Advancing a Free Society

Good News From Afghanistan

Saturday, February 18, 2012

So much bad news emanates from Afghanistan -- terrorism, drug trafficking, corruption, incapacity of the government, public support for the Taliban, attacks on coalition forces by the Afghan police and military we are training, the damage done our strategy by the President’s politically-driven withdrawal timelines -- that the good news is often overlooked or deemed unimportant.  This is a mistake generally, wrongly coloring attitudes about the war and our progress in it.

This week something small but hugely important occurred in Afghanistan: their military leadership concluded an investigation into the attacks on U.S. and other coalition forces, and has made policy recommendations to their government to reduce the incidence of attacks.  Principal among their recommendations is requiring the families of Afghan security forces to reside in Afghanistan.

If adopted by the Karzai government, the policy would require tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and potentially police (if the policy is applied to all security forces) to either leave their employment or relocate their families from Pakistan back to the country in whose armed forces they are ostensibly serving.  The restriction will predominantly affect Pashtun Afghans, who now comprise 40% of the military, roughly equivalent to their proportion of the population.  But Pashtun comprise a far higher percentage of the Taliban: it is essentially a Pashtun movement.

Infiltrators are a major problem in the Afghan military and police.  Coalition forces have been attacked by their Afghan counterparts 45 times since May 2007.  Al Qaeda and the Taliban are losing the military campaign and so are adapting their approach toward creating fear and distrust between coalition forces and Afghan security.  And it’s working: the French accelerated their withdrawal timeline after Afghan security forces being trained by France killed four French soldiers.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy said “the French army isn't in Afghanistan to be shot at by Afghan soldiers."

Give the bad guys credit, it’s a smart and sophisticated approach, probing for the politico-military vulnerability of our strategy, which relies fundamentally on building the capacity of Afghan security forces to take over the work we are currently doing.  We have recruited 350,000 Afghans for the security forces, and are budgeted to spend $11.2 billion next year to recruit, train, and equip them.  To the extent that President Obama will allow the advice of our military commanders to affect his timeline, the pace of our withdrawal will be dictated by the success of that Afghan training program.

Several things are important about the Afghan military recommendation to require residency in Afghanistan for its security forces.  First, that the Afghan military even conducted the review means they understand how debilitating to our support these attacks are.   Our review concluded the attacks are often motivated by personal disrespect or grievance; the Afghans chose a more systematic and plausible explanation.  Their review identifies a strong correlation between Pakistani residence and attacks.  Soldiers with families in Pakistan have greater exposure to Taliban living there, have families that can be made hostages, and have less allegiance to Afghanistan.  Their review documents the connection and claims a broad consensus within the military to act against it.

Second, not only have the Afghan military understood the threat infiltration attacks pose, they are taking responsibility for their occurrence.  It sounds like a small thing, but getting Afghans to take responsibility for what is occurring in Afghanistan is a major shift.  The cultural tendency among Afghans is to try and shift responsibility rather than confront their own failings. The military leaders are not considering themselves pawns in our strategy, but active participants in it.  We should understand as a measure of the success of our military training program that the Afghan military is the first part of the government to make this cultural shift.

Third, the Afghan Army recognizes the safe haven problem and did not shy away from a politically uncomfortable conclusion that has the potential to aggravate sectarian tensions in Afghanistan, and political friction between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They want to limit their vulnerability to infiltration by forcing Pashtun to show more commitment to the government of Afghanistan.  Nearly two million Afghans have fled to Pakistan and the border remains porous.  But the military have compiled lists of soldiers that travel frequently across the border and are confronting them.  Which means they are improving at military intelligence, border control, and the coordination of their activities.  The policy is a smart response, addressing their vulnerability and showing they can adapt to confront changing Taliban tactics.

The assessment and policy prescriptions announced this week by the Afghan army illustrate that they are becoming a responsible partner.  That is one necessary condition for our success in Afghanistan.  It is not sufficient -- much remains discouragingly needed in improving the capacity for governance, reducing corruption, structuring transparent elections, in addition to continuing to fight the insurgency.  Our civilian efforts need to bring the same kind of focus and resourcing that we are bringing to the military elements of our strategy.  But news from Afghanistan this week does show that our military effort is succeeding, and not only in the fight itself where the Taliban are no match for our forces, but in creating an independent and capable Afghan military with the skills to carry on this fight when we leave.

(photo credit: The U.S. Army)