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Success in Afghanistan Will Require Commitment for the Long Haul

Success in Afghanistan Will Require Commitment for the Long Haul

By Pierre Atlas - November 30, 2009

President Barack Obama will announce his long-awaited Afghanistan strategy in a prime time address Tuesday night. Much of the speculation and debate thus far has focused on the number of troops the commander-in-chief will dispatch to Afghanistan. However, no strategy-- regardless of the number of troops involved--will likely succeed if we are not willing to see it through to completion.

Neutralizing or defeating the Taliban will require a well-designed and implemented counterinsurgency strategy that could take years, not months. The term "counterinsurgency" conjures up images of Special Forces stealthily tracking and engaging guerrillas in combat. But successful counterinsurgency is more about building relationships with the locals than it is about "kinetic" action, or actual combat. When I recently visited the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, I was shown the "Solarstik," a portable device that utilizes solar and wind technology to generate energy. It is being used in prototype form by Special Forces in Afghanistan for their tactical needs in remote areas. But the soldiers are also sharing these devices with friendly villages that lack electricity-a relatively minor element of the US counterinsurgency strategy that may have big payoffs in winning "hearts and minds."

As the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual (co-authored by General David Patraeus) makes clear, the main mission of counterinsurgency is to convince the local populace that it's in their interest to support their national government rather than the insurgents. As the manual itself states, "The long-term goal is to leave a government able to stand by itself. In the end, the host nation has to win on its own. Achieving this requires development of viable local leaders and institutions." In order to build viable institutions and empower local leaders, the counterinsurgency force needs to be large enough to protect and engage with the civilian population. Thus General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops.

Captain Jason L. Morris, USMC, recently returned from a six-month tour in Afghanistan, where he served as the judge advocate for Second Battalion, Third Marines. A former student of mine from Brownsburg, Indiana, and a graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, one of his jobs was to help build the "rule of law" in Nimroz Province and part of Farah Province, in southwestern Afghanistan. The 2/3's area of operations was the size of Vermont, but the Marines had just three rifle companies to cover its entirety. Morris told me that, when it came to his own efforts in counterinsurgency-helping local Afghans to govern themselves, in particular by training prosecutors-"we were hamstrung to a point because the local security situation was pretty bad. If local Afghans don't feel safe enough to go to work, you can't get much done." Farah's chief prosecutor had difficulty recruiting local prosecutors because they were afraid of being killed by the Taliban.

Although US forces have been in Afghanistan for over eight years, Morris was the first American judge advocate the provincial prosecutor had ever met. It is unclear whether Morris' JAG replacement will continue these particular efforts at relationship-building. Other priorities may emerge for the new Marine battalion in that province, and Morris' activities may soon be forgotten. Building relationships of trust and cooperation with local leaders takes time. Successful counterinsurgency will require not only enough troops to cover a particular geographic area, but also a continuity in personal contact. Of course, more troops would facilitate continued outreach in a particular village or district, since they wouldn't be spread so thin.

Morris also told me of his battalion's work in Delaram district, Nimroz Province, one of the rare locales that had an established police presence--albeit a poorly trained and disciplined one. "When we first got there, if they were pointing their weapons in a safe direction, that was a good day," he said. Yet by the time his unit left six months later, the Afghan national police were able to lead joint patrols with the marines. Morris counts the training of the police in Delaram as "one of the biggest successes for our battalion."

Given the intensity of the Taliban insurgency, siding with the US forces-and the Kabul government we are bolstering-can be dangerous. The Afghan population will have to be convinced that choosing "our side" will be worth the risk. But they are understandably skeptical: we abandoned the country once before, as soon as US-backed mujahedeen defeated the Soviets in the late 1980's.

Eight years into a war that was long under-resourced, we will have no hope of succeeding in Afghanistan if we don't make the requisite commitment of troops, money, and time. But even if we do go all-in, we still might not succeed. Afghanistan is not Iraq, and the idea of simply replicating the "surge" is implausible. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has no history of a strong central government. President Karzai is viewed as illegitimate and hopelessly corrupt by many of his own people-and the legitimacy of the national government is critical to the success of any counterinsurgency strategy. Afghanistan lacks basic infrastructure, much of its populace is illiterate, and many areas have no functional government whatsoever, no police, and not even running water. In Iraq, after decades of tyranny, crippling sanctions and war, there remained a country that could be resurrected and rebuilt. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, many basic elements associated with sovereignty and minimal governance will need to be created from scratch. Counterinsurgency alone will not overcome these deficits.

As casualties mount, support for the war is dwindling. Sensitive to this, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently said that "the president does not see this as an open ended engagement." Yet President Obama has long argued that Afghanistan is the "right war." If he is serious, then his mission Tuesday night will be to convince the American people, Congress, and our NATO allies that, despite the obstacles, Afghanistan is indeed a cause worthy of a long-term commitment.

Pierre Atlas is an associate professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University.

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