CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two insightful articles in the September/October 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs inform discussion about Afghanistan. One is historic, "The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan" by Karl W. Eikenberry; the other current, "Ending the War in Afghanistan" by Stephen Biddle.
Eikenberry focuses on the 2009 troop surge (some 30,000 additional troops) based on what is referred to as the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. The doctrine stresses the need to protect civilian populations, eliminate insurgent leaders and infrastructure, and help establish a legitimate and accountable local government able to deliver essential services, build capable security forces, and improve the economy. The doctrine failed in Afghanistan according to the author.
While Eikenberry discusses each component of the doctrine as undertaken to be implemented in the country, I will review only his commentary on protecting the population, the first objective of the doctrine.
"'Protect the population,'" as the author puts it, "makes for a good bumper sticker, but it raises the question: Protect it from whom and against what?" Certainly from marauding Taliban insurgents, but does it also embrace protection from criminal narcotraffickers, venal local police chiefs, predatory government officials, ethnic violence, tribal warfare, unemployment, and illness. The presence of all of these, against which American forces and personnel struggled daily, militated against securing a contented people and a stable region.
Military personnel were expected to become social workers, civil engineers, school teachers, nurses, boy scouts, etc. Eikenberry claims that "it was sheer hubris to think that American military personnel without the appropriate language skills and with only a superficial understanding of Afghan culture could on six- or 12-month tours, somehow deliver to Afghan villages everything asked of them by the COIN [doctrine]. The typical 21-year old marine is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law; can he really be expected to do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal leader?"
Biddle's Foreign Affairs article addresses a current dilemma facing America in ending its involvement in the Afghan war.
President Obama has argued that battlefield successes since 2009 have enabled the handing over of responsibility for Afghan security to its soldiers and police by the end of 2014 and thus, in the President's view, "'this long war will come to a responsible end.'" May be so for American foot soldiers, but not between the Afghan government and the Taliban, a stalemate at best but, in the words of Biddle, "only as long as the U.S. Congress pays the multibillion-dollar annual bills to keep the Afghan forces fighting. The war will thus become a contest in stamina between Congress and the Taliban."
Betting on a Taliban patience that will endure longer than that of Congress, it is likely that "funding for the Afghan forces will eventually shrink until those forces can no longer hold their ground, and at that point, the country could easily descend into chaos. If it does, the war will be lost and U.S. aims forfeited." (As this is written, it is reported that militants in Pakistan's most populous province, North Waziristan, are training for what they expect will be an ethnic-based civil war in Afghanistan after American forces withdraw in 2014. In the past two years, the number of militants deploying to regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan has tripled.)
Biddle concludes that "only in Washington could $14-$20 billion a year [to sustain the Afghan forces] be considered cheap. If this yielded a stable Afghanistan, it would indeed be a bargain, but if, as is likely without a settlement [between the Afghan government and the Taliban], it produces only a defeat drawn out over several years, it will mean needlessly wasting tens of billions of dollars. In a fiscal environment in which $8 billion a year for the Head Start preschool program or $36 billion a year for Pell Grant scholarships is controversial, it is hard to justify spending another $70-$100 billion in Afghanistan over, say, another half decade of stalemated warfare merely to [create a "decent interval" to] disguise failure or defer its political consequences. ... Getting out now is a better policy than that."
McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee.