This is a guest post by Dr. Assem Akram, author of two books on modern Afghan History and two works of fiction. He was born in Kabul in 1965, studied in Paris, where he obtained his PhD from the Sorbonne. He now lives in Springfield, Virginia, with his wife and two sons.
To save Afghanistan from the current downward spiral, radical changes and serious rethinking are needed. Here are laid out the four legs of a plan that would decisively change the equation:
1) Fast-pace the build-up of the Afghan Army so that it quickly reaches a minimum of 150,000 - and ideally 250,000 - men.
2) Reorient the mission of all US and international troops to cease all operations inside Afghanistan to exclusively concentrate - under a new UN mandate - on the border with Pakistan and hermetically close it.
3) Dramatically increase pressure - including imposing sanctions - on Pakistan to do its part to halt cross border militant violence.
4) Overhaul the Afghan political process to favor the creation of a new interim governing entity capable of showing independence, effectiveness, integrity; a Government that presents a new public face at the helm of a new strategy and which can restore confidence inside and outside of Afghanistan and radically change the existing equation.
Read his full article below the fold:
It's only now - as we are entering the eighth year of the US-led international intervention in Afghanistan and while the situation is degrading by the day - that the US seems to realize that there is a need to overhaul its strategy in Afghanistan and come up with a new one. While it is commendable that the Bush Administration on its way out, after years of denial, has finally recognized the failure, the remedy offered - i.e. put more US and allied boots on the ground - shows a misunderstanding of the mechanics in that country.
The two presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama, unfortunately share that view. Both, with some nuances and differences and, I am sure, very good intentions, appear to get the right diagnosis - with an advantage to Senator Obama and his vice-presidential pick, Senator Biden, who realized much earlier than Senator McCain that the situation in Afghanistan was seriously degrading - but seem to offer the same inadequate solution - i.e. more troops.
But nothing is irrevocable and it is never too late to help save a situation otherwise bound for an abyssal failure. Here are laid out, in a few words, the four essential legs on which a strategy/plan should be built to achieve success in Afghanistan and save that country from another tragic disaster with far-reaching consequences.
The four legs - or components - I am describing here are interdependent, need to be implemented concurrently and are sine-qua-non conditions for any glimpse of success to be witnessed. Obviously many other hot and pressing issues, such as fighting the booming narco-business, could be included in this list. But I believe that, to be able to tackle many of the major problems plaguing Afghanistan today, one has to first take care of the four vital issues described here.
1. Put the Afghan Army on Steroids
The Afghan Army needs to become visibly larger and flex its muscles. I have said this in the past, and will repeat it here: The Afghan Army needs to be at least a hundred-fifty thousand men strong and ideally, for a country in dire need of security to end three decades of conflict, it should reach a minimal 1% ratio - i.e. reach 250, 000 for an estimated population of 25 million souls. The rapid growth of the Afghan army in numbers as well as in quality will make it a sizable force to be reckoned with. While there are now talks of finally doing just that, let's hope that this is not going to be one of those empty promises followed by loose inaction, as it has been the case thus far.
The Afghan Army does not have to reach the preparedness and the standards of Western elite forces to be efficient. In the Afghan field of operations, it has advantages that no foreign troop has: home-turf and proximity. And no amount of money and sophisticated equipments can buy those.
In addition, members of the security forces need to be better paid and be eligible to receive a 'hot-spot' bonus. This is really one area where spending money can be worth every penny. Potential recruits thinking about their families' financial survival should not be pondering between joining a local warlord's militia - or that of a drug Baron - and the national security forces.
Having said that, yes, money matters a great deal, but it's not all. For people to join the security forces, there has to be the feeling that the Government in place is a legitimate one, and has the best interest of the country as a whole in mind and does not appear to be a corrupt entity with no will of its own when it comes to essential matters. Only a change in leadership and Government in Kabul can reinstate confidence, give goals and create hope. Short of that, there will be no motivation to fight; the survival instinct - and only that - will prevail.
2. Reorient The Mission of All Foreign Troops
The mission of US and other international forces should be completely reoriented to solely focus on the border with Pakistan. All security operations within the Afghan territory should be devolved to the Afghan Army and security forces.
The presence of foreign troops roaming around on the Afghan soil and not responding to any authority other than their own is simply unacceptable and not only violates Afghanistan's Sovereignty, but it antagonizes a large portion of the population, which then is turning a growingly more sympathetic ear to the arguments of groups opposing arms in hand the current power 'arrangement' in Kabul.
When it comes to the presence of foreign soldiers with a blurry mission in a land that is not theirs, there is a clear rule that works along the same principles as the one laid out by Archimedes in physics: The amount of pressure applied by foreign troops causes a local reaction equal or superior to that pressure.
An internationally coordinated action, with a clear new mandate by the United Nations defining the Afghan-Pakistani border as the focus and allowing hot pursuit into Pakistani territory, is the key. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan - also known as the Durand Line - is a sinuous and long, very long one, separating the two countries along a very mountainous and mostly inhospitable territory. This Swiss cheese border is where weapons, explosives, drug money, and militants are crossing to destabilize Governments on either sides and this is where all efforts need to be refocused.
All international forces, be they already under UN mandate as part of the ISAF, or self-imposing and operating independently - such as a good part of the US contingent and some of its European allies - should move under the UN flag and abide by a new mandate to ensure that the frontier line is as hermetic as possible - in an unprecedented way so - for a prolonged amount of time, in an attempt to asphyxiate violent militant groups that thrive in the border zone and to dramatically reduce cross-border violence.
The tightening of the border would hopefully allow the revamped and significantly beefed-up Afghan security forces to visibly improve the security situation inside the country and pave the way for the central Government to make its presence felt beyond Kabul. The credit earned for improving the security situation, in conjunction to being the facilitator for economic and humanitarian stimuli, could make the central Government appear indispensable in the eyes of local populations.
This redefinition of missions and the separation of tasks has the potential to produce significant results. While foreign forces would ensure that the integrity of Afghanistan's southern international border is respected - and thus minimize the threat of cross-border violence, Afghan security forces can concentrate on eliminating two major issues that plague the country and are significant hurdles on the road to normalization and recovery: thriving narco-business and private militias.
3. Dramatically Increase Pressure on Pakistan
Islamabad, by delaying its efforts for years and by only half-heartedly going after Al-Qaeda leaders, has allowed extremist organizations advocating violence to prosper again and diligently work from within its territory towards the destabilization of not only Afghanistan but Pakistan itself.
Pakistan should be the center of US attention and that of its international allies to mount pressure and force cooperation to 1) prevent its territory from being used as safe haven for trans-border armed militant operations; 2) to weaken and contain Taliban-style, Al-Qaeda-inspired groups flourishing on its soil.
Lately, it seems that the policy in Washington has been reconsidered and pressure on Islamabad is mounting to do more. US forces are regularly making incursions into Pakistani territory whether by land or by air. Most famously, bombings of so-called high-value targets by drones have become almost casual occurrences - in the sense that they do not make the headlines in the US anymore. This shift is certainly causing stress on the populations in the border areas as well as undermining furthermore Islamabad's relations with its Northern tribal areas, but perhaps the Pakistani Government needs to go through this phase and overhaul its relationship with the tribal areas to avoid certain disintegration.
Washington, London, Paris, Riyadh, Beijing, and others should all weigh on Islamabad to rein in its military and intelligence apparatus (ISI) by cutting assistance and taking steps towards sanctions - or even actually starting to implement a first salvo of sanctions to give a taste of how serious they are about it. No matter what some may say, the 'carrot-and-stick' approach remains a popular and quite efficient diplomatic tool.
4. Overhaul The Afghan Political Process
The Government in Afghanistan has to change. It is an inefficient, feeble and unfortunately corruption-plagued entity that has not been able to prove itself worthy of the credit and the support of the International community or that of the Afghan people.
Despite Washington's blind support, the Karzai Administration has been unable to perform any of the basic duties that a government - any government - is expected to perform. It is long overdue to sit down and think about what kind of really beneficial and sovereign Government Afghanistan deserves to have - a Government that would be dedicated to the well-being of its citizens and aware of its enormous responsibilities to alleviate the burden of its suffering citizens today, while preparing a better tomorrow for its children.
What is needed is to overhaul the Bonn deal and put everything back on the drawing board in order to come up with a solution that would truly and efficiently work towards digging Afghanistan out of the abyss it has fallen in. In addition to benefiting the Afghan people, any noticeable upward movement would give satisfaction to the 'international community of the concerned ones' because then its members would be able to tell their public opinions that they have met some of their primary goals when they committed themselves seven years ago.
No doubt, democratic ideals and popular participation in the political process are valued around the world, but as for any ideal, they are sought after but never completely attained. Afghanistan is nowhere today in a situation to be able to fully practice a political game determined by free and fair popular elections. While some of the impediments can be open for discussion, the issue of the increasing lack of security is an obvious and incontournable one. The challenge is therefore to be able to set up a new political process that would be as transparent as possible - unlike the 2001 Bonn Agreement that was the result of obscure negotiations and back-alley arm-twisting that not only left a bitter taste to most parties involved - and understandably worse to those who were not invited, but was also appallingly short-sighted in what it established: a coalition of unyielding rivals busy undermining each other's power and influence while lured by the unprecedented flow of foreign money pouring in.
In view of the mistakes of the last seven years, it is clear that we need a new plan, a new government with a new figurehead. We need a clear process to reestablish a credible power in Kabul that would not only act more efficiently in the fields of security enforcement, reconstruction, economic and social developments, but that it is also careful to uphold the principles of Sovereignty for the country.
In turn, a better Government, one that does not appear to be a Washington creation, and one that shows in acts that it cares for its population, will have a stronger appeal in the provinces and wherever armed opposition is on the rise. Such Government will be able to lay ground for a possible dialogue with moderate elements within the armed opposition and be able to instigate fractures between nationalist and extremist elements tied to non-Afghan organizations - be they the remnants of Al-Qaeda or some Pakistani and/or other Arab organizations.
A new process could use the United Nations as facilitator and guarantor. The UN could appoint a triumvirate of impartial elder statesmen - ideally former UN envoys in Afghanistan, such as Lakhdar Brahimi, for example, who would have the advantage of being knowledgeable about the country. The triumvirate would come up with a list of seven independent Afghan personalities tasked with proposing essential changes/reforms - including a new leadership and a new cabinet - that would put Afghanistan back on track and restore confidence inside and out. A UN sponsored conference bringing around the table all countries involved in one way or another in the current process - somewhat similar to the ones that gathered in Berlin, Tokyo or Paris on the subject of economic reconstruction, but this time with the broader theme of implementing urgent changes to save Afghanistan and possibly the region from being siphoned down into a quagmire - would give its seal of approval and pledge to work following redefined guidelines, in a new environment and with a new global strategy. This new phase of comprehensive conflict management, in a concerted effort, would come with a timetable and clear mandates for all major partners - i.e. Afghan Government, US, UN, European countries, Pakistan, etc.
It may sound like we are going back to square one. But the reality is that we have erred so far away from what the outcome of years of conflict and financial/human efforts in Afghanistan could have/should have produced that it is not unreasonable to be willing to go back to the drawing board and start over - only, this time, with the experience and the wisdom acquired from the lessons learned during these past seven years - and demonstrate the firm will to implement urgently needed changes. After all, isn't seven years the age of reason?
Assem Akram was born on September 29, 1965 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He holds a Doctorate degree in History from the Paris Sorbonne University.