Looking to the Future: Afghanistan

Afghanistan: the ‘graveyard of empires’. A geopolitically strategic nation that the world ignored for the best part of two decades until 9/11 suddenly brought it back into focus. Since then, there has been a large foreign – both military and civilian – presence. Not for much longer; the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (operating in Afghanistan as ‘NATO ISAF’) is scheduled to withdraw in 2014. What consequences will follow for this notoriously unstable and violent nation? NATO ISAF is poorly coordinated, unsuitable for asymmetric warfare and has delivered – at best – mixed outcomes; their withdrawal may not herald the return of the Taliban or widespread massacres as some predict, withdrawal may even bring positive results – if the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (‘ANDS’) finally receives the weight it deserves.

Afghanistan in a nutshell

Afghanistan has had a long history of invasions and the inevitable retreats of foreign forces; the country’s inhospitable geography and complex tribal connections threaten to overwhelm even the most advanced foreign presence. The country’s population is estimated at 30 million, 42.3% of who are under 14 years. The large Pashtun population located in the South and East of the country are primarily responsible for the insurgency. The eastern border with Pakistan is porous and largely lawless; the remainder of the country is mountainous, making troop dispersal a difficult task. Within two centuries, Afghanistan expelled both British and United Socialist Soviet Republic (‘Soviet’) forces; following a brutal civil war, the Mujahadeen controlled Kabul; the Taliban’s promise to remove them aided their ascension to power in 1994. Support and the safe haven for al-Qaeda led the United States of America (‘USA’) to invade in 2001 and NATO ISAF to become involved in 2003 following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on September 9, 2011. Their presence has been characterised by deteriorating security, increasing military presence and sustained civilian casualties.

NATO’s operational goals

NATO ISAF has two goals – long-term and short-term – yet their ability to meet either is questionable; while Provincial Reconstruction Teams (‘PRT’) and Counter-Narcotics (‘CN’) programs hold the promise of a more stable Afghanistan, the structural and inherent deficiencies in ISAF result in an intervention which is largely impotent. ISAF aims in the long-term to create Afghan capacity and in the short-term protect the local population from insurgent coercion and intimidation. Yet the Iranian foreign minister believes that

presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan during the past 10 years has yielded further deterioration of security, growth and entrenchment of terrorist activities, a surge in narcotic drug production and trafficking, increase in organized crime, massacre of civilians and destruction of cities and villages.[1]

Despite this sobering assessment of Afghanistan’s political and security situation, the international presence has yielded some positive results: areas of Kandahar and Helmand provinces – previously ungovernable – are now under central control, and PRTs and CN programs are vital elements to stability in the region.

PRTs and CN

Afghanistan produces approximately 93% of the world’s opium and is the largest exporter of heroin. Drugs are a pervasive and enmeshed aspect of economic life and stability, particularly in the fertile southern regions. However, as the narcotics trade funds approximately 40% of the Taliban’s annual revenue and undercuts confidence in the central government by inciting corruption, it is vital to reduce or eradicate completely. Previous eradication programs indiscriminately targeted farmers, which ultimately resulted in widespread bribery whereby only poor farmers who couldn’t afford to pay off officials had their crops destroyed. Under the Obama administration, this process has been scaled back in order to focus only on those with Taliban links or who produce large quantities of illegal substances. Following this approach, the Taliban’s operational capacity in the south of the country has been significantly hampered. Issues remain, yet the value of these programs is clear.

However, the most effective state-building tool in Afghanistan is PRTs, which were conceived in 2002 to spread the ‘ISAF effect’ without expanding ISAF itself. The teams are civilian-military units of typically 80 people designed to extend the central government’s authority from Kabul, provide security and partake in the development projects of various actors beneficial to the local economy. The 26 Teams currently in operation are all led by ISAF nations. When these nations withdraw, other actors must take their place lest the notoriously corrupt Afghan ministries  – or worse, no entity – fill the void.

NATO’s failures

Despite these positive initiatives, NATO ISAF suffers from inherent structural flaws – to the extent that its presence in the country has yielded minimal positive results. First, the majority of NATO troops operate under caveats. There are 50 to 80 known restrictions on NATO commanders and untold more informal ones. Caveats create less flexibility, increase the risk to troops and make it difficult for ISAF to operate consistently across regions. For example, German units are subject to both operational and geographical caveats. The former restricts engagement to acts of self-defence, and the latter prevents units from leaving the RC-N area; this is particularly damaging as German OMLT embedded personnel are unable to follow their Afghan Kandaks in all situations or reinforce allies in other parts of the country. While there has been some progress lately in persuading ISAF troop-contributing nations to reduce their caveats, the problem continues to be endemic.

Second, funding and resource allocation to ISAF remains woefully inadequate – severely limiting its ability to make a difference on the ground. There is a significant gap between what NATO members commit and reality; as of 2010 only 23% of committed trainers for the ANSF were in country. This is only compounded by the recent financial hardship of European Union (‘EU’) members. Furthermore, an effective COIN strategy capable of resolving conflict in Afghanistan requires approximately 20 to 25 counter insurgents for every 1000 heads of population; to reach this ratio, ISAF forces would need to number between 568,000 and 710,000. Current military forces number 490,000. The flow-on effect is that ISAF forces cannot be spread throughout Afghanistan; when Operation Moshtarak occurred in Kandahar; approximately 800 troops were transferred from Zabul province, leaving 1000 ISAF forces to hold a province with roughly 300,000 residents.

Third, ISAF is not suited to warfare or reconstruction in Afghanistan. This is compounded by inadequate knowledge of local affairs in country; military forces deploy on tours as units, as a result there is a constant influx and efflux of forces, thereby preventing any true aggregation of knowledge of the local situation. Out of 350 UK embassy staff in Afghanistan, as of 2009 only three people could speak Dari, and no one could speak Pashtu. Furthermore, the Afghan section in the UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not employ a single person previously posted to Afghanistan as of 2009. As a result, Western strategies ignore the political, economic and social realities in Afghanistan and do not consider the means or strategic purposes of proposed action, translating poorly to tactics in theatre. The vast resources NATO devotes to the Afghan mission have effectively flooded the local economy, thus increasing corruption in the central government and violence. Not only are there strong indicators that the military occupation damages stabilisation efforts,[2] the insurgency – both geographically and in intensity – has followed troop deployments.

Afghanistan: better off without NATO?

NATO’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan will not significantly hinder the conflict resolution process – it may in fact aid it – as their presence is as destructive as it is restorative. Overwhelmingly, Afghanistan’s own strategy follows ANDS.[3] The document articulates a long-term vision for the country that is achieved through stages: stabilization of the rule of law and governance, consolidation of basic service delivery and transformation of economic growth and human security. Each phase provides the foundation for the next. As a contrast, NATO ISAF forces focus primarily on security; this approach is unlikely to resolve conflict in Afghanistan as it does not address the flaws of the Karzai administration and encourages reliance on foreign forces for security needs. The only method to achieve long-term success is enabling Afghans to self-govern. COIN requires host government legitimacy, which the central government lacks; corruption is rampant, former Northern Alliance forces constitute the Afghan National Army and GDP is based primarily on bribes and the narcotics industry. Greater attention must be paid to the method with which Afghanistan is run at all levels and the current strategy of security by domination must be abandoned in favour of an inclusive political settlement. Current programs are driven more by the foreign policy and security goals of international donors rather than by Afghan policy. Implementation depends on the continuing support of the U.S and other international actors. Following withdrawal, it is likely that funding issues will only increase without defence budget allocation. However, as civilian personnel are less expensive than military, as long as sufficient funding is allocated to maintain current ANSF troop levels, a security crisis is unlikely. Narcotics production will likely increase initially, but if there is strong commitment to civil initiatives, eradication may prove more effective than current methods hampered by negative local attitudes stemming from night raids and military operations. In any event, the Afghan situation will become clearer following the withdrawal date as the deadline compels actors – both international and local – to ‘hedge their bets’ to minimize the threat of Taliban reprisals should they gain back power once international military forces leave. Without the ‘tyranny of the deadlines’[4] Afghanistan will be free to better implement ANDS without pressure from foreign nations seeking short-term gains to curry domestic political favour.


Madelaine Donovan is the former Promotions Officer of BUUNSA. She is currently overseas in the Netherlands

Rory Stewart’s TED talk: Time to end the war in Afghanistan
[youtube width=”600″ height=”365″ video_id=”dwU8eavPInw”]

[1] Inside Story Americas 2012, Can NATO Survive?, Al Jazeera English, viewed 27 July 2012, <http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestoryamericas/2012/05/201252261653209169.html>.

[2] Suhrke A 2008, ‘A contradictory mission? NATO form stabilization to combat in Afghanistan’, International Peacekeeping, vol. 15, no. 2, p. 230.

[3] Sherman J 2009, ‘The Afghan National Development Strategy: The Right Plan at the Wrong Time?’, Journal of Security Sector Management, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 1-9, viewed 3 April 2011, <http://www.cic.nyu.edu/staff/docs/bah/sherman/sherman_afghan_strategy.pdf>, p. 3.

[4] TED Talks 2011, Rory Stewart: Time to end the war in Afghanistan, TED, viewed 27 July 2012, <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/rory_stewart_time_to_end_the_war_in_afghanistan.html>.