Let's Stop Lying to the Afghans

By Brian Till

Gen. David Petraeus, who collapsed while testifying on Capitol Hill just last week, now has another failed war on his hands. The flap that led to his appointment, and the resignation of his predecessor Gen. Stan McChrystal, might be the most fortuitous thing that has happened to President Obama in quite a while.

Before the row, Obama found himself at the precipice of the "stay the course" period. In the absence of any palpable successes in the theater, and with a full year before the troop drawdown is scheduled to begin, he would have soon faced loud calls for reassessment on the surge.

But because of the change in leadership, and because of the American public's supreme confidence in Gen. Petraeus, Obama has probably bought himself another six months. He also got the opportunity to demonstrate his command and resolve, two qualities he has felt a bit lacking of late, while eliminating one of his most significant potential opponents for the 2012 election. Not a bad day at the Oval all tolled.

Petraeus, as he inherits a counterinsurgency operation that seems to be failing outright -- consider the bleeding ulcer of Marjah, which was expected to be a quick, confidence-building success, and the recent congressional report "Warlord, Inc." documenting massive corruption used to protect the U.S. supply chain -- should begin to reconsider the war's current doctrine, even if it's within the confines of the president's objectives.

The success of Petraeus's Iraq surge, many argue, had as much to do with an ethnic onslaught that had run its course and local men deciding to band together to defend their families, homes, and neighbors, as anything that U.S. forces did.

Quietly, and against the wishes of Hamid Karzai and the U.S. civilian leadership in Kabul, the army has begun to build several models of something similar to the "Sons of Iraq."

Because of the fractious, tribal nature of Afghanistan, and because of its history of brutal internal conflict, the national police and army will always face distrust among the population, even if the forces manage to overcome their corruption and incompetence. A more indigenous answer to the security equation is likely required.

The Local Defense Initiatives (LDI's), previously known as Community Defense Initiatives, are the latest in a series of attempts at local, auxiliary security services. They're also the most indigenous and perhaps the most controversial. Previous models have required regimented training and substantial investment; the vision for the LDI's is somewhat more steeped in grassroots and tribalism.

The initial plan was for fighters to supply their own weapons, which would be registered with the federal government, and volunteer for the betterment of their local community. They would be selected by village elders, and would receive support from the community rather than direct pay. Community development grants, such as agricultural projects and revenues for roads or other infrastructure improvements, were intended as the sole reward for taking up the role of local security providers.

Karzai and Ambassador Holbrooke's resistance to the plan centers upon the question of allegiance to the federal government: what's to keep militiamen from turning into warlords, dragging Afghanistan back into years of civil war?

Not a great deal, unfortunately. But it's likely the best option on the table.

At the height of the Sunni awakening, there were at least 100,000 Iraqi militiamen on the U.S. payroll. There, too, was the risk of devolving command and warlordism, though likely to a smaller degree.

Afghanistan is a very different country, and is far more susceptible to spiraling into independent, warring factions, even if police chiefs and provincial governors -- some of them impossibly corrupt -- are included in some order of hierarchy, as the Afghan government would like.

Nonetheless, local security forces represent American's best route to ensure the Taliban does not besiege the entire country, and there are lessons in earlier successes and failures. Forces can remain reliant on Kabul if their ammunition and reward, in the form of community development grants and small, direct pay if necessary, are seen as coming from there. Former Taliban and jihadis, though potent fighters and likely the easiest recruits, often lack the allegiance to local shuras and elders critical to success. It's also critical that the rewards for such work not overshadow the mission itself; if walking around with AK's and armbands simply becomes the best method to assure foreign aid grants, the mission will be lost.   

The question that remains: to what extent can we deftly arm and coalesce the nation's various non-Pashtun factions, and those Pashtuns with a history of resistance to Taliban aggression, to form a coherent block against a second Taliban takeover?

Austin Long has put forth the best review of what the future U.S. force structure ought to look like. With 15,000 troops, we can perform substantial counterterrorism operations to continue the pressure on al Qaeda, while also continuing to train local forces (great read) at a reasonable rate. The plan requires ceding a good deal of the Pashtun south and east to the Taliban, as was basically the case from 2000-2006, while retaining our capacity to strike at those for whom we originally invaded the nation.  

David Petraeus can put us in a much better position to draw down to this force structure. It requires shifting our focus from breaking the Taliban's moment to building the capacity of local security forces and the Afghan National Army. This is, it should be noted, a far more intricate process than one might expect, requiring better vetting of candidates, more astute measures of local allegiances and power structures, and careful calibration of rewards and where they're perceived to come from.  

The Afghans know it, and they've known it for a long time: we will leave Afghanistan. Despite all statements to the contrary, we will leave before the mission is achieved, and we will leave a narco-state in our wake. The American public simply lacks the will, both financially and politically, to carry out the immense nation building required to leave a functioning state behind.

The sooner we stop lying to the Afghans, and ourselves, the sooner we might begin to prepare for what's to come.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/06/lets-stop-lying-to-the-afghans/58634/