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A New Strategy for Afghanistan

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.

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Pat Patterson on :

This actually has some merit though I would love to be there to hear both sides arguing over a reverse hot pursuit policy. Let's see trying to come up with a ROE for ISAF troops stationed and supplied in Afghanistan operating in forward positions, out of the country can't be much more forward than anything else, and then not being allowed to chase back into Afghanistan enemy forces chased out of Pakistan. Plus what happens if the Taliban stage a Tan Son Nhut type mortor attack against Kandahar with the connivance of some elements of the ANA?

John in Michigan, USA on :

"The Surge" in Iraq is now the global gold standard for establishing security, increasing the legitimacy of sovereign governments, and achieving tentative but significant political progress to boot, all goals that Dr. Akram supports. And again: the surge was only incidentally an increase in foreign troop strength, it had mostly to do with a wholesale change in doctrine and tactics. If Dr. Akram thinks the surge failed or is irrelevant, he should explain why, and contrast it with his approach. If he thinks it succeeded in whole or in part, he should discuss how to incorporate the lessons learned from the surge into his plan. The failure of Dr. Akram to even mention the surge, make it hard to take his ideas seriously at all. Discussion is further complicated by his proposal to hermetically seal the border with Pakistan, while failing to even mention the porous border with Iran. In the history of the Hindu Kush, has any force ever managed to seal the area without the cooperation of the people that live there? A hermetic seal hypothetically would stop raiding parties and smugglers, but would it not also stop wedding parties, pilgrims, and trade? Isn't Afghanistan's economy, such as it is, dependent on continued access to Pakistan and (to a lesser extent) Iran? If the Pakistani border is sealed, won't all the raiders and smugglers find a way to access the world via Iran?

pen Name on :

Dr. Akram's ideas, unfortunately are not practical. Andwhy in God's name should we go back to teh drawing board? The problem is not with the framework of the Afghan State, it is with implementing it and making it last. The borders of Afghanistan cannot be sealed by reasons of geography, topography, and population distribution as well as lack of troops for such an undertaking. Afghanistan's problem is not with Iran, it is with Pakistan. And by all means, let the US & EU soldiers and seal the Afghan-Iranian border hermetically. We in Iran welcome it since over the last 30 years we have lost approximately 3200 anti-narcotics agents in that part of the world. In fact, US & EU have significantly hurt Afghanistan by trying to exclude Iran - foolish prejudice. It has taken Afghanistan many years to get to this point and will take many more decades to get out of it. But US & EU do not have the power to do so. Only an alliance of regional and extra-regional states can accomplish this.

Zyme on :

It is hard to believe that a simple alliance of regional states could do the job. I am no expert at the region's traditional animosities, but surely each nation pursues interests that are conflicting with its neighbours? In such a case an alliance devoted to the stability of Afghanistan would be worthless, as each member would have a different idea of what Afghanistan should look like and who should govern it. What extra-regional powers would you want to include? I am sure that each neighboring country of Afghanistan will have different ideas on that as well, right? And who would your contact in Afghanistan be? The current president? The regional warlords?

pen Name on :

The Bonn process had to deal with a much more difficult tactical situation than obtains now. I have in mind a similar process like Bonn. The regional states that count are India, Iran, China and Pakistan. The extra-regional states are US, India, and possibly France, US, and UK.

Zyme on :

You made me get an idea though - there might be a way to ensure stability in Afghanistan by its neighbours: If Afghanistan was declared a failed state and a conference was held - in which the territory was divided among its neighbours - these neighbours would have a good reason to care for stability in their new provinces.

pen Name on :

No one in Iran is interested in taking over parts or all of Afghanistan. Iranians do not want to disturb the ethnic, religious, and social balance of their country. Moreover, they do not want to share their oil income since Afghanistan will be, for decades, just like East Germany, a sink hole of money. May be Pakistan will be intereested but even that I am not sure. But I heard today that US is negogiating with Taliban.

John in Michigan, USA on :

Pen, In your opinion, is there much cultural or religious exchange, or legitimate trade, occurring between Iran and Afghanistan? Is there a potential for that?

Dr. Assem Akram on :

Hello everyone – I appreciate the comments made by the members/guests of the Atlantic Review site and I’d like to thank all of you for your interest. Here are a few comments/elements of response that I’d like to submit to your attention. I hope you’ll forgive if I am being either too brief or too long. So much to say and so little time! Afghanistan is not only a graveyard for empires, but it also is one for political/ideological dogmas: Nationalism, Communism, ‘Muslim-Brotherhoodism’, and Talebanism tinted with Al-Qaeda style Wahabism - only to mention the very recent history - have come and gone. Its latest victim, I am afraid, is the aberration that is the Neo-Conservative surreal ideology as applied in Afghanistan, whereby in an attempt to marry ‘The War on Terrorism” to “Nation Building,” everyone was gently asked to ignore a real and very violent conflict, with thousands of casualties, and instead swallow the spin put out by the Bush Administration to pretend that all is fine – “It’s a young democracy; people are voting; women are going to work and girls to school, etc.” But all that was a façade hiding some very alarming realities: the spreading of war, the booming narco-business, the rise of private militias, the highest rates of corruption ever, a failed Government and, last but not least, the rise of insecurity related to the growing influence of armed opposition groups – mainly former Talibans – over larger portions of the Afghan territory. I understand that the Bush Administration could not acknowledge two failures at once. Afghanistan was the “success story” to sell as opposed to the war in Iraq. But times have changed and thankfully now there seems to be a willingness in Washington to reconsider the approach, even though, as I mentioned in my article, the solution offered – sending more troops to Afghanistan - is inadequate. After so many years of denial, and faced with some daunting challenges, it is only time to come up with a new strategy and a very pragmatic approach. Pragmatism means that one has to be realistic in its approach and refuse to be driven by ideology, while having serious - and not unrealistic at all - expectations for the benefit of everyone involved: It is normal for the Afghan people to expect to be allowed to enjoy peace at last and leave a more “normal” life. It is normal for Afghanistan – as a State, whose existence transcends its Government – to expect that its Sovereignty and territorial integrity be respected. It is normal for the Afghan people to expect a serious amelioration in their subsistence and be able to live in a more secure environment after seven years of international intervention and financial assistance. It is normal for the International Community to expect the Afghan Government to be responsible, efficient, pro-active and accountable for the international assistance it receives. It is normal for members of the International Community involved in Afghanistan to see Pakistan sincerely cooperate when it comes to dislodging/dismantling Al-Qaeda affiliated organizations on its soil. It is normal for the soldiers from countries that have contingents in Afghanistan that they be given a clear mission and should not be asked to act as policemen, pseudo-aid workers, highway patrolmen, etc. It is normal, after seven years, to expect that the Afghan Army be more than a consistently under-performing dwarf. Finally, it is normal to expect, after a long – too long - period of probation and much goodwill capital and patience exhausted, that those – whether in Kabul or Washington - whose policies and strategies have failed should acknowledge their failures and accept the fact that there is a desperate need to return to the drawing board and come up with new solutions. And as for the solutions, if I may, I send you back to my proposal. Thank you! Assem Akram, PhD.

John in Michigan, USA on :

Dr. Akram, Thank you again for your contributions, and forgive me if my comments remain fairly direct and blunt, sometimes it is the only way. Pragmatism must begin by acknowledging both the Bush failures (and there are many) but also the few Bush successes, of which the surge was one. In fact, the surge was the American attempt to do precisely what you correctly demand: acknowledge failures and come up with a new approach. Of course, the surge is not the complete solution. Still, it is impossible not to acknowledge that it has resulted in major movement in the right direction, movement that was thought to be impossible a few short years ago. Since we can't seem to agree that the surge even existed, or whether it was good or bad for Iraq, or whether it might be good or bad for Afghanistan, it is very hard to evaluate the practical points of your plan. Happily, I think we've found common ground of a different sort: it is vitally important to discuss what is the desired end-state for Afghanistan, or in your words, what is "normal". And which regard to what is, or should be, normal, it looks like we agree.

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