Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Long Campaign

Afghanistan is a problem despite nearly 16 years of fighting there. It is better than the terrorist sanctuary it was on September 11, 2001, mind you. But still a problem. Pakistan is a major cause of this and Iran remains a potential--if unlikely--solution.

The Taliban have been making territorial gains in Afghanistan since America and NATO turned over most responsibilities for fighting to the Afghans:

However, 2016 marked the first year, since insurgent violence first surged in 2006, where the arrival of spring did not correlate with an increase in insurgent attacks. Indeed, attacks trended downward as the season progressed. Moreover, insurgent violence fell precipitously compared to 2015 (1,338 attacks in 2016 versus 1,716 incidents in 2015; a decrease of 22 percent). Figure 1, below, depicts this trend, as well as casualty rates, using data from 2012 through 2016. Paradoxically, this is cause for serious concern. While one might think that the end to Afghanistan’s fighting season and a considerable decline in attacks is a positive development, ‘the logic of violence in civil war’ is far more nuanced. Specifically, violence decreases as a belligerent cements control over territory. In this case, decreasing violence appears to be the result of increasing Taliban control and the rapid deterioration of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

Afghan forces have inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban, it is true:

The Taliban believed that the Afghan security forces would fall apart in 2015 because most of the foreign troops were gone and those that were left were not fighting. The expected Taliban victory did not happen but there was a lot more Taliban violence. The Afghan soldiers and police stood and fought, but took heavy casualties.

But Afghanistan didn't have the ability to replace all the capabilities America and our allies once provided.

Yes, Pakistan remains the main factor that undermines Afghan ability to cope with the Taliban*:

The latest U.S. Department of Defense Report on “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” reiterates that Pakistan’s sanctuary, support, and employment of insurgents and terrorists is a strategic impediment to ending that war well, or to ending it at all. The Pentagon is now preparing to send about four thousands more troops. A number of Coalition partners will probably send a commensurate number of additional troops. More troops and more actions will build advisory capacity and thus improve the Afghan security forces capacity. More capacity will, in turn, gain some tactical and operational momentum vis-à-vis the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other Islamist militants that benefit from Pakistan’s support and sanctuary.

But more action and more troops in and of themselves will not gain strategic momentum. Strategic momentum requires a marked change in Pakistan’s strategic behavior. That requires a strategy which includes more regional cooperation and a much more coercive strategic approach to curb Pakistan’s machinations. This requires a sea change in strategic thinking to shock, compel, and instill fear in Pakistan’s security establishment to break it out of its ingrained strategic-cultural pathologies. Pakistan’s duplicitous incubation and export of proxy terrorists and insurgents is the most significant obstacle to peace in Afghanistan and South Asia.

We will add a small amount of forces with needed capabilities to support the Afghan security forces we and our allies built during the Obama era surges. Adding coalition forces will restore those capabilities and help Afghan ground forces remain resilient in the face of continued fighting. This will help. But it won't be enough to finally end the problem because of Pakistan.

I wasn't in favor of surging forces in Afghanistan back in 2009 because I figured the real Afghanistan problem was in Pakistan:

Remember, at this point our real "Afghanistan problem" lies in Pakistan. Even a successful surge in Afghanistan means a post-surge Afghanistan will face the Pakistan problem once again. Like I've argued, in these circumstances I think we can do well enough in Afghanistan without a surge. Which doesn't mean that a surge can't accomplish our minimal objectives a bit faster or even achieve more. But it also means that we risk more--lives, treasure, and national prestige--by trying to achieve more results with more effort.

Mind you, I figured more troops could achieve results inside Afghanistan. But it would not be enough given Pakistan's status. And I hoped our objective wasn't to assume Afghanistan is actually a unified state we can prop up:

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).

Hopefully our military surge recedes by the end of 2011 and we can get down to a single combat brigade plus air power that function as a fire brigade and a hammer for the central government should a local difficulty exceed Afghan military capabilities.

Still, recall that the surges were called off before the last planned offensive could be carried out. I worried when I didn't see the Regional Command East offensive follow the Regional Command South offensive; and eventually discovered that we weren't going to get it.

More than adding troops to the fight, getting Pakistan fully on board our war effort was the key. I really had hopes that regime change in Iran would both end the Iranian mullah nuclear threat and end the problems we had in pressuring Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban:

One of the benefits of overthrowing the mullah regime in Iran and replacing it with a government that reflects the pro-American sentiment of the people of Iran will be the land corridor it will open to Afghanistan.

Now, our access to Afghanistan is from the north through the unstable "Stans" and back through an increasingly unfriendly Russia; or through Pakistan which we have to coddle to keep land-locked Afghanistan from being cut off from us.

Open up a supply route through Iran to Afghanistan and suddenly we don't need to be quite so reliant on our Central Asian bases or so careful with a Pakistan that will not crack down on the Taliban who hide and organize inside Pakistan. We won't have to be so shy when it comes to hunting bin Laden there, either.

I want Pakistan to defeat their jihadis and remain a friend of ours. But we are in a tough position because of Afghanistan's geography in pushing Pakistan toward a normal existence free of jihadi influence. Reduce Pakistan's importance in fighting in Afghanistan and they have less leverage to resist our pressure to reform and crack down on the fanatics.

Without a friendly Iran, and assuming Russia continues to be difficult, how do we pressure Pakistan? Supplies for our troops in landlocked Afghanistan have to come from somewhere. Pakistan has the distinction of being both the front line and rear area of the war.

It would be foolish to stop supporting the Afghan forces that we built up at such cost who now fight our common enemy rather than to abandon the Afghans, watch them collapse, see Afghanistan again become a sanctuary for international terrorists, and find we have to start over and re-accomplish what we achieved from 2001 to now.

But it doesn't mean it isn't hard to do the non-foolish thing.

*As an aside, while a focus on building up Afghan special forces and air power to improve the forces that provide the best edge over the Taliban is reasonable, it rests on the assumption that the regular army and police can hold the line while the special forces and air power inflict the real pain on the Taliban. Can the regulars and police hold? If they can't, the special forces and air power--no matter how good--will be defeated.