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.
Our 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.