kind of construct comes as a surprise to no one.