Belmont Club

The long haul

David Kilcullen writes that Afghanistan is still winnable. But only just. In a George Packer-edited New Yorker email interview Kilcullen summarizes the problem: (hat tip Small Wars Journal)

(1) We have failed to secure the Afghan people. That is, we have failed to deliver them a well-founded feeling of security. Our failing lies as much in providing human security—economic and social wellbeing, law and order, trust in institutions and hope for the future—as in protection from the Taliban, narco-traffickers, and terrorists. In particular, we have spent too much effort chasing and attacking an elusive enemy who has nothing he needs to defend—and so can always run away to fight another day—and too little effort in securing the people where they sleep. (And doing this would not take nearly as many extra troops as some people think, but rather a different focus of operations).

(2) We have failed to deal with the Pakistani sanctuary that forms the political base and operational support system for the Taliban, and which creates a protective cocoon (abetted by the fecklessness or complicity of some elements in Pakistan) around senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

(3) The Afghan government has not delivered legitimate, good governance to Afghans at the local level—with the emphasis on good governance. In some areas, we have left a vacuum that the Taliban has filled, in other areas some of the Afghan government’s own representatives have been seen as inefficient, corrupt, or exploitative.

(4) Neither we nor the Afghans are organized, staffed, or resourced to do these three things (secure the people, deal with the safe haven, and govern legitimately and well at the local level)—partly because of poor coalition management, partly because of the strategic distraction and resource scarcity caused by Iraq, and partly because, to date, we have given only episodic attention to the war.

One of Kilcullen’s most interesting observations is which he believes to be the central front on terrorism. Is it Iraq or Afghanistan? It is neither.

Pakistan is extremely important; indeed, Pakistan (rather than either Afghanistan or Iraq) is the central front of world terrorism. The problem is time frame: it takes six to nine months to plan an attack of the scale of 9/11, so we need a “counter-sanctuary” strategy that delivers over that time frame, to prevent al Qaeda from using its Pakistan safe haven to mount another attack on the West. This means that building an effective nation-state in Pakistan, though an important and noble objective, cannot be our sole solution—nation-building in Pakistan is a twenty to thirty year project, minimum, if indeed it proves possible at all—i.e. nation-building doesn’t deliver in the time frame we need. So we need a short-term counter-sanctuary program, a long-term nation-building program to ultimately resolve the problem, and a medium-term “bridging” strategy (five to ten years)—counterinsurgency, in essence—that gets us from here to there. That middle part is the weakest link right now. …

On what Obama should do:

Well, I don’t have his ear, and I don’t envy the pressure he must be under. But if I did have his ear, I think I would argue for the four major points we discussed above. First, the draw-down in Iraq needs to be conditions-based and needs to recognize how fragile our gains there have been, and our moral obligation to Iraqis who have trusted us. As I said, we don’t want to un-bog ourselves from Iraq only to get bogged in Afghanistan while Iraq turns bad again. Second, our priorities in Afghanistan should be security, governance, and dealing with the Pakistan safe haven—and we may not necessarily need that many more combat troops to do so. Third, the Afghan elections of September 2009 are a key milestone—we can’t just muddle through, and the key problem is political: delivering effective and legitimate governance that meets Afghans’ needs. And finally, most importantly, this is a wartime transition and we can’t afford the normal nine-month hiatus while we put the new Administration in place: the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in the next fighting season, i.e. by the time of the September elections.

The bottom line here is that the War on Terror is far from over. Whether we are, as Churchill once said, not at the beginning of the end, but at least at the end of the beginning ultimately depends on whether there is a consensus in the West that can sustain the long campaign that Kilcullen describes. The limp response from NATO and the desire for quick fixes suggests that while the road to ultimate victory may be known, we may not want to go there. Where we will go on the road of quick fixes is another story.