(Excerpts from an article which will be published later this month in ‘Atlantic Perspective’, a publication of the Netherlands Atlantic Association. Deleted texts are marked with (…). The full article will be available on-line later this month)
Afghanistan: The Patience Game
By Hans de Vreij
What exactly is the international community doing in Afghanistan? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. President Barack Obama has said that the U.S. goal in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including the Taliban movement. The Dutch government also has a 3-D approach, although there, the D’s stand for something completely different: Defence, Diplomacy and Development, being the core issues of the Dutch counterinsurgency activities in Afghanistan.
For the average Taliban member, the international community is a bunch of infidel crusaders who should be chased out of the country as soon as possible; a corrupt Afghan politician or civil servant may see it as in inexhaustible source of additional, albeit illegal, income. The answers of average rural dwellers in Afghanistan (i.e. the vast majority of the population) will depend on where they live. In quiet areas, they may benefit of international development projects, be those government or privately sponsored. In the volatile eastern and southern provinces, the violence may lead the local population to conclude that the international community is to blame for the civilian casualties, even though, according to NATO figures, some 80% of those are caused by the Taliban or other insurgent groups.
For the sake of clarity, I shall not use any ‘D-words’. Instead, I’ve chosen three ‘C-words’: Capabilities, Confidence, and The Clock. Capabilities, as in troop numbers and civilian assets; Confidence as in the trust Afghans, and the public in troop contributing countries bestow upon the Afghanistan mission; and The Clock that ticks away, leading to impatience as to the timely realization of the goals that have been set. These issues are, of course, interrelated, as will become clear later on.
U.S. and NATO
At his headquarters at the sprawling Kandahar Airfield Base, General Mart de Kruif said that in the South, the problem was not so much the mere number of troops but the additional capabilities needed to make any major operation a success. He mentioned in particular civilian capabilities, both Afghan and international. It is one thing to attack a Taliban-held territory and chase them out, but holding on to that area and establishing proper local governance and effective policing, and making it possible for national and international aid organizations to do their work is an entirely different matter. Yes, additional troops would be welcome in order to be able to enter into areas where the Taliban or others were still in control – and stay there.
Additional ISAF troops do make a difference. (…) To illustrate the troop size issue, let’s take a closer look at Uruzgan province. It comprises six districts. In only three of those, there is a permanent presence of the Dutch-led ISAF troops and a more or less functioning local governance. Within those three districts, ISAF has established ‘ink spots’, jargon for areas which are under the control of ISAF and the Afghan National Security Forces. Not total control, as the Taliban and other insurgents have managed to retain some influence even in areas just the proverbial stone throw away from the provincial capital Tarin Kowt. But enough control to declare the ‘ink spots’ parts of the somewhat grandiosely titled ‘Afghan Development Zone’. The remaining three districts are less densely populated and could to a certain extent be compared to the ‘Wild West’. (…)
The simple conclusion is that NATO in general, and The Netherlands in particular, dispatched too few troops to the province to bring it under control in its entirety. The Dutch Battle Group is 600-men strong, which in practice means that at any given moment, no more than 200 soldiers can operate ‘outside the wire’ at any given moment. That isn’t much, to put it mildly. (…)
Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)
Helping to build an effective Afghan National Army (ANA) and , to a lesser extent, the National Police (ANP) has been a key issue in the ISAF’s strategy. In fact, it has been called ‘the ultimate exit strategy’. If and when the ANA and ANP would be able to stand on their own feet and provide adequate protection for the population, ISAF could leave Afghanistan. But it may take many years before that point is reached. And comparable to NATO’s early strategy in tackling the insurgency, there has been a notable shift in its approach towards training the ANA.
The key issue in Afghanistan is the confidence that the population has in its own authorities (ANSF, local administrators) and in ISAF. They want security first and foremost, and security that lasts. And of course, they want a better life. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth and often, people survive day by day. That poverty also influences their stance. “If they can survive until tomorrow by helping me, they’ll help me”, a Dutch ISAF officer once told me. “If they can survive by helping the Taliban, they’ll help them. That doesn’t make them dangerous extremists. You and I would, under the circumstances, probably do the same”, he added. With the vast majority of the Taliban living in the rural areas themselves, the authorities and ISAF must be able to convince them that security, once established, can be guaranteed in the long run.
Obviously, having individual ISAF troop contributing nations announce they will withdraw the bulk of their troops from Afghanistan, as the Netherlands has said it will do in 2010 and Canada in 2011, doesn’t help to enhance confidence among the population. Nor does the impatience that seems to prevail in opinion polls in ISAF countries.
There are unfulfilled promises from the side of the international community as well. The UN mission UNAMA has so far not really lived up to expectations, both in practical (amount of staff and projects) or political (interaction with the Afghan authorities) terms. Likewise, the efforts of the European Union, in particular in the field of police training, certainly do not match the grandiose statements made in Brussels these past few years. While the activities of the EU and the UN do not get much public attention, they are, nevertheless, crucial in the wider process of nation-building in Afghanistan. According to General Egon Ramms, that process comprises some 70-80 percent of purely civilian activities, as opposed to 20-30 percent military efforts.
(…) As the clock ticks on, the confidence of the Afghans in the international community in general and ISAF in particular is dramatically decreasing, polls suggest. The clock also affects the understanding of, and support for, the ISAF mission in the countries that provide the troops (and cope with the casualties). This in turn affects the stance of Western politicians, who in general do not have a tendency go against public opinion.
In a worst-case scenario, more countries will follow the example of Canada and The Netherlands and withdraw their troops. That would mean ISAF’s job will have to be done in an ever increasing measure by the United States, which, in absolute numbers, is already the single key player. And that development would seriously undermine the credibility of NATO as a trustworthy alliance in which all members carry their share of the burden.
For all involved, be they Afghans, the EU, the UN or NATO, patience may be wearing thin as the reasons for the first Western intervention in Afghanistan, right after the events of 9/11, are becoming a more and more distant memory.