Leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans: A Commander’s Take on Security

David M Rodriguez. Foreign Affairs. Volume 90, Issue 5. September/October 2011.

In the summer of 2011, I visited the Afghan army’s Regional Military Training Center in Helmand Province. The recruits had been there for two weeks, and they looked as strong as any group of U.S. soldiers in basic training. The Afghan drill instructors were as competent, and had the same cocky swagger, as American ones. “Sir, look at all of our volunteers,” one drill sergeant proudly said to me. “They’re great. We have already won …We just don’t know it yet.”

To comprehend the United States’ progress in Afghanistan, it is important to understand how and where we have focused our resources and what work lies ahead. To be sure, the United States and its coalition partners still have plenty of challenges left to tackle in Afghanistan. However, there are indisputable gains everywhere we have focused our efforts.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, with the help of David Petraeus, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command, worked hard to design a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign for Afghanistan that would “get the inputs right,” as Petraues often said. The upshot was more resources, troops, and civilian support and better command coherence. There are now more Afghan and coalition soldiers in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces alone than there were in all of Regional Command East, the formation responsible for security in Afghanistan’s 14 eastern provinces, when I commanded the latter from 2007 to 2008. As 33,000 U.S. troops begin the drawdown, returning to the United States by next summer, 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police will be in place to continue their work. There are clear signs of progress in Afghanistan, and coalition forces have regained the initiative.

The strategy has worked because it sought to match the coalition’s goals with available resources. It involved four major concepts. First, use a bottom-up approach founded on good governance, capable security forces, and engagement with local communities. If towns had good leaders and security providers, populations would find local solutions to their local problems, with just a little help from Kabul. Insurgents could no longer exploit popular grievances about security, justice, and a lack of basic services.

Yet coalition troops did not have the resources to carry out a local, bottom-up approach everywhere simultaneously, hence the second principle: certain areas-population and commercial centers and major transportation routes-are more important to the effort than others. The coalition identified about one-third of the country’s landmass and one-fourth of Afghanistan’s districts as such key terrain. Since then, with much-expanded Afghan security forces, it has focused on securing those places. Meanwhile, the coalition’s civilian counterparts have supported the strategy by concentrating their development programs in the key terrain that troops have cleared of insurgents.

Even in those areas, coalition forces could not let what they wanted to achieve distract them from what they needed to achieve. The third principle, then, was to do only what was required to meet the coalition’s objectives. In the spring of 2011, I was traveling with General Shir Mohammed Karimi, chief of staff of the Afghan army. An Afghan soldier asked him when his unit was going to get more GPS devices. “Why do you ask me this?” Karimi responded. “We are a poor country! Get out your maps.” He knew all too well that we should not try to build for Afghanistan the equivalent of the United Kingdom’s security forces, or Germany’s government, or try to achieve Poland’s level of development. Afghanistan resides in a rough neighborhood, and the coalition must be realistic about its objectives. At a minimum, the security forces must keep Afghans safe enough to live basically normal lives. Of course, it is important to monitor trends of violent activity, but such data alone do not tell the whole story. On May 8, 2011, the day after several simultaneous attacks rocked Kandahar City, I traveled there with Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, Afghanistan’s minister of the interior, to study the police response. It was apparent that the police had responded well, leaving the people feeling safe enough to resume their everyday lives almost immediately.

The fourth concept of the strategy was that the Taliban and their associates were not the Afghans’ only enemy. Venal or incompetent officials alienate the population. Criminal patronage networks have thrived on poorly managed aid dollars. And some of the practices of the coalition forces, such as their early reliance on casualty-heavy air strikes and brutish warlords, created legitimate grievances among the population. Over the past year, the coalition has made preventing civilian causalities a top priority. Coalition troops are experts at the precise application of violence, and they are learning to let an insurgent live to fight another day if the collateral damage from killing him would outweigh the benefits. Casualties caused by the coalition decreased by 20 percent between 2009 and 2010 and were vastly outnumbered by those caused by insurgents.

If the combined Afghan and international civil-military team enabled good leaders, limited the freedom of action of criminal patronage networks, and reformed poor international practices, the insurgency would be much easier to deal with. As U.S. troops depart, and Afghans are handed control, these tasks will become even more important.

The Campaign

In 2009, the Taliban enjoyed nearly uncontested control over Afghanistan’s southern Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Drawing on the four principles, that year the coalition and its Afghan partners drafted a military campaign plan for Afghanistan called Operation Omid (omid means “hope” in Dari). The coalition hit the Taliban where it hurt, attacking their leaders and their control of territory and people. Soon, Afghan and coalition forces had pacified the central Helmand River valley, which bisects the province. The area around the valley is also rapidly being stabilized.

Next, Afghan and coalition forces drove the Taliban, who seemed unprepared for the forces’ strength, out of key terrain in Kandahar Province: Kandahar City and its environs, other densely populated areas, and commercial routes between the two provinces. Meanwhile, troops also expanded the security zone around Kabul, in eastern Afghanistan, and continue to interdict insurgents on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Parts of other central and eastern provinces-Khost, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, and Wardak-have also seen concrete gains in terms of stability.

In Afghanistan’s north, insurgents have made headlines, assassinating General Mohammed Daud Daud, northern Afghanistan’s chief of police, and General Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili, a provincial police chief. Both men were prominent Tajik leaders. But the region’s key terrain-Mazar-e Sharif and the commercial route along the Baghlan- Kunduz corridor-remains secure.

Finally, in Afghanistan’s west, Herat City is bustling and ready to initiate the transition to local control. The area has even become stable enough to begin construction on the road to link the western province of Badghis and the northern province of Faryab, which will connect Herat to Mazar-e Sharif.

Thanks to their successes, the Afghan security forces have garnered more popular support countrywide, cultivating people’s desire to work with Afghan soldiers and police to defend themselves against the insurgency. As a result, the population is more willing to tip off Afghan and coalition troops about enemy activity. Polling in Helmand has indicated that the number of respondents who believe they are secure has risen fourfold since 2009.The increased scope and tempo of Afghan and coalition operations have helped. For example, by 2011, the combined forces were recovering four times as many weapons caches per week as they had been even the year before.

In other words, the coalition strategy has been a success, and it continues to create the conditions for expanded Afghan control over security. Insurgents face more efective Afghan security forces and a more widespread government presence. They seem to have recognized this change and shifted their strategy accordingly. Insurgents now target those things and individuals who threaten their control over the people: government officials, police stations, and elders of representative community councils. They attempt spectacular attacks, such as the recent one on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, and frequently wear Afghan army or coalition uniforms, in the hopes of weakening the population’s growing faith in Afghanistan’s security forces. So far, they have failed.

The goal is for Afghan forces to assume lead responsibility for security by the end of 2014, and they are already on their way to meeting it. At the end of 2010, the army was almost 143,000 strong, surpassing that year’s goal of 134,000 soldiers. The force has quickly become one of the country’s most respected institutions, but before taking their hand off the back of the bicycle seat completely, coalition forces will still have to help the army develop better leadership, decrease its attrition rate and absences without leave, balance its tribal and ethnic representation, and improve its handling of logistics.

In 2011, 95 percent of all Afghan army units have been partnered with coalition forces, and they are showing steady improvement in providing security and in their ability to independently thwart insurgent attacks. This past year, the Afghan army doubled the number of operations it successfully led. It is gratifying to see the army taking responsibility and doing some things even better than coalition troops, such as avoiding civilian casualties. As one Canadian junior officer told me, “I never leave the forward operating base without my [Afghan] partner. If I do, I am blind, deaf, and dumb.”

For many Afghans, the police are the most visible security providers and representatives of the government. By the end of 2010, the Afghan police force boasted nearly 120,000 officers, 11,000 more than its target. It is imperative that the police force continue to develop professionally. For a time, police recruiting and training focused on quantity rather than quality. Only recently has the proportion of adequately trained officers exceeded half. To remedy the force’s shortcomings, the coalition has initiated programs to develop leadership qualities and improve literacy. The Afghan National Civil Order Police, Afghanistan’s gendarmerie-like force, is the police force’s most capable arm. Its recruitment is strong, and officer retention is improving. The force is in constant and effective use, but it should not be overburdened, lest attrition become a problem.

Meanwhile, better security has allowed civilians in the Afghan government to renew their own efforts. There are now significantly more trained civil servants in Afghanistan than there were two years ago. They have been deployed to key terrain districts that have been cleared, where they provide services to people who have never before had them. Informal representative community councils have emerged, taking the opinions, needs, and desires of the people to the local governments. Those people have begun to hold their local governments more accountable. I have witnessed courageous acts. I’ll never forget one 2010 meeting of local officials in Helmand Province. A young man stood before one of the region’s major power brokers and, pointing his finger in the man’s direction, announced to the room, “This man does not represent me.”

Indeed, there have also been notable signs of progress in governance at the district and provincial levels this past year, particularly in the Helmand River valley, which saw a hard-fought contest for control; in Kandahar City and surrounding districts; and in some cities in eastern Afghanistan. These improvements are largely the work of good government officials, professionals who are unencumbered by, or are assisted in, the task of exercising local control. Last year, hundreds of government officials were replaced at the subnational level, the vast majority because someone else was more qualified for the role, showing that the Afghan government recognizes the importance of good leadership and meritbased hiring. Kabul must now supply reliable funding to help these new government officials provide services to the people.

The example of Helmand Province is illustrative. Official assessments show that governance has improved there; almost all the critical civil servant positions there have been filled, which helps ensure that the government will keep providing basic services, including stepping in during disputes and when traditional justice mechanisms fail. This is critical. One of the things that the Taliban offered was a justice system, which, although brutal, was preferable to none.

The 2010 publication of the U.S. military’s Counterinsurgency (COIN) Contracting Guidance, authored by Petraeus, was accompanied by new initiatives to make the coalition’s assistance more transparent. One, Task Force 2010, focused on correcting the coalition’s contracting problems. The other, Joint Task Force Shafafiyat (shafafiyat means “transparency” in Dari and Pashto), sought to address corruption. As a result of this guidance, coalition forces have been doing a much better job of channeling assistance and construction dollars into the right hands. All companies that compete for contracts worth more than $1 million are vetted, and large contracts are routinely broken down into smaller ones to ensure broader (and fairer) competition. Coalition contracts can also now be canceled without notice or penalty in the case of wrongdoing and generally include requirements to use local labor, structure salaries fairly, and teach the Afghans those skills that are in greatest demand. In general, the new strategy, bolstered by more resources, has proved to be successful wherever we have focused our efforts.

What’s Next?

The coming reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan may mean that the coalition will have to find alternative ways to accomplish some of its lowest-priority objectives. But the logic of the campaign will not change. For now, Afghan and coalition troops will continue to concentrate on securing southern Afghanistan, with supporting efforts to expand security in other areas, such as into the northern Helmand River valley, Kandahar City, Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Herat and along the Baghlan-Kunduz corridor and the “ring road.” In fact, many of these areas are already quite secure, especially Kabul, which is home to one-fifth of Afghanistan’s population.

As stability comes to these regions, Afghan and coalition forces will likely move the main effort eastward. There is a lot of work left to be done in the country’s east, and Afghan forces, supported by the coalition, will have a tough fight ahead. It is unlikely that they will ever be able to completely deny insurgents a haven, kill all their leaders, or interdict all the routes they use to infiltrate the eastern provinces. Still, Afghanistan should be able to withstand those challenges and avoid falling into the hands of the Taliban or hosting foreign terrorists, and the United States’ main interest in the region will thus be met.

In the end, Afghanistan will at least see its densely populated areas and commercial routes better connected. Improved governance will cement and accelerate the security gains and bolster the population’s trust in the government’s ability to provide for a better future. Short of a significant increase in terrorist activity emanating from Afghanistan’s neighbors, I am confident that Afghan forces, supported by the coalition, can achieve irreversible gains and successfully secure Afghanistan’s key terrain by the end of 2014.

Afghan leaders and soldiers will start to lead more operations, with the coalition providing only advisory or technical support. The Afghan security forces will be capable of fighting and managing the vast majority of the organizational, administrative, and logistical tasks related to counterinsurgency on their own. Of course, the United States will continue to assist them with intelligence support, air support, medical evacuation, and quick-reaction forces (which will be located increasingly further away) until their own programs develop. I expect that U.S. special operations forces will operate in Afghanistan for some time.

Meanwhile, the police will have to serve the population more effectively, in partnership with Afghanistan’s own army. In major urban centers, this is already starting to take place. Afghans are fighters and bring to the security forces significant spirit and capability. Their partnership with coalition troops helps them build up their confidence to use the skills they already have and learn the ones they don’t. With the drawdown approaching, the task will be to do all this faster.

To win the race against time, coalition forces will need to address four issues. First, they must figure out how to maximize partnerships with all levels of the Afghan government, so as to create a comprehensive political strategy. The coalition’s and the Afghan government’s public criticism of each other should stop; constructive talks based on mutual interests should be the coin of the realm. The coalition must be more understanding of the constraints and pressures on the Afghan political leadership, and both must hold each other accountable for actions that clearly run counter to shared interests.

Second, the United States must work with Pakistan to address the challenges that emanate from the Taliban’s and other extremist groups’ sanctuaries there. If the situation worsens in Pakistan’s ungoverned spaces, the Afghan government will have to build even stronger security forces and local communities. It would take time to build them up to a point where they were resilient enough to handle an expanded threat from the other side of the border.

Third, there are several reasons to worry about ethnic tensions within the government and the security forces. Although all Afghan government and security institutions have prescriptions for the balance of ethnicities, better mechanisms are needed to enforce those rules. Stability in Afghanistan depends on the existence of sufficiently fair representation and a sense of ownership among all constituencies.

Finally, the dialogue between the United States and Afghanistan, and between NATO and Afghanistan, must advance. The West’s immediate objectives can best be met if it offers Afghanistan and other states in the region predictability and assurances about its plans beyond 2014. The long-term strategic partnership must be defined in advance to minimize the relationship’s volatility.

When I stepped down as commander of the ISAF Joint Command in July of this year, I was certain of having tried to make best possible use of the manpower and funding available. I know the American men and women in uniform and civilian personnel who remain in Afghanistan-and the United States’ coalition partners-will continue to meet the goals of the mission. As a result, U.S. troops can begin to return home from Afghanistan knowing that they are drawing down from a position of strength.

We have proved that wherever Afghan and coalition forces focus their efforts, they make progress. And as we go forward, we must continue to be disciplined in allocating resources, staying true to our objectives, and combating all the enemies of the Afghan people. We must continue to support the Afghan security forces and the government, encouraging good leaders and inspiring others to join in helping create a positive future. If we maintain momentum, it is possible to achieve what we desire and what the people of Afghanistan deserve- a country stable enough to ensure a future free of the threat of al Qaeda’s return or an insurgent overthrow of the government.

In the future, new wars may emerge in other poorly governed and underdeveloped nations. It is imperative for the U.S. military to learn from its decadelong engagement in Afghanistan, absorbing the lessons of the experience there to avoid having to relearn the same lessons again later. The army must be versatile enough to succeed in regular wars, irregular wars, and wars that combine aspects of both. Those forces that can adapt with the greatest speed will prevail. As a wealthy nation, the United States has tended to rely on technology and cutting-edge equipment to prepare for war. As Americans ponder what we have learned from Afghanistan, we would do well to heed another truism: equipment becomes obsolete, but leadership and people do not. Ultimately, the U.S. military will succeed by cultivating leaders who can think critically, be adaptable, and embrace uncertainty- just as it has done in Afghanistan.