I’ve spent the last two days with people who are or have been intimately involved with the war in Afghanistan since 2001. Their comments were off the record, so I can’t reveal their names, but they included current and former members of the Canadian Forces, DFAIT, the Privy Council Office, CIDA, the Afghan government, the U.S. Department of State, as well as several academics and members of various NGOs. Here are some of their observations:
– The security situation is a mess and is getting worse. The Taliban are spreading into more territory, and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) doesn’t have enough troops on the ground to stop them. “You win counter-insurgency locally,” said one man in a position to know. But we don’t have enough soldiers to hold territory once the Taliban are pushed out. Too few soldiers means an over-reliance on air power – which inevitably leads to civilian casualties, more resentment, and an intensified insurgency.
– The Afghan government and army will not be able to secure the country on their own by 2011 – the date by which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to withdraw Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan. If our commitment is to amount to anything, it should be generational.
– There is too little coordination among the multitude of Western actors in Afghanistan, including NATO allies. Different countries have different agendas. Their armed forces and development workers are not cooperating or working toward the same goals.
– Dozens of countries have sent troops to be part of the ISAF mission, but deployments consisting of a few hundred soldiers, or fewer, are more trouble than they’re worth. They complicate attempts to forge a unified and cohesive mission without adding much in the way of manpower. Restrictive rules of engagement also limit their effectiveness. Afghans notice.
– Too much of the money that Western nations ostensibly spend on Afghanistan never makes it to Central Asia. It is spent in the countries where it was pledged, on consultants, researchers, and administrators. Money that does reach Afghanistan often ends up in the hands of overpriced contractors. Other funds are channeled to NGOs, bypassing the Afghan government. Afghan officials say their country will never have a strong and stable government unless it can deliver the services now typically provided by NGOs. Others counter that it’s necessary to fund NGOs rather than the government because of corruption.
– A successful counter-insurgency involves clearing territory, holding that territory by establishing a presence on it, and then building infrastructure and bringing assistance to the area with the goal of winning over the local population. Western armed forces in Afghanistan have been good at the first task – killing or driving out the enemy – but not the last two. This applies to the Canadians as well. Operation Medusa, for example, the Canadian-led offensive against a Taliban stronghold in 2006, was a military success but not a strategic one. Canadians and other NATO allies drove out the Taliban but were not ready to consolidate their success with development assistance. “We’ve been playing catch-up ever since,” said one man who’s now dealing with the repercussions of that oversight.
– Western soldiers were once seen as liberators by most Afghans. Now, they’re regarded as a necessary evil.
– The Taliban’s strategy is to wait us out.