December 13, 2006
One War We Can Still Win
By ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN
NO one can return from visiting the front in Afghanistan without
realizing there is a very real risk that the United States and
NATO will lose their war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the other
Islamist movements fighting the Afghan government.
Declassified intelligence made available during my recent trip
there showed that major Al Qaeda, Taliban, Haqqani Network and
Hezb-i-Islami sanctuaries exist in Pakistan, and that the areas
they operate in within Afghanistan have increased fourfold over
the last year.
Indeed, a great many unhappy trends have picked up speed lately:
United States intelligence experts in Afghanistan report that
suicide attacks rose from 18 in the first 11 months of 2005 to
116 in the first 11 months of 2006. Direct fire attacks went up
from 1,347 to 3,824 during the same period, improvised explosive
devices from 530 to 1,297 and other attacks from 269 to 479. The
number of attacks on Afghan forces increased from 713 to 2,892,
attacks on coalition forces from 919 to 2,496 and attacks on
Afghan government officials are 2.5 times what they were.
Only the extensive use of American precision air power and
intelligence assets has allowed the United States to win this
year's battles in the east. In the south, Britain has been unable
to prevent a major increase in the Taliban's presence.
The challenges in Afghanistan, however, are very different from
those in Iraq. Popular support for the United States and NATO
teams has been strong and can be rebuilt. The teams have created
core programs for strengthening governance, the economy and the
Afghan military and police forces, and with sufficient resources
the programs can succeed. The present United States aid efforts
are largely sound and well managed, and they can make immediate
and effective use of more money.
The Islamist threat is weak, but it is growing in strength —
political as well as military. The Afghan government will take
years to become effective, reduce corruption to acceptable levels
and replace a narcotics-based economy. As one Afghan deputy
minister put it to me during my trip: "Now we are all corrupt.
Until we change and serve the people, we will fail."
No matter what the outside world does, Afghans, the United States
team and NATO representatives all agree that change will take
time. The present central government is at least two or three
years away from providing the presence and services Afghans
desperately need. The United States' and NATO's focus on
democracy and the political process in Kabul — rather than on the
quality of governance and on services — has left many areas angry
and open to hostile influence. Afghanistan is going to need large
amounts of military and economic aid, much of it managed from the
outside in ways that ensure it actually gets to Afghans,
particularly in the areas where the threat is greatest.
This means the United States needs to make major increases in its
economic aid, as do its NATO allies. These increases need to be
made immediately if new projects and meaningful actions are to
begin in the field by the end of winter, when the Islamists
typically launch new offensives.
At least such programs are cheap by the standards of aid to Iraq.
The projects needed are simple ones that Afghans can largely
carry out themselves. People need roads and water, and to a
lesser degree schools and medical services. They need emergency
aid to meet local needs and win hearts and minds.
The maps of actual and proposed projects make it clear that while
progress is real, it covers only a small part of the country.
Even a short visit to some of the districts in the southeast,
near the border with Pakistan, suggests that most areas have not
seen any progress. Drought adds to the problem, much of the old
irrigation system has collapsed, and roads are little more than
paths. The central government cannot offer hope, and local
officials and the police cannot compete with drug loans and income.
The United States has grossly underfinanced such economic aid
efforts and left far too much of the country without visible aid
activity. State Department plans call for a $2.3 billion program,
but unless at least $1.1 billion comes immediately, aid will lag
far behind need next year.
Additionally, a generous five-year aid plan from both the United
States and its NATO allies is needed for continuity and
effectiveness. The United States is carrying far too much of the
burden, and NATO allies, particularly France, Germany, Italy and
Spain, are falling short: major aid increases are needed from each.
And United States military forces are too small to do the job.
Competing demands in Iraq have led to a military climate where
American troops plan for what they can get, not what they need.
The 10th Mountain Division, which is responsible for eastern
Afghanistan, has asked for one more infantry brigade. This badly
understates need, even if new Polish forces help in the east. The
United States must be able to hold and build as well as win — it
needs at least two more infantry battalions, and increases in
Special Forces. These increases are tiny by comparison with
American forces in Iraq, but they can make all the difference.
The NATO allies must provide stronger and better-equipped forces
that will join the fight and go where they are most needed. The
British fight well but have only 50 to 75 percent of the forces
they need. Canadians, Danes, Estonians, Dutch and Romanians are
in the fight. The Poles lack adequate equipment but are willing
to fight. France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Turkey are not
allowed to fight because of political constraints and rules of
engagement. Only French Special Forces have played any role in
combat and they depart in January. NATO must exercise effective
central command; it cannot win with politically constrained
forces, and it must pressure the stand-aside countries to join
Finally, the United States and NATO have repeated the same
mistakes that were made in Iraq in developing effective Afghan
Army and police forces, rushing unready forces into combat. The
manning of key Afghan army battalions is sometimes below 25
percent and the police units are often unpaid. Corruption and pay
problems are still endemic, equipment and facilities inadequate.
Overall financing has been about 20 percent of the real-world
requirement, and talks with Afghan and NATO officials made it
brutally clear that the Germans wasted years trying to create a
conventional police force rather than the mix of paramilitary and
local police forces Afghanistan really needs.
The good news is that there is a new realism in the United States
and NATO effort. The planning, training and much of the necessary
base has been built up during the last year. There are effective
plans in place, along with the NATO and American staffs to help
put them into effect.
The bad news is the same crippling lack of resources that affect
every part of the United States and NATO efforts also affect the
development of the Afghan Army and police.
It was obvious during a visit to one older Afghan Army battalion
that it had less than a quarter of its authorized manpower, and
only one man in five was expected to re-enlist. At one police
unit, although policemen were supposed to be paid quarterly, they
were sometimes not paid at all, leaving them no choice but to
extort a living. (In one case, the officer in charge of pay
didn't even fill out forms because he had been passed over for
promotion because of his ethnicity.)
The United States team has made an urgent request for $5.9
billion in extra money this fiscal year, which probably
underestimates immediate need and in any event must be followed
by an integrated long-term economic aid plan. There is no time
for the administration and Congress to quibble or play budget
games. And, once again, the NATO countries must make major
increases in aid as well.
In Iraq, the failure of the United States and the allies to
honestly assess problems in the field, be realistic about needs,
create effective long-term aid and force-development plans, and
emphasize governance over services may well have brought defeat.
The United States and its allies cannot afford to lose two wars.
If they do not act now, they will.
Anthony H. Cordesman is a senior fellow at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies.
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