Friday, March 20, 2009

It Takes a Village to Raze the Taliban

We're going local in Afghanistan, recognizing that attempting to defeat the Taliban and their al Qaeda friends and turn Afghanistan into a unified modern state is asking for too much:

The plan is based on the assumption that top leaders of extremist groups are unlikely to switch sides wholesale and would be unreliable allies if they did. Instead, the revised military effort will focus on eroding the power of militant leaders by drawing away low-level fighters -- most of whom signed up for financial reasons.

Key to the strategy, according to administration officials, will be strengthening village elders and other local leaders as part of an overall shift in emphasis away from the country's central government.

The White House is nearing approval of the strategy and is expected to outline details next week, before President Obama travels to a summit of world leaders in early April.

The strategy review will address the need to build up the abilities of the central government and to expand the Afghan National Army. But many officials have concluded that local leaders and governments are even more important.

Under the plan, the administration would offer local leaders a variety of tools, including small-scale economic projects and training for local security forces, that they can use to convince insurgent fighters to lay down their weapons.

The plan and its objectives were described by advisors who spoke anonymously because the strategy review is not complete.

But the emphasis on local reconciliation reflects a growing belief that a heavy reliance on the country's central government, led by President Hamid Karzai, has hindered the U.S.-led war effort.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been particularly critical of the focus on Kabul. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, while refusing to discuss the White House review, said Gates had been clear that the U.S. needed to do more to build up local governments."

Building a strong central government in Afghanistan is counter-cultural, counter-historical," Morrell said.

This is good. I set out what I think we will do here, with the caveat that I'm worried about risking too many troops in Afghanistan at the end of insecure supply lines. I think my conjecture is holding up pretty well as decisions are made in Washington.

We have to think local even as we still support the central government in becoming more effective in an appropriate role. But the locals are the key to security and good governance that will lead to economic development that attracts military-age men to civilian jobs and not drug gangs or Taliban war bands; the key to building up local defense forces to resist armed Taliban and drug gang bands; and the key to generating intelligence for Coalition--and increasingly Afghan--offensive operations that hammer the enemy as the essential stick to the carrot of development. Local jobs can never compete money-wise with the payoff of joining the Taliban or drug gangs. But if the local men know that they will live to spend a smaller legitimate paycheck rather than leave a pile of cash to their next of kin, it will speed the beginning of wisdom.

But remember that local recruits are only part of the problem. Pakistan is also a source of cannon fodder sent in to Afghanistan. We can succeed brilliantly in getting local recruiting to dry up, but if recruits are still avaialable in Pakistan, the war will go on. We are sending troops to the border regions where they can interdict this movement. But we can't seal the long and rugged border completely.

Ultimately, we need Pakistan to control their border region and prevent it from being the Taliban rear area where forces are generated, trained, and armed for the Afghanistan War. And this is a problem perhaps beyond our capabilities, at least in the short run:

U.S. officials working on Pakistan acknowledge they will have only limited influence on the power struggle.

"It's pretty clear that we've got to really be dealing with institutions and with the government as a whole," said a U.S. official. "We can't just say 'this guy is our man.' "

Counterterrorism experts expressed concern that while Islamabad is consumed in internal politics, the Taliban is gaining ground. "Probably the most serious challenge for the U.S. is there is no clear command and control in Pakistan," said Seth Jones, an expert in the region at the think tank Rand Corp.

David Kilcullen, a former Bush-administration adviser on counterinsurgency, said the Pakistani security forces' reluctance to follow the civilian government's direction -- police in Lahore backed off after initial resistance to protesters and didn't enforce Mr. Sharif's house arrest -- represents "a classic precursor indicator to the collapse of the Pakistani government."

I used to think we'd need to take a direct role in pacifying the frontier areas if the Pakistani government can't do the job. I'm beginning to think we need to take a direct role just to prop up the Pakistani government.

We need to do things right to win in Afghanistan. We need our allies to do things right to win. We need the Afghan central government to do things right to win. We need local Afghans to do the right thing. We need Pakistan to do things right to win. We need Pakistan's frontier tribes to do things right to win. We need Congress to fund and support the war--a war that is far more expensive man-for-man deployed than in Iraq because of the poor transportation network going into Afghansitan. We need our public to support the war long enough to win.

Can we juggle all these multiple elements long enough to win? President Obama stands holding all these strands to pull them together.

Can our president lead us to victory in Afghanistan? Will he?