The coalition’s strategy in Afghanistan is at an impasse. The renewed efforts undertaken since the summer of 2009 have failed to temper the guerrilla war. A few tactical successes are possible, but this war cannot be won. The coalition cannot defeat the Taliban as long as Pakistan continues to offer them sanctuary. And increasing resources to wage the war is not an option. The costs of continuing the war – to use Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s expression in the leaked telegram to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – are “astronomical.”
The entire U.S. strategy revolves around a swift Afghanization of the conflict, yet the coalition’s Afghan partner is weaker than it was a year ago. The state’s presence in the provinces has declined sharply and the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai’s government is contested.
As a result of the massive fraud in the August 2009 presidential elections, the government has no popular legitimacy, and the legislative elections slated for fall 2010 will probably undermine the political system even further because fraud is inevitable. It is unlikely that the Afghan régime will ever be able to assume responsibility for its own security.
As a result, the coalition faces an endless war accompanied by an intolerable loss of life and treasure. A less costly alternative would be to negotiate a broad agreement with the Taliban leadership to form a national unity government, with guarantees against al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan. But even if such negotiations might occur, they hold no guarantee of success.
Yet the cost of their failure is negligible compared with the potential gain: a relatively swift way out of the crisis that preserves the coalition’s essential interests. Time is not on the coalition’s side. The United States should contact Taliban leaders as soon as possible rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate further.
In pursuit of a losing strategy
The Taliban cannot be defeated militarily because the border with Pakistan is and will remain open for the insurgents. The Pakistani army, which refuses to launch an offensive against the Afghan Taliban, has never considered taking action against the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. The February arrest of acting Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is probably a sign that the Pakistani military wants more control over the insurgency to prepare for the negotiation process.
What’s more, the insurgency is now nationwide and cannot be contained by counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in two or three southern provinces. The COIN strategy cannot succeed because of the immense resources it requires. In a marginal, strategically unimportant district such as Marjah, the coalition would have to keep thousands of troops for years to prevent the Taliban’s return. To replicate such strategy, even in one province, would overstretch the U.S. military.
In addition to COIN, military strategists think they can quickly weaken the Taliban through the creation of militias, the co-opting of Taliban groups and targeted assassinations. These policies will not strengthen the Afghan government’s legitimacy or influence; to the contrary, they are destroying the Karzai government’s credibility. The effects of this strategy are irreversible, and with the acceleration of political fragmentation, the coalition is faced with the prospect of a collapse of Afghan institutions.
The Karzai government is unlikely to engage in institutional reform, given that it is increasingly dependent on the networks that ensured its fraudulent re-election. Consequently, the coalition is having more and more trouble influencing Karzai. The weakness of the central political institutions means that the development of the army and the police force – the coalition’s priorities – is occurring in a vacuum. Transferring security responsibilities to our Afghan partner will probably not be possible in the foreseeable future.
Afghans perceive their representative institutions as illegitimate. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of Afghan voters are believed to have supported Karzai during the 2009 presidential elections. All indications point to a high level of cynicism among the people and their rejection of the government; in fact, they massively refrained from voting even in places where security was reasonably good.
The legislative elections scheduled for September 2010 will further erode faith in the political system. The lack of security makes it impossible to hold credible elections in at least half of Afghanistan. And in February 2010, Karzai seized control of the ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission); there is no longer an independent institution to validate the process.
Aside from fraud and corruption, Karzai’s lack of legitimacy is linked to his presumed lack of autonomy vis-à-vis the coalition. Internal U.S. Army studies, and the experiences of numerous journalists and researchers indicate that a majority of the population in combat zones now considers the foreign forces as occupiers. Military operations are polarizing the population against foreign forces and further weakening Karzai’s régime, which appears irreparably unpopular and illegitimate. The coalition is perceived as the main provider of insecurity. Villagers do not want to see the establishment of coalition outposts that can bring only bombings and IEDs.
Furthermore, the coalition is hurt by the dependence of Karzai on his local allies, who generally oppose the coalition’s objectives. The coalition is also undermined when the Afghan government aggressively distances itself from the coalition when civilians are killed by “friendly fire.”
The failed Karzai government
The government in Kabul is now too weak to reassert control over the periphery of the country. As a result, the coalition is increasingly dependent on local strongmen who it helped put in place or with whom it has worked.
The weakening of the Afghan régime is very bad news for the coalition, which is promoting Afghanization in order to reduce its own investment. It is hard to build a military that is independent of the institutional network that constitutes the state. Problems such as ethnic tensions, local and national corruption, and the lack of a clear purpose make it hard to motivate soldiers and officers.
The coalition should recognize that an autonomous Afghan army is a very distant goal. The coalition’s large offensive to “clear” Taliban territory will not work, because the Afghan army and the police are not ready. If the coalition tries to secure Taliban territory on a long-term basis, it will overstretch itself and casualties will increase significantly.
Modest objectives would be more realistic. Most observers recognize the impossibility of a military solution. Nonetheless, different arguments have been put forward to reject negotiations. First, the coalition needs more time. Reinforcements are not yet fully in place, so talk of failure is premature. Second, experts such as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid explain that the Taliban have reached the height of their influence, implying that the coalition would be in a stronger position in the future.
One can counter that the coalition should begin negotiations now while it still has the means to exert military pressure. There is nothing to indicate that the Taliban are going to slow their advance. They are pursuing a strategy that includes expanding their influence in the cities. And nothing indicates that the Karzai régime won’t be even weaker a year from now.
From this perspective, the Afghan surge will have had the same result as all troop increases since 2003: a deterioration of security. Consequently, marginal military gains for the coalition in the next 18 months are the exact equivalent of a strategic defeat. Hence the need for a negotiated settlement.
But negotiations with Taliban leaders can be undertaken only if the Pakistani army agrees to act as a broker. Without Pakistan, there will be no solution in Afghanistan. Official negotiations must also include the Karzai régime and international guarantees preventing the return of radical groups to Afghanistan.
Along with negotiations, it is important to increase areas of cooperation with the insurgence. A ceasefire must therefore be observed during the negotiation process. The reduction in violence could help demobilize the Taliban and distance them from the radical groups currently in Pakistan, such as al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. Likewise, aid must be demilitarized and NGOs must be permitted to negotiate directly with the Taliban in order to work in the regions under their control.
The privatization of security (reliance on militias, deals with individual tribes and private companies) is also dangerous. These groups will be difficult to control in the event of an agreement and are currently weakening Afghan institutions. The United States should immediately stop funding militias, which is counterproductive in the long term, and immediately bring an end to the proliferation of these armed groups.
Nothing guarantees that negotiations – if agreed to by the Taliban – will succeed. Furthermore, the régime that such negotiation will establish will be unstable for months, perhaps even years. But if the negotiations succeed, they will enable the formation of a national unity government in Kabul, a new constitution negotiated during a Loya Jirga, and both internal and international guarantees to prevent the return of al Qaeda.
Given the current impasse in which the coalition finds itself, such an outcome is the best that the United States can hope for.
This essay was adapted from Gilles Dorronsoro’s April 2010 report “Afghanistan: Searching for Political Agreement,” which can be read on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website.