The Last Surge -

The Last Surge

Is Afghanistan ready to take its fate into its own hands? Not yet.


The Last Surge

The first thing you notice about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is how tired people are. At the embassy in Kabul, at the airfield and Provincial Reconstruction Team’s camp in Kandahar, even the military’s staging base Camp Mirage—they’re all going flat out, working 18-hour days, seven days a week.

The second thing you notice is that everyone vibrates with a sort of high-strung urgency. A lot has been written in recent months about the military surge, thanks to Barack Obama’s decision to flood Afghanistan with 30,000 additional troops by summertime. But what you don’t get from the papers is a sense of the surge of effort and intensity from everyone involved—military personnel for sure, but also the diplomats, development workers, and civilian advisers who are all pitching in to the whole-of-government project of building a stable and functioning state.

After almost a decade of mucking about in Afghanistan, the next 12 to 18 months will decide the country’s fate. In one of the many sporting metaphors that people naturally slip into, one Canadian military official described it as “the last college try.”

How are things shaping up? It’s hard to find anyone who will utter a discouraging word. These are almost all type-A personalities, optimists and overachievers used to succeeding at whatever they put their minds to. But as upbeat as they all are, despite their exhaustion, and despite the Sisyphean character of the war against the insurgency, Afghanistan’s fate does not depend on the efforts and abilities of these Canadians, or their counterparts from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan and the rest of the 42-member International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The future of Afghanistan depends ultimately on the Afghan people, and there is little indication that country is remotely ready to stand on its own two feet.

While public attention is focused almost exclusively on our combat mission in Kandahar, Canada has a hand in helping rebuild almost every aspect of the Afghan state. In Kandahar, we are helping train and advise Afghan National Army battalions, while we have police trainers helping build up the basic competence of the Afghan National Police. We are engaged in large-scale engineering and public works projects, building schools, helping train the judiciary and modernize the correctional services, and delivering humanitarian aid. Add Canada’s efforts to that of the dozens of other international partners, and it is clear that what began in 2001 as a military campaign to overthrow the Taliban has evolved into a comprehensive plan to build an Afghan state almost from scratch.

To get a sense of the scale of the challenge, here are some facts about Afghanistan. Life expectancy is 44 years. It has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world. Outbreaks of diseases such as hepatitis and polio are common, and much of the population is generally unhealthy, malnourished, has bad teeth, and—in Kabul anyway—suffers from breathing air said to be full of dusty fecal matter. On the economic side, the country is grindingly poor. Corruption is rampant; last year Afghans paid bribes equivalent to one-quarter of the country’s GDP. Municipal infrastructure is very weak, with electricity supply unreliable even in the cities. The literacy rate is generously estimated to be around 28 per cent (43 per cent of men, but only 13 per cent of women), although there hasn’t been a proper census in over 30 years.

The nub of the problem in Afghanistan is what everyone calls “capacity,” a shifty developmental term that refers, more or less, to the ability of a society to shape and control its own institutions. In the Afghan context, capacity refers primarily to the human resources needed to run a state—people with the basic education and skills to do anything more complicated than simple manual labour. And Afghanistan has virtually no capacity. It isn’t just that people are uneducated or illiterate. The more fundamental difficulty, as one official put it, is that we’re talking about people who for the most part don’t even know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver.

The human resources problem is the bottleneck that everyone working in Afghanistan says is the biggest obstacle to lasting progress. We can give them all the money we have, offer them the best technical advice, provide them with the best training and equipment, but ultimately, success hinges on the ability of the Afghan people to run their own ship of state.

The Last SurgeOur Department of National Defence-sponsored trip from Kabul down to Kandahar coincided with the opening days of Operation Moshtarak, the massive offensive into the city of Marja in Helmand province, which the Taliban have controlled for two years. The operation is intended as a demonstration of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy for beating the Taliban, as well as a test run for a much bigger fight this summer in Kandahar.

The heart of McChrystal’s strategy is a version of the classic COIN process of clearing out the insurgents and then holding the population centres. Once the insurgents have been swept out, the coalition will move in with “government in a box”: the full suite of civic goods, including police and judiciary, basic governance structures, municipal infrastructure, and social services. Ideally, it will happen so quickly and so effectively that the people will be left wondering why they ever gave haven to insurgents in the first place.

ISAF officials are saying that the full counter-insurgency operation in Helmand might take 12 to 18 months, but the first weeks of the operation have already highlighted what is plausible about this plan, and what is so wickedly problematic about the whole Afghanistan state-building adventure.

Militarily, the insurgents don’t have a hope against coalition forces when they stand and fight. But what is really being tested in Operation Moshtarak is whether the Afghan National Army is able to do anything more than just follow the lead of coalition troops. And while there were early anecdotal reports of some ANA troops performing well, the emerging picture is one of an operation that is being planned, supported, and fought by U.S. and British forces. Privately, a Canadian member of a team mentoring an ANA battalion in Kandahar city admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure whether their ongoing support is even a good thing. At what point do the training wheels become a crutch?

In fact, the most disturbing possibility is that the ANA might be the most competent institution in the country, with the remaining building blocks of civil society in even worse shape. The Afghan National Police in particular is hugely corrupt, completely distrusted, widely disloyal, and considered to be part of the problem. A trained and competent judiciary is almost non-existent, while the prison system is only slowly emerging from a medieval nightmare.

This is not a particularly new problem. As Gregory Feifer writes in The Great Gamble, his new book about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the longer the campaign against the mujahedeen wore on, the more obvious it became to Soviet advisers that their Afghan trainees were either unable or unwilling to do the work themselves. Senior Soviet officials became convinced that the only solution was “Afghanization” of the conflict—leaving it to local forces to fight it out amongst themselves.

That’s probably not necessary this time. After years of engaging in what military officials call “mowing the grass” (i.e., bouncing from one part of the country to another in search of insurgents to kill), the “clear and hold” elements of Gen. McChrystal’s COIN strategy are sound. In contrast, the idea of installing a reasonably functional “government in a box” runs smack into the insuperable problem of absent capacity.

Back-of-the-napkin calculations suggest that Afghanistan stands in immediate need of something like a million and a half educated and dedicated people, just to get the state back on its feet. Where are they going to come from? There’s the educated Afghan diaspora, but it has been almost completely tapped. The only remaining source of human capital is the school system, and this is one area that has seen some obvious progress. When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 there were only 700,000 children in school; now there are seven million. Educating people takes a long time, though, and when they are at their most open, Canadian officials concede that we are at least a decade away from being able to turn Afghanistan over to the Afghans.

The military campaign against the insurgency, though, is based around a 12- to 18-month timeline for success or failure, and it is increasingly obvious that the coalition partners are running out of patience. The Dutch are on their way out, the Canadians are set to follow them, and officials are starting to worry about a domino effect as country after country heads for the exit.

After years of getting everything wrong in Afghanistan, we are finally starting to get things right. But with the international community already planning its withdrawal, it is increasingly clear that what Afghanistan needs is the one thing we are no longer willing to give it. Time.


The Last Surge

  1. How can you expect "Democracy" to win in a country which, as you state, has "no capacity". Democracy is supposed to be the rule of the mayority. But if the mayority is uneducatet, illiterate and has "no capacity". Is their opinion really relevant?
    We should hope to have the time to change their world around, but the truth is that we have neither the time nor, presently the economic resources for this.
    Let´s save what´s left of our civilization.
    The rest of the world can save their own, if they want to.

    • the key is what is meant by capacity. At this time, perhaps the Afghan people do not have the capacity to run a Western democratic, economic state. But I can assure you that their opinion is relevant. As the article says, ultimately, it is their sense of responsibility that will be the turning point of whether or not they step out of illiteracy, poverty, and corruption. I am not so stuck on the rigidity of "capacity." Every person has the potential to step out of corruption and into generosity, if given the right vision.

  2. ANB lacks the "capacity" to remember 9/11.

  3. Pretty well written article. During my deployment to Afghanistan, where I worked with some of the Canadian troops in the Kandahar region, I realized that the country cannot possibly get where we hope it will go without at least 10 more years of support and nourishment by the coalition forces.

    "Give us 20, or better yet, 30 years, and see what good stuff we can make happen there" I told my family when I got back. But the author is right, probably, and few if any of the coalition governments will permit an involvement that lasts that long. More is the pity, since we genuinely have a shot at dragging Afghanistan from the 3rd world to the 2nd if we manage to stick to our guns.

  4. Just about ten twenty thirty forty years ago I set out on Obama's Afghanistan road,
    Seekin' my fame and glory, lookin' to turn the POS mullah's hemorrhoid into a pot of gold.
    Well, things got bad, and things got worse, I guess you will know the tune.
    Oh ! lord, stuck in Obama's Afghanistan yet again.

    Flew in yet again on a big plane, I hope I'll be in one piece flyin out when I go.
    I was yet again just passin' through, must now be yet another 5 10 15 20 tours or more.
    Running out of time and patience [
    "Not to complain but whatever the hell happened to my youth?!"], looks like they took still more of my friends.
    Oh ! lord, Im stuck in Obama's Afghanistan yet again.

    The Hope and Change man in the White House said yet again I was on my way.
    Somewhere I lost his connection, he ran out of words to say.
    I came into Kabul, yet another one year stand, looks like the plans fell through yet again
    Oh ! lord, stuck in Obama's Afghanistan yet again.

    If I only had a woman ["Hey Jack, do you remember what a woman is?"], for evry Obama tour Ive done.
    And evry time Ive had to fight while cheered on by CINO's Obama and his many successors sat back home oblivious to Islam and power drunk.
    You know, Id like to catch the next plane back to where Im from.
    Oh ! lord, Im stuck in Obama's Afghanistan yet again.
    Oh ! lord, Im stuck in Obama's Afghanistan yet again.

    – CCR Soldier Boy

  5. Well the (other) viable option is to have small teams work with the tribes. Hopefully this is part of the second follow on wave to the 18 months of COIN – the second phase being FID (Foreign Internal Defense).

  6. Sorry above is a link to "One Tribe at a Time" by US Special Forces Major Jim Gant.

  7. A new experience in surreal irony has surfaced on YouTube in the form of “Dutch Capitulation in Afganistan -De Val van Balkenende” – maybe the best adaptation of Hitler Bunker scene yet.
    One of the leading candidates for President of Europe last year, the Dutch PM Balkenende saw his Government collapse over his insistance to extend the Dutch troops stay in Afganistan.
    In an eerily similar storyline to the original 3rd Reich version, watch how effortlessly actual Balkenende quotes flow from Hitler's mouth “What is needed is strength, not the easy way out'…not to mention an uncanny physical resemblence (when Hitler wears glasses).
    It is also interesting to watch "Hitler's" enthusiasm for utilising 'anti-hate' laws to persecute those who in his eyes have caused 'offence'.

  8. MIssed this article when it came out. Andrew, this is a very well-written and disturbingly frank assessment. Thank you.

    Do we have it in us to stay with the Afghans until they have it in them? Sadly, no, we don't.

  9. Afghanistan is a really big mess right now that's for sure. Well as they say "time heals"

  10. They really need to get in shape and in touch with their economy.