Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Afghanistan Still Needs Our Help

Recently, the Obama administration said that we would not reduce our troop presence in Afghanistan at the end of this year, as originally planned. That's good. There is no word about the end of 2016, however. We surely need to stay longer if this is to be an effort to win rather than an effort to avoid blame.

Iraq's experience without us after 2011 has led Afghanistan to push us to stay:

Afghans were shocked by what happened to Iraq in 2014. What was especially scary for Afghans was that Iraq had a better educated population and better access to modern technology and the world in general and was much better organized than Afghanistan. Afghans also knew that Iraq suffered, as did Afghanistan, from corruption and tribalism. But it was still a shock when the Iraqi security forces fell apart in mid-2014 as Islamic terrorists took control of the second largest city (Mosul). Now more Afghans, especially their leaders, are pressuring the United States to modify their current plan, which is to reduce American military personnel in Afghanistan to about 5,500 by the end of 2015 and to zero by the end of 2016.

The situation actually isn't as bad as it appears by the official numbers:

The Afghans are satisfied (but not entirely pleased) with the current deal. That means there are only a few thousand American combat troops and a lot of support troops to help keep the Afghan soldiers and police operational. While the United States only has 10,600 troops in Afghanistan there are nearly 40,000 contractors. Over 40 percent of these contractors handle keeping American, NATO and Afghan equipment operational. That means maintenance, repairs and moving in and accounting for all the spare parts and other items needed for the maintenance and repairs. American troops, civilian contractors and more than 5,000 foreign troops and officials from American allies still in the country all depend on these support services along with the Afghan security forces.

The contractors carry out jobs that would otherwise need to be done by troops.

The concept itself isn't a shock. I just hadn't seen numbers on this for Afghanistan. But the contractors are real assets that count for providing stability, as we once did in Iraq.

Our effort to build an Afghan air force will help but won't replace our capabilities. I'd be happier if we provided sufficient air power to help Afghan forces in their fight. Why we won't continue to do for Afghanistan what we find we must do for Iraq to defeat ISIL is beyond me.

Have no doubt that Afghanistan needs more than our firepower. Without us, Iraq's government failed to maintain support of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and many Shias who looked to Iran rather than Baghdad for support. Without us, the same could happen in Afghanistan:

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in early March, Afghanistan is under siege by a “new generation” of strongmen, warlords, and militias that are terrorizing local populations. Their menacing presence only effectively differs from the Taliban in that they have enjoyed the complicity and support of U.S. forces—including former General Petraeus—and major elements of Afghanistan’s government.

So while Petraeus is busy advising the White House on what to do with Iraq—another country whose reconstruction he left unfinished—unchecked corruption and violence threaten to undo every last good thing the West has tried to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.

“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a March 3 release.

“Kabul and its foreign supporters need to end their toxic codependency on strongmen to give Afghanistan reasonable hope of a viable, rights-respecting strategy for the country’s development.”

Why there is such anger at Petraeus, I do not know. He led us to victories, personal issues notwithstanding. So WTF?

Problems with local defense forces do not invalidate the concept of local defense forces. It means we need to stay to keep them under some control.

One, HRW always seems to be harder on us and our friends than on our enemies. So there's that.

But more important, "Afghanistan" is a geographic and not a political term. Even if the central government of "Afghanistan" was pure as the driven snow (hah!), locals who do not under any circumstance think of Kabul as "their" capital will pull away from the central government.

As I wrote as our first surge in Afghanistan was planned:

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.

These "warlords" are locals with more legitimacy than Kabul will ever have.

Not that they aren't problematic. I've always recognized they are a two-edged sword: needed to resist insurgents yet potentially dangerous once that danger has passed.

For those in the administration so eager to make Iran our friend based on the fact that ISIL is our common enemy ("the enemy of my enemy is my friend"), that "friend" status becomes non-operative once the common enemy is damaged enough not to require joint operations to defeat.

So yeah, local defense forces are a potential problem. If we want to check tendencies of local commanders who fight a common enemy to evolve into warlords who look to their own gains and harm the locals, we need to stay in sufficient strength to be a factor in local defense force thinking and ability to get away with being predators rather than protectors.

And don't think for one minute that the solution is to disband these local defense forces and rely on the central government's forces. Those are seen as alien invaders just as the Taliban and their drug gang allies are.

We need to stay to support our friends. Do recall our friends in Europe 66 years after we defeated Nazi Germany still needed a lot of military support to take on a civil-war ravaged Third World despot with trivial military power to oppose us (Libya).

UPDATE: While the president will keep close to 10,000 US troops there through this year, he is firm on completely leaving at the end of 2016.