The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘afghanistan

Stop the Childish Afghanistan Debate

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Following the fallout from the Quran burnings in Afghanistan, the voices calling for America to abandon the country are growing louder. Fareed Zakaria thinks it is time for the US “to get real in Afghanistan” and abandon its nation-building hopes:

As America has discovered in countless places over the past five decades, there are problems with this nation-building approach. First, it is extremely difficult to modernize a country in a few years.Second, even if this were possible, the fundamental characteristics of that society – its ethnicity, religion, and national and geopolitical orientation – persist despite modernization.

The current approach, in his view, also “bets on the success of not one but two large nation-building projects” – creating an effective national government in Kabul and economy in Afghanistan loved by the Afghans, and to alter Pakistan’s basic character.

Zakaria is using a strawman to prove his argument, which I find quite silly and sad. Anyone watching the news, as I assume Zakaria does, would realize that the Obama administration’s modest goal has not been ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan, but ensuring an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its teritory with little international assistance before the US withdraws. In other words, as I’ve put it before, preventing national collapse rather than promoting nation-building.You can’t nation-build with the paltry number of troops the US has in Afghanistan now, and the administration knows this. Obama himself was reluctant to even give his generals the troop numbers they wanted last year to secure Afghanistan, so I doubt he harbors any illusions about ‘nation-building’, especially now with around 70 percent of Americans opposed to the war.

Instead of quoting administration officials or policy documents, Zakaria quotes a 2010 speech by Newt Gingrich to make a point about what the US goal in Afghanistan is before challenging it. Gingrich goes on about how “flooding the country with highays” and “guaranteeing every Afghan has a cellphone” is the way to succeed. Never mind that Zakaria is quoting the same guy who called Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings “embarrassing” to represent US policy. I’d challenge Zakaria to find just one single recent quote by an administration official along those ‘nation-building’ lines. Obama and his advisers have been saying consistently that they are charting a ‘responsible withdrawal’ in Afghanistan, and that while troops withdrawals will be “conditions-based”, the main objective is to build Afghan capacity to provide for their own security just like in Iraq. Here’s Obama himself a few days ago:

War is a tough business, and never goes in a perfectly good path. But because of the stick-to-it-ness of our teams, I feel confident that we can stay on a path that, by the end of 2014, our troops will be out and will not be in a combat role, and Afghans will have capacity, just as Iraqis, to secure their own country.

That doesn’t sound like nation-building to me. So let’s get away from this childishness and have a serious debate as to what the US role should be, rather than irresponsibly misrepresenting what it is right now.

A more serious argument would be that the Afghan outrage at the Koran-burning means hearts and minds cannot be won, which will doom any US counterinsurgency effort.

But as Michael Gerson over at the Washington Post has noted, the fallout from the Koran burnings may be overstated. He quotes Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution who, with his repeated trips to Afghanistan, is hardly an armchair commentator:

The current crisis, says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, is “far more than a blip, but less than a catastrophe.” According to O’Hanlon, the United States is consistently more popular in Afghanistan than elsewhere in the Islamic world. Betrayal by Afghan soldiers and officials is disturbing and damaging but not generalized or dramatically growing. Many Afghans fear a hurried U.S. departure far more than they resent America’s presence. And Karzai’s reaction to the Koran incident has been measured, particularly when compared with past tantrums.

Gerson goes on about the modest but often overlooked successes of Obama’s Afghan strategy:

Obama’s Afghan strategy — including a large troop surge and expanded training and mentoring of Afghan forces — is more successful than some credit. In the south — the Taliban homeland — insurgents have been deprived of sanctuaries and weapons caches. Violence in that region was down by a third in 2011, compared with the previous year. About 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are deployed across the country. More than half of U.S. military forces engage in joint operations with their Afghan counterparts. While conditions in Afghanistan’s north and west have deteriorated the past few years — complicating the work of relief organizations — the overall levels of violence are not severe. The east, in contrast, has serious and growing challenges. Gains in Afghanistan are not as dramatic as those in Iraq circa 2008. But they provide a reasonable hope that security responsibilities can be gradually shifted to Afghan forces by 2014, with American troops playing a supportive (but still substantial) role.

To all this must be added the cost of failure in Afghanistan. As I wrote almost three years ago:

The United States must not forget that the seeds of 9/11 were planted when it decided to disengage from Afghanistan instead of rebuilding it after the US-trained Afghan mujahideen defeated the USSR. Washington’s failure to construct a centrist government transformed Afghanistan into a cradle of Taliban fundamentalism in the mid 1990s and a sanctuary for Al Qaeda thereafter. Neglecting this war-ravaged and battered country once again would not only display an ignorance of history, but an utter disregard for long-term national security.

Of course, there are significant obstacles to achieving the modest goal the administration has set as well. There’s the corrupt and unpopular Karzai government, the less than helpful Pakistan, and the grim structural realities including rugged terrain and a low literacy rate. Obama did not help things when he gave his commanders less troops than he wanted.

But let’s have an honest debate about the pros and cons of the war, instead of listening to those building strawmen.


What Obama’s Troop Cuts Mean for Afghanistan

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Last week, US President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops this year from Afghanistan, and 23,000 more by the end of summer in 2012. While the speedy pullout is not as catastrophic as doomsayers suggest and the overall strategy remains the same, it nonetheless makes a challenging task even more difficult.

To some degree, Mr. Obama’s timetable is hardly surprising. Since he first took office, he has wavered back and forth between doing what the realities on the ground demand and what America can afford. And, as with the limited surge into Afghanistan he authorized last year, he has once again ended up somewhere in between where popular sentiment lies and what his generals advocated. The fact that a majority of Americans oppose the US involvement there (which amounts to over $100 billion a year) amid spiralling debt and high unemployment at home so close to his re-election obviously featured prominently in his mind, and understandably so.

But, as others have pointed out, there is also growing evidence that the US military strategy in Afghanistan is working to a certain extent, and that its modest goal – an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its territory with little international assistance – is still achievable. The strategy from 2011-2014, roughly speaking, centers around first consolidating gains in the south in 2011, then increasing the turnover of responsibility to Afghan security forces in that region and boosting efforts in the east in 2012, and, finally, once the insurgency weakens substantially in 2013 and 2014, accelerating troop withdrawals. Of course, the strategy will be pursued alongside other dimensions such as economic development and political reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

It is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, and many are quick to point out the negatives, such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s inept and corrupt regime and America’s increasingly fraught relationship with Pakistan. But the military strategy in the south has shown good results – in terms of security, political development, education and the involvement of Afghan security forces. The logic of counterinsurgency: that ensuring the safety of the population first can then lead to civilian and political gains later, has largely held true. If these gains can be solidified and the ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy is replicated in the east, that could at least put Afghan forces in control of a significant parts of its territory and thwart a potential Taliban takeover.  

While there are no guarantees that this strategy will work over the next few years, the goal is extremely modest and the implementation has proven effective thus far. Doing it right will no doubt mean more blood and treasure. But that needs to be weighed against the cost of defeat – which could involve Taliban takeover of large parts of Afghanistan and the re-emergence of a sanctuary to either attack America at home or undermine its interests abroad in a region rife with rivalry, extremism, and nuclear weapons. To be clear, no one expects Washington to occupy every country where terrorists roam; the objective is to help shape an environment in Afghanistan where the security forces are able to independently avert the return of a brutal group that endangers US interests. In other words, not nation-building, but preventing national collapse.  

Mr. Obama’s current withdrawal plan makes accomplishing this task, which had a reasonable chance of success, significantly more difficult both in terms of numbers and timing. In terms of numbers, as Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution has pointed out, it will require taking at least one of two key risks: either reducing US and NATO presence in the south and making Afghan forces do more than they are capable of, which could lead to more Taliban counterattacks; or reducing the troop build-up in the east, which would provide the insurgents with sanctuaries from which to launch future attacks. Those risks, however, could be amplified further if some coalition partners follow suit and draw down their forces as well.

The timing of the withdrawal is also important: if the drawdown must occur by the end of summer 2012, a third of American troops will not be able to stay through the critical “fighting season” of that year, in contrast to the plan favoured by Mr. Obama’s military commanders. Withdrawals during this time of the year might help Mr. Obama win an election, but could undercut US chances of averting defeat in Afghanistan. Additionally, if he adheres to his troop drawdown plan with little regard for conditions on the ground, that could adversely affect his chances in other realms – such as political reconciliation with the Taliban. Insurgents are less likely to negotiate when they feel they have the upper hand, or if they perceive that America’s grip is weakening significantly.

Yet, all is not lost. Mr. Obama still has control over which type of forces he can choose to withdraw, and he could try to push the troop withdrawal from the end of summer 2012 to the end of the year, so that most US troops will still be there during the fighting season. But all that assumes he will let ground realities take precedence over political calculations during an election year. Given what we have seen so far, that might not be the best bet.

About Those Trillion-Dollar Afghan Minerals

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James Risen of the New York Times writes:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government official.


Others have noted that the timing of the article is rather suspect. It makes it seem like Washington just happened upon these minerals, when in fact geologists have known about the country’s mineral wealth for decades, the U.S. Geological Survey had already made this trillion dollar estimate in 2007, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai himself has cited the figure previously. So why all the brouhaha now? As Bonita Chamberlin, a geologist who spent 25 years working in Afghanistan who has co-written a book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan”, put it:

I am quite surprised that the military is announcing this as some ‘new’ and ’surprising” discovery…this is NOT new.

Some speculate this is because it has been a rough couple of weeks for the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy (see, for instance, here, here, and here). Military operations in southern Afghanistan are progressing slower than anticipated, Afghan security forces remain poorly trained, and president Hamid Karzai seems to have lost faith in the U.S. strategy. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), according to a recent report, continues to “provide sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency”.

That does seem quite ‘coincidental’, though the Pentagon has subsequently insisted that more detailed field work has been done since the 2007 data to warrant the release of this new information. Besides, even if the timing is somewhat suspect, is this not a significant development nonetheless?

But even if we forget the speculative, there are substantive reasons to doubt the potential of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to be the ‘game-changer’ the article suggests it might. Formidable security and logistical challenges exist in exploiting these minerals (see here and here). Most of the country’s resource-rich provinces are also its least secure, and there is the key question of how to move tons of minerals from the landlocked nation into major ocean ports.

Mining experts also say developing the mines itself will take ten or more years and billions of dollars, assuming that a country already has a stable government and basic infrastructure (a big assumption in Afghanistan, given the shape of the country now).  Afghanistan’s ministry of mines is also corrupt and incompetent — the last minister was accused of accepting bribes from members of the Karzai family and a Chinese mining firm.

Stan Coats, former Principal Geologist at the British Geographical Society who carried out exploration work in Afghanistan for four years, says:

Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit…Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked.

Of course, should these huge obstacles be overcome, rosier scenarios of Afghanistan’s development could well materialize. As Michael O’Hanlon writes:

First, it [the mineral wealth] could provide a long-term funding source that could gradually replace foreign aid. It could pay for Afghanistan’s army and police force, schools, health clinics and infrastructure, like the irrigation systems and roads needed by farmers. Lack of such prospective funding is partly why Afghanistan’s government has not been able to build adequate security forces or infrastructure. Second, with the money from natural wealth, Kabul could increase salaries of key ministers and other government employees. This would, in turn, deprive these officials of the excuse to take bribes to compensate for unacceptably low paychecks. Combined with improved means of ferreting out corrupt officials — which has already led to arrest or indictment of as many as 20 officials this year — the new funding source could help address corruption over the long term.

I hope Mr. O’Hanlon is right. But it is important to inject some perspective into this trillion-dollar statistic so we can all get a clear view of what is and is not possible in Afghanistan, regardless of one’s view about the U.S. presence there.



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