A Winnable War

Originally published in The Weekly Standard
July 5, 2010

Success in Afghanistan is possible. The policy that President Obama announced in December and firmly reiterated last week is sound. So is the strategy that General Stanley McChrystal devised last summer and has been implementing this year. There have been setbacks and disappointments during this campaign, and adjustments will likely be necessary. These are inescapable in war. Success is not by any means inevitable. Enemies adapt and spoilers spoil. But both panic and despair are premature. The coalition has made significant military progress against the Taliban, and will make more progress as the last surge forces arrive in August. Although military progress is insufficient by itself to resolve the conflict, it is a vital precondition. As the New York Times editors recently noted, “Until the insurgents are genuinely bloodied, they will keep insisting on a full restoration of their repressive power.” General David Petraeus knows how to bloody insurgents—and he also knows how to support and encourage political development and conflict resolution. He takes over the mission with the renewed support of the White House. 

Neither the recent setbacks nor the manner of McChrystal’s departure should be allowed to obscure the enormous progress he has made in setting conditions for successful campaigns over the next two years. The internal, structural changes he made have revolutionized the ability of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to conduct counterinsurgency operations. He oversaw the establishment of a three-star NATO training command that has accelerated both the expansion and the qualitative improvement of the Afghan National Security Forces in less than a year. He introduced a program of partnering ISAF units and headquarters with Afghan forces that had worked wonders in Iraq—and he improved on it. He oversaw the introduction of a three-star operational headquarters to develop and coordinate countrywide campaign plans. He has managed the massive planning and logistical burden of receiving the influx of surge forces and putting them immediately to use in a country with little infrastructure. 

While undertaking these enormous tasks of internal reorganization, he has also taken the fight to the enemy. The controversies about his restrictions on the operations of Special Forces and rules of engagement that limit the use of destructive force in inhabited areas have obscured the fact that both Special Forces and conventional forces have been fighting harder than ever before and disrupting and seriously damaging enemy networks and strongholds. Targeted operations against Taliban networks have increased significantly during McChrystal’s tenure, and the Taliban’s ability to operate comfortably in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced. ISAF forces have killed, captured, or driven off numerous Taliban shadow governors and military commanders. They have pushed into areas the Taliban had controlled and eliminated safe-havens.

The story of Marjah is particularly illustrative. Before this year, Marjah was a Taliban sanctuary, command-and-control node, and staging area. Taliban fighters based there had been able to support operations against ISAF and coalition forces throughout Helmand Province. Lasting progress in Helmand was simply not possible without clearing Marjah. McChrystal cleared it. The Taliban naturally are trying to regain control of it. ISAF and the ANSF are trying to prevent them. 

The attempt to import “governance” rapidly into the area is faltering, which is not surprising considering the haste with which the operation was conducted (driven at least partly by the perceived pressure of the president’s July 2011 timeline). The attempt was also ill-conceived. Governance plans for Marjah emphasized extending the influence of the central government to an area that supported insurgents precisely because it saw the central government as threatening and predatory. Although ISAF persuaded President Hamid Karzai to remove the most notorious malign actor in the area from power, Karzai allowed him to remain in the background, stoking fears among the people that he would inevitably return. The incapacity of the Afghan government to deliver either justice or basic services to its people naturally led to disappointment as well, partly because ISAF’s own rhetoric had raised expectations to unrealistic levels.

The biggest problem with the Marjah operation, however, is that it was justified and explained on the wrong basis. Marjah is not a vitally important area in principle, even in Helmand. It is important because of its role as a Taliban base camp. It was so thoroughly controlled by the insurgents that the prospects for the rapid reestablishment of governance were always dim. It was fundamentally a military objective rather than a political one, and McChrystal made a mistake by offering Marjah as a test case of ISAF’s ability to improve Afghan governance. What matters about Marjah is that the enemy can no longer use it as a sanctuary and headquarters. ISAF’s military success there has allowed the coalition to launch subsequent operations in the Upper Helmand River Valley, particularly the more strategically important contested area around Sangin. The Marjah operation has so far succeeded in what it should have been intended to do. The aspects that are faltering should not have been priorities in that location.

Kandahar differs from Marjah in almost all respects. Kandahar City is not now a Taliban stronghold, although the Taliban are present in some force in its western districts and can stage attacks throughout the city. The Taliban had controlled the vital neighboring district of Arghandab until newly arrived American forces began contesting it in September 2009. The insurgents remain very strong in Zhari, Panjwayi, and Maiwand Districts to the west and south of Kandahar City, but they do not control any of those areas as completely as they controlled Marjah. 

An even greater difference is that Kandahar City and the surrounding districts are strategically important terrain. It is much too strong to say “as Kandahar goes, so goes Afghanistan”—the coalition could succeed in Kandahar and still lose the war. But it is very hard to imagine winning the war without winning in Kandahar. It is the most populous city in Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt, the historical base of the Pashtun dynasties that formed and ruled Afghanistan for most of the last 250 years, and the birthplace of the Taliban itself, as well as the home of the Karzai family. It is also geographically important as the major city at the southwestern tip of the Hindu Kush and the junction of the roads from Herat, Kabul, and Quetta (in Pakistan). For all of these reasons, enduring stability in Kandahar underwritten by acceptable and effective governance is an essential precondition for success in Afghanistan in a way that stability in Marjah simply is not.

The Marjah operation nevertheless offers important lessons about how to approach Kandahar. McChrystal had already rightly abandoned the idea of parachuting government officials into cleared areas around Kandahar before his departure. He was focusing instead on trying to get the government officials already in place to build local support for the operation. That effort, manifested by several jirgas and shuras (gatherings of officials and elders) over the past few months, has been faltering. McChrystal had recognized the problem before his departure, which is one reason he had announced a delay in the planned clearing operations around Kandahar. Petraeus now has the opportunity to revisit this approach to building local support for the operation and correct it.

It is too soon to say which of the various alternative approaches Petraeus will adopt or whether it will succeed. Learning, adapting, and trying different approaches are not the same as failing or losing. On the contrary, these are an essential part of success. American forces in Iraq experimented with a variety of approaches over years throughout the country before hitting on the right set of solutions. Under McChrystal’s command, ISAF was moving through similar phases in Afghanistan much more rapidly. Since Petraeus has already shown his ability to explore alternatives until he finds one that works, there is reason to have some confidence that he will do so in Kandahar and in Afghanistan more generally.

Recent news reports have exposed what those who know Kandahar have long understood—that the predominance of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother, alienates a significant portion of the population and is itself a major driver of instability and insurgency. Excellent reporting by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times and others has revealed the degree to which U.S. and ISAF contracting practices have reinforced this predominance and thus contributed to the problem. Does Ahmad Wali’s kinship with the president make this problem intractable—thus rendering the entire effort hopeless? Here the example of Iraq may be illuminating.

Between 2003 and 2005 it appeared that the largest problem in Iraq was the Sunni insurgency and the al Qaeda organization with which it interacted symbiotically. In 2006 it became apparent that the problem was larger than that. Shiite militias had been systematically cleansing Baghdad and other mixed areas of their Sunni populations, fueling the insurgency and deepening the hold of al Qaeda, which seemed to offer the Sunni communities under assault their most reliable protection. Individuals within the Iraqi government actively supported the Shiite militias. The deputy health minister allowed them to use ambulances to drive death squads around Baghdad. The Iraqi National Police were badly infiltrated and committed horrendous atrocities at the orders of officials within the government. The minister of finance had brought into the National Police the infamous Wolf Brigade of the Badr Corps that set the standard for sectarian brutality. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki tolerated this behavior and protected some of those who were engaged in it.

Maliki is still prime minister (for now). The sectarian deputy health minister (who escaped trial by intimidating the judges) has been elected to the new parliament. The Badr Corps finance minister remained in position, as did many others engaged in sectarian activities that were fuelling the insurgencies. But the Shiite death squads have stopped cleansing. The National Police are now welcomed in Sunni districts they once terrorized. Maliki himself led military operations against the strongholds of the most dangerous Shiite militias, in Basra and Sadr City, in 2008. Some of the worst offenders were removed from power, but many were not. What is both remarkable and promising is that even those who remained were persuaded to stop engaging in the activities that were driving Iraq toward unlimited sectarian civil war by the end of 2006. The cessation of malign behaviors can be as important as the removal of malign actors, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.

Iraqi sectarian actors did not suddenly see the light and embrace diversity. They changed their behavior in response to a wide array of pressures brought on them and their patrons by the entire American team, from General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker down to soldiers in the streets. Petraeus and Crocker in particular adopted a highly nuanced approach to the problem. When they had strong information (not necessarily legal evidence) that particular leaders were behaving badly, they confronted the prime minister with that information as a policy matter rather than a legal one. Lower level commanders did the same thing with their counterparts within the Iraqi Security Forces. In some cases, American units simply partnered with misbehaving Iraqi units so closely that the Iraqis could not engage in malign behavior.

As these efforts were going on, Petraeus and Crocker inserted American forces into contested neighborhoods and effectively took control of the ground. Their presence changed the equation—local people reported on the misbehavior of Iraqi officials; American forces took notice and, when appropriate, took action. By simultaneously taking the fight into the safe-havens and strongholds of the Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. forces reduced the capability of those terrorists and began to bring down the violence. As the overall level fell, Shiite militia violence, which had been to some extent concealed by the spectacular attacks of al Qaeda, became more prominent, reinforcing the pressure on malign Shiite actors to take a knee. The fact that American forces then remained in the neighborhoods for a couple of years permitted the emergence of a political process based on new calculations and facilitated the restoration of the most basic confidence among Sunnis that the government was not committed to their annihilation.

The problem in Afghanistan is similar. Power-brokers are not engaged so much in tribal cleansing or death squads, but they do use their own private security companies to enforce order, sometimes at the expense of marginalized groups who fuel the insurgency. Ahmad Wali Karzai is the most prominent example of such a powerbroker, but he is far from unique. A sound ISAF strategy would attempt to remove malign actors where necessary and possible, but also work to shape them and the environment in which they operate in ways that persuade or prevent them from engaging in the malign behavior that is fueling the insurgency and preventing stable governance from taking hold. Improving the way ISAF contracts with local companies—a process that has already begun—is part of the solution, but only part. ISAF will have to refocus its efforts at every level away from a binary choice between removing and empowering the malign actors, and toward the kind of nuanced approach that was successful in Iraq, appropriately modified. 

There are never any guarantees in war. But the fact that efforts now will be led by General David Petraeus, with his record of judgment and creativity, is grounds for confidence that we can succeed.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.