The author is a former U.S. Air Force Captain and former U.S. State Department official.
U.S. President Barak Obama, in response to American’s perceived weakness and failure in Afghanistan, should be doing the reverse of everything his experts on Afghanistan have advised him to do. Three key accurate recommendations are contained in this article.
Published interviews, conducted over the past few months with insurgent leaders and their followers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, reveal a crucial and ominous development. The militants do not fear the U.S. military. The reasons are many, including:
1. The refusal of the Pentagon to follow the Powell doctrine of deploying overwhelming troops and firepower;
2. Permitting the Taliban to operate from safe havens in Pakistan;
3. The pursuit of a fruitless strategy of border interdiction, which places American bases close to the Pakistan border, where they can be routinely shelled and attacked, with no American response;
4. The deploying of troops to empty southern deserts, when the real battle is for control of major populations centers;
5. Taking eight months to “surge” 20,000 troops, which is more an embarrassing trickle, with no shock impact, than a serious surge;
6. The failure of the Americans to field a professional counter-insurgency corps of Dari/Pashto/Urdu speakers deployed for multi-year tours; and
7. The overreliance on drones and other technology as the Americans fear suffering casualties.
The Taliban welcome the fact that the American military and U.S. Embassy personnel have locked themselves in their own fortified prisons and that they avoid contact with the Afghan people. These practices radiate fear and weakness.
The Taliban welcome the presence of abusive foreign mercenaries, who escort and protect the U.N., aid organizations and foreign embassy personnel, as they alienate the population from the Ferengees.
The Taliban welcome the endless stream of botched U.S. Air Force strikes and Special Forces missions, whose civilian casualties that have turned district after district against the Karzai Government.
The Taliban also know from Iraq, that the Americans will not sustain a large military surge force for a long period and that they will eventually go home.
As the United States is neither willing to deploy the forces nor adopt the policies necessary to defeat the Taliban, the focus must shift to a long-term, incremental and sustainable effort to enable the Afghan people to eventually do so on their own.
First: Unsurge Foreign Forces
ISAF, the Pentagon and U.S. State Department (hereinafter “NATO”) deploy bodies to Afghanistan (currently 100,000+). It is quantity and not quality and it is a disastrous tactic. It is more cost-effective and sustainable to have 10,000 military and civilian advisors (all with Dari/Pashto/Urdu language expertise and an affinity for the Afghan people), coupled with five brigades of fully air-mobile combat troops.
All these forces must deploy for three-year tours and actually bond with their Afghan counterparts. Not all military personnel have the patience, temperament and maturity necessary for counter-insurgent operations. Unsuitable personnel must be screened out and kept home.
NATO should follow Vietnam-war era deployment rules, in which personnel rotate in and out of the country, but the units always remain. The result will be continuity and no learning curve. Each unit, down to the platoon level, will always have personnel with extensive expertise in the areas being patrolled and the local officials with whom they interact. NATO must guaranty that these force levels will be maintained for at least 20 years.
NATO forces must concentrate on Southern, Central and Eastern Afghanistan. If additional military forces are needed in Western Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army should partner with Sepah-e Pasdaran units and advisors.
It is estimated to cost up to $1 million to deploy one American to Afghanistan for one year (salary, benefits, support, transport, infrastructure, equipment etc.). Senior U.S. military advisor John Paul Vann told reporter Peter Arnett in a famous interview in 1969 that the United States could withdraw 100,000 troops from Vietnam, with no impact on combat operations, if it began to withdraw the unneeded support troops.
The American way of war is inherently cumbersome, extravagant, expensive and counterproductive. It must be downsized. NATO forces must operate in Afghanistan with a minimal footprint and with low visibility.
Remember that the Akkadian Empire conquered the Sumerians and ruled half of Iraq and Syria in the Third Millennium B.C., even though faced with hostile Gutian, Elamite and Hurrian hill tribes to the East and marauding Amorite desert tribes to the West. While they had local city militias, who provided static security, the Akkadians policed their vast empire with a riverine light-infantry force of just one brigade (5,000 men). It was the world’s first professional standing army. Quality trumps quantity.
Second: Create the Afghanistan Civilian Casualties Control Commission (A4C)
NATO must be committed to a goal of zero Afghan civilian casualties. Even a single casualty is not acceptable. That means treating the Taliban and al-Qaeda as criminals rather than combatants and using deadly force under law enforcement and not military rules. There must be an independent investigative agency appointed, similar to the Electoral Complaints Commission, which will promptly investigate each death or injury to an Afghan civilian by NATO forces, with the results being released to the public with recommendations for disciplinary action or criminal prosecution for violators and compensation for the victims. This step is vital to ending the cycle of violence and revenge that accompanies the unnecessary killing of Afghan civilians.
During the 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong (VC) began to infiltrate into Saigon’s District 8. The solution for the nearby American brigade commander was to attack the District with artillery. Two years of civic action efforts and goodwill were wiped out in a few hours. A hostile pro-VC neighborhood was born.
A similar event occurred in the Spring of 2004 in Fallujah, when a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division fired into a crowd of demonstrators. It was a gift to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which until then had only a minor presence in Fallujah.
This trend has continued endlessly in Afghanistan since 2001. The killing of civilians is not just “regrettable” as NATO continues to state in its press releases. The killings are unacceptable, unnecessary and threaten the future of Afghanistan. Every single life is precious.
Third: Surge Dollars and Not Troops
NATO should adopt a plan to achieve zero unemployment in Pashtun areas by using public works projects to soak up the pool of unemployed so that they cannot be attracted to the Taliban. The costs of such a program would be fairly modest, with potentially huge benefits. In addition to improving Afghanistan’s infrastructure, the plan could “pull the rug out” from under the Talibha, to use an American phrase. An American dollar is sometimes a smarter weapon than an American bullet.