Kabul Diary

Daniel Korski writes from Afghanistan about his most recent on-the-ground observations

Leaving behind an uncertain Afghanistan

I am now leaving Afghanistan, heading towards the glitzy skyline of Dubai where many Afghan warlords have built holiday homes alongside their narcotecture in Kabul. I finished my trip with a visit to Afghan Defence Minister Wardak and US General Richard P. Formica, who heads something called CSTC-A, the US operation charged with building the Afghan security forces. (I visited President Karzai’s spokesman too, his cousin as well as his de facto campaign manager, but I’ll spare you the spin they served up).

I asked Wardak, who used to be a Mujahedeen and worked with Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most ferocious insurgent commanders today, how the conflict would end. He believes the Afghan army needs to increase dramatically and was very upset President Obama was not more drastic in his speech. But he also made clear that success would come from bringing insurgents over to the government’s side. This would have to be done in a way that could integrate them into society and even the army – something Wardak said he could not yet guarantee.

“So which way is the arrow pointing?”, a Danish colonel asked me before I headed to the airport. It is hard to tell. There has been real progress since 2001. Compared to when I lived in Kabul in 2005, there has also been a palpable conceptual convergence between allies on what needs to happen. There are now only a few disputes about how to fix the police. Everyone agrees that civilian and military policies need to joined-up. General Mckiernan is an impressive and thoughtful commander.

But implementing the new strategies is proving harder, with many allies letting national fixations hamper the effectiveness of their forces. And though everyone talks about Pakistan — and the need for “regional solutions” — nobody seems to believe that the US will really push to cut Pakistan’s intelligence services off at the knees, which will be necessary to contain the Taliban.

The Afghan War will end in a peculiarly Afghan way. It may not be to our liking. It may not lead to the establishment of a formal state-like structure such as good development practice demands. But it will work for Afghans, at least most of them. Our job is therefore to provide flexible support, troops and resources, all applied in a manner appropriate to the local challenge not doctrinal precepts.

If we do this, I still believe that the next generation of ordinary Afghans can be spared the misery that has befallen their parents and grandparents while fulfilling our No 1 security priority i.e. making our lives a lot safer. To succeed will not be easy. But giving up would be a lot harder than continuing to fight on.The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the Taliban has a better co-ordinated political and military strategy than we do

The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the Taliban has a better co-ordinated political and military strategy than we do

Two words that are repeated everywhere you go in Afghanistan are “comprehensive” and “integrated”. The thinking is that the international community must act in a comprehensive and integrated manner, ensuring that military and civilian activity work together. From the NATO commander’s intent down to every visitor’s presentation, these words are repeated ad nauseam. Even President Obama stuck them into his speech outlining his new strategy.

But as with most things, they are easier said than done. Around Kabul where the French patrol, they talk about working with civilians, but the general in charge does not even have a development adviser on his staff. In the north, coordination between the military and civilians amount to information-sharing rather than working towards a jointly agreed goal. Though General McKiernan, the over-all NATO commander, is clear on what he wants his actual influence over the regional command is quite limited.

The biggest problem is that the enemy is far more comprehensive than the international coalition. Counter-insurgency is in large part about spinning – spinning successes, looses and influencing audiences in theatre and abroad. In this, the Taliban excel. To put it in military terms, psychological operations are an integral part of their military strategy, not-as they are with NATO-an after-thought. They strike not necessarily to achieve a decisive effect but to create the impression of one.

Then comes the sequence of military and civilian activities. Interestingly, just like the British government has struggled to get DfiD, the FCO and the military to collaborate so had the Taliban. Their military and political operations were often out of synch. Now, however, they have brought their different activities under a French-style “prefect” in each district, who has control of both military and political activities. Their operations are now joined-up. Ours remain disjointed. For example, the Coalition targets the Taliban’s military wing but have not gone after its political operation.

With Obama’s planned twin surges, one civilian and one military, this may change. It will have to if the Coalition hopes to succeed.

How the Germans can makes themselves useful in Afghanistan

I am in the north of Afghanistan today, visiting the German troops stationed here. Their camp is the most immaculate headquarters I have seen in this dust-covered country. The German office in charge of ISAF’s northern flank, Brigadier Jurg Volmer is focused and knowledgeable. He is keen to impress upon his visitors how much his troops are doing and how their work has made his area of responsibility stable. Militarily, his troops run almost half of all ISAF air operations and guard ISAF’s northern supply route.

But it is hard not to doubt Volmer’s claims. His 5,000 troops cover an area half the size of Germany. Out of these, only about 1,500 soldiers actually leave the headquarters. When they do, they are hampered by many so-called “caveats” – restrictions on their operations imposed by Berlin. As I tried to get back to Kabul the military flight was turned around in mid-air because the crew were not sure they could make the journey back to Mazar-i-Sharif from Kabul that day, a German requirement. It was 3.15 in the afternoon and the flight only takes an hour!

The few civilians stationed in the north-the UN, EU and USAID- work hard and coordinate their activities but freely admitted they did not have an overview of all donor projects or a senior figure who can make sure they all work to a strategic plan.

So what to do? I have long argued that many European governments are not doing enough to back the ISAF mission and repeat this in a new report (which audits all their contributions). But I am equally convinced that moving the Germans (and the Croats, Swedes, Hungarians and Finns) south or east would be a really bad idea; they are ill-equipped for counter-insurgency and would probably get themselves killed in large numbers of become sitting ducks. None of this would be good for NATO or the ISAF mission.

I would recommend two concrete ideas and one process idea. The process first. As Britain has a Helmand Road Map to guide its civil-military work in the south, Regional Command North needs to develop a comprehensive political-military strategy. In thinking through their options, the Germans should consider two options. The first one, suggested by my fellow-traveller and CFR Fellow George Gavrilis, is to turn RC North into border mission. The 1,500 troops do not guarantee security, but could make a real impact on the smuggling operations along the border. Keep a small contingent in Mazar-i-Sharif to operate the airbase, but create several border posts where ISAF can prepare the Afghan National Army to take-over border patrolling from the corrupt Border Police.

The second one is to turn the whole of RC North into one big civilian operation led by a senior diplomat. Some troops could be sent home and others transferred to RC Central to protect Kabul and surrounding provinces, with the funds freed-up from this used on development projects.

Karzai is no longer part of the solution in Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai has been steadily losing international support. It started last year when the Afghan leader scuppered the appointment of Paddy Ashdown to head the UN operation in Afghanistan. Then came a few choice leaks from Richard Holbrooke, criticizing Karzai, while Vice-President Joe Biden is said to have stormed out of a meting with the Afghan president. Visibly shaken, Karzai became more erratic and paranoid.

But the mood in Kabul today is now completely different. In a few weeks the wily Karzai has managed to turn the tables. He has outmanoeuvred the opposition, who had demanded his resignation when his mandate runs out (there is a gap between the end of his term and the elections). Those people thought likely to run against him – like Zal Khalizad, Ashraf Ghani and Ali Jalali – have not come forward yet. (Many of them are preparing a run while simultaneously negotiating with Karzai for a place on his election ticket.)

Karzai has also skilfully exploited the discontent caused by NATO air strikes that have killed civilians. (Remember, though, that the insurgency kills more than 8000 people every year – something the Afghan government rarely condemns with the same passion).

Nobody in the international community wants Karzai to stay on; international officials sigh with despair when asked about the prospect. But fearing an upsurge in violence over the summer and in the run-up to election season, the same officials have been calling for ‘continuity’ and ‘stability’ – words that most Afghan voters have taken to mean that Karzai continues to have American support. To many Afghans this alone is enough to vote for Karzai or to abstain altogether. And with the Obama administration reviewing its Afghan policy, nobody in Washington has taken a different stance.

This is a shame. Hamid Karzai has been a crucial transitional figure. He deserves credit and a place in history. But Karzai is more like Polish resistance leader Lech Walesa than Nelson Mandela. He was crucial for the country’s transition – indeed he was the only leadership candidate acceptable to all the parties at the Bonn conference – but is incapable of governing effectively. He should be given a graceful way out, sworn to a commitment of post-election constitutional change or forced to stand aside while he runs for office.

The three Talibans

Stereotyping the Taliban is easy. The toppled Taliban Emirate was misogynist and repressive. Then, like now, its leadership partnered with Al Qaeda and acquiesced to Osama Bin Laden’s murderous programme. Then, like now, it committed horrific crimes on and off the battlefield, including ethnic massacres and teenage-cide.

Faced with this kind of medieval barbarism, stereotyping comes easy, even naturally. But it also misses things. In the words of the RAND Corporation’s Christine Fair, another one of my travel companions, the ‘militant architecture’ is complex and made up of at least three main groups (and that is not even counting criminals, drug-smugglers and government-affiliated warlords).

First there is the ‘real’ Taliban, led by Mullah Omar and organized by the so-called Quetta Shura, a council of insurgency leaders who meet in Baluchistan and recently also in Karachi. This group operates in the south (e.g. Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan); are said to be supported by the Pakistani security services; and have for a number of years collaborated with drug-smugglers and other criminals. US airstrikes have not attacked the Quetta Shura-except when its members have ventured into Afghanistan-prompting suspicion of a deal between the US and the Pakistani authorities to leave the group alone.

Then there is the so-called Haqqani network, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former Mujahedeen war-lord, and his son Siraj Haqqani. Though they collaborate with the ‘real’ Taliban further west, they are based in Miramshah in North Waziristan and mainly fight in the eastern parts of Afghanistan. Last year General Kyiani, the head of the Pakistani army, was caught saying he thought Haqqani was a ‘strategic asset’ for the Pakistani military. A widely respected former Mujahedeen leader, who even the Afghan defense minster once worked for, Haqqani is thought by many experts to be the real link with Al Qaeda, which may explain why US airstrikes have targeted his group more than others.
Finally, there is a collection of insurgent groups comprised of HIG, Al-Qaida, and LeT — who mainly operate in Kunar and Nuristan — and with other groups.

Though all the groups collaborate with each other (and other actors on the battlefield) they have also fought one another. Appreciating this complexity is not to excuse, even less to glorify the insurgency. But it is important to know that NATO does not face a monolithic enemy, but a more fragmented enemy operating on several fronts. This fragmentation should not be over-estimated, but it will be key to shaping a political strategy to complement the military effort.

You can read Daniel’s report on the need for a European civilian surge in Afghanistan here.

The problems with a larger Afghan security force

They look very impressive, marching around a rain-soaked square while their US-trained Master Sergeant sends a punishing salvo of parade instructions their way. These new recruits in the Afghan army represent Afghanistan’s proudest post-2001 achievement. I spoke to dozens of them from all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, saw their commander and watched several live-fire drills.

Now, as the New York Times reports, President Obama is planning to double the security forces. From a projected troop strength of some 130,000 plan the plan is to create a force of about 400,000 Afghan troops and police officers. But, after today’s visit to the Afghan army, I am clear that such a policy will run into a number of problems.

First it will make it impossible for the Afghans to pay for their own army for at least the next fifty years as its costs will dwarf the national budget. Second, there is simply not the training capacity – facilities, trainers, equipment – needed to double the training output. Even now the US struggles to fill the personnel billets. If the US moves to a regional training system rather than training everyone in Kabul as it does now, it may be more difficult to create multi-ethnic units from the beginning.

Third, and related to this, the army already suffers from a dearth of Pashtuns from the southern parts of the country, which makes is potentially unrepresentative among the very people the insurgency draws its strength from.

Fourth, there are not enough officers to fill the current army. How the US will get double the amount without compromising standard is unclear. The final point is more political. Conrad Schetter, one of Germany’s foremost Afghan experts and one of my travel companions argues that doubling the army will have wider societal effects – like drawing people away from other trades and potentially even increasing violence in the short-term.

None of this means Obama’s strategy is flawed; but it means there are clear problems that have to be addressed and risks mitigated once the headline-grabbing policy has been rolled at next week’s Hague conference.

Dealing with the drugs problem in Afghanistan

It took two hours of briefing by a senior NATO commander in Kabul before the issue of drugs came up. And it only came up when I asked. The US officer immediately began talking about the links between the insurgency and the drugs trade. NATO estimates that between 150 and 400 million US dollars is funnelled through the drug trade annually and, since last year, soldiers can target drug-offenders with proven links to the insurgency.

But, despite this, the NATO alliance is deeply divided about the drugs issue. The British want to tackle it head on with other European allies being more sceptical that military action can alter half of the country’s economy. Now Richard Holbrooke has added his voice to those of the sceptics, saying he thinks US counter-narcotics policy has been a waste of resources. Last year eradication only destroyed 5,000 hectares out of some 190,000 hectares of poppy – at a cost of around $20,000 per hectares.

Hard as it is to admit, there may be no real solution to the drug problem, besides a long-term development effort. Thailand, after all, took 15 years and an economic miracle to tackle its drug problem which now seems to be coming back. Colombia’s counter-narcotics policy may have throttled coca production, but cultivation has simply moved elsewhere, like Mexico.

The best that the new Obama administration can do is to prioritize the provision of security to local farmers, especially on the main roads to markets and between villages. If farmers cannot get their goods to market, there is no chance they will switch to alternative crops.

Development policy should, in turn, improve access for poor and landless farmers to markets, land, water, credit and employment. Given more transit security and the kind of services that traffickers provide opium farmers — credit, transport, seed delivery and crop purchase at the farm-gate — there is a chance that farmers might, in the long term, move away from opium.

Before getting too excited about the links between the insurgency and the drug economy — which do exist — it is worth remembering that the various insurgency groups have successfully funded themselves for years, through smuggling, support from Pakistan and charitable collection, including in Britain

Paving the way for a civilian surge in Afghanistan

After an adventurous journey from the Emirates-which seemed to include our pilot getting lost on the runway at Dubai airport-I have finally landed in Kabul. In Kabul, I attended briefings by General McKiernan, the commander of the almost 70,000 NATO troops now deployed, and his closest staff.

Everyone here seemed to be saying the same thing: that the heterodox insurgency, particularly in the south, cannot be defeated by military means alone. Civilians are necessary. This view fits well with Obama’s reported plans for a civilian surge.

But what should a civilian surge consist of and what should these extra civilians actually be doing? There are already some 18,000 civilians in Kabul. But they are too often restricted in when they can leave their heavily protected compounds.

As most of those deployed are bureaucrats, not subject-matter experts, they struggle to offer their local counterparts useful advice. Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, and the rest of the bureaucratic establishment has short-sightedly opposed bringing in outside experts to bulk up PRT teams.

Everyone is talking about building Afghanistan “from the bottom up”. But the words mean different things to different people. To Hamid Karzai it seems to mean getting him re-elected in the August presidential poll by dispensing more aid in key constituents, to the US Army persuading and arming locals to fight the Taliban and to the Europeans a technical process of bettering local institutions.

So far it has taken six months to produce integrated civil-military plans for six of Afghanistan’s provincial districts. With more than 360 districts in total, at this rate it will take 30 years to cover the whole country. There is not that time to spend. We need a surge in planning to accompany the military and civilian surges.

Can you ever beat insurgents?

Counter-insurgency is a complicated thing. It used to be easy to tell whether you were winning a war. Either the enemy was retreating or you were.

In counter-insurgency, things are more blurred. Some say you are winning if the insurgents take on asymmetric techniques – road-side bombings, assassinations, suicide bombings. Others argue that counter-insurgency has no “victory”, only containment.

Perhaps you win so long as domestic opposition to a war (a normal, perhaps even constant, phenomenon nowadays) does not translate into effective political action i.e. street violence, civil disobedience or just the rout of war-making governments. If people care enough about an issue they will act, as in Iceland and Latvia, where governments have fallen after their economic blunders.

I am thinking about this en route to Kabul, after having been given a full day’s worth of briefings at NATO headquarters about the Afghan mission. Everyone is hopeful that the coming US troop surge will make a difference. But what kind of difference will be possible? When I left Kabul after having lived there in late 2005 there was a feeling among some people that we were reaching a tipping point. It turned out we were. But rather than one which heralded a new period of progress it turned out to be the opposite; a point of rapid decline. I am now going back to see for myself what the situation is and what can be done to improve things. I’ll report back to you on what I find.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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