September 13, 2007

Afghanistan on the Edge

RAND Review

A World at Risk of Winning the Urban Battle, Losing the Rural War, Abandoning the Regional Solution

By John Godges

John Godges is a RAND communications analyst and editor-in-chief of RAND Review.

About a year ago, Seth Jones was riding in a military convoy as it rumbled toward the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was heartened by how much better things seemed around him in comparison with his previous trips to the city.

An Afghan soldier guards the site of a suicide car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 8, 2006. The bomber slaughtered 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers, in a massive explosion outside the U.S. Embassy, the deadliest suicide attack in the Afghan capital since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

“There were lots of foreign cars. There were computer shops and ATM machines. There were girls shuffling to school on the sidewalks of the city. It had noticeably changed in a positive way. Just driving through the center of the city left a striking impression. It was awash in modern amenities.”

But then he heard a thunderous blast from behind. He turned and saw a fireball belching brown smoke. “It was one of the cars behind us. We were three or four cars in front. We kept going. It wasn’t clear who hit it. It was nerve-wracking.”

It was the largest suicide attack ever in Kabul to date. Just 50 yards from the landmark Massood Square that borders the main gate of the U.S. Embassy, the driver of a Toyota Surf sport utility vehicle had rammed his bomb-laden cargo into a U.S. Army Humvee on that sunlit day of September 8, 2006, killing 16 people, including two U.S. Army reservists, and wounding 29 others. The vast majority of those killed or wounded were Afghan civilians.

At the time, most of the fighting in Afghanistan was confined to the eastern and southern provinces. But the suicide attack compelled Jones to reconsider the nation’s progress.

“The major cities, including the capital, were now targets,” he said. “There was a level of vulnerability I’d not felt before.” In many rural areas, “you knew it would be violent. But Kabul had been relatively safe. The key realization was that security, even in the capital, could not be taken for granted. Had that suicide bomber gone a little earlier, I’d be done.”

Clash of Images

Afghanistan confounds the visitor with images that could either augur better days or portend disaster, according to Jones, 34, a RAND political scientist and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the Naval Postgraduate School. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he has analyzed the state of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He has traveled to nearly all areas of the country since 2004, meeting with villagers, city residents, police officers, local army units, intelligence officials, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, President Karzai’s national security council, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, and U.S., Canadian, and British military commanders.

“The U.S., NATO, and the Afghan government are losing. Not in Kandahar City or Kabul. The cities are held by the military forces. But there is deep penetration by the Taliban in rural areas.”
“Most people who go to Afghanistan just don’t get out,” he said. “They travel in military convoys and hide in embassies.” He has made a conscious effort to talk to the locals and to blend in by growing his beard, wearing the shalwar kameez (the traditional male dress of knee-length shirt with baggy pants), and traveling with Afghans.

Since 2004, the prevailing trends in the capital have been encouraging, he said. “Kabul is modernizing in ways that it hadn’t been before. The security situation has declined there over the last year or two, but it’s entirely different than when I first visited.” Commerce flows. People go online. Children of both sexes attend school. Many women show their faces and have taken off their burqas, the outer garment worn by some women in Afghanistan that covers the entire head and body.

“Counter to that [view of progress] is flying over what used to be barren or wheat fields now awash in the beautiful reddish, maroon, and yellow colors of poppy, especially in spring before the harvest.” Poppy is the source of the global heroin trade, of revenue for the resurgent Taliban, and of corruption among warlords and even Afghan government officials. “The increase in cultivation and production of poppy is astounding,” said Jones (see Figure 1).

The most telling signs about the country are often the hardest ones to spot. “People who don’t travel outside urban areas wouldn’t see them. You see the battles going on in the rural areas, especially in the south and east, over the hearts and minds of the population.”

Home to 75 percent of the population, the rural areas are where the Taliban and al Qaeda wage their information campaigns. They tack threatening leaflets on doors, store weapons caches just outside the villages, and publicly hang tribal leaders who cooperate with the government. The cowed locals find it “acceptable” to let insurgents operate nearby. “The population in the rural areas end up giving up, and that’s most of the country,” said Jones.

“Russia controlled the cities, not the rural areas,” he recalled. “They lost. That is the challenge that faces the U.S., NATO, and the Afghan government today. It’s the fight over the hearts and minds in rural areas. The U.S., NATO, and the Afghan government are losing. Not in Kandahar City or Kabul. The cities are held by the military forces. But there is deep penetration by the Taliban in rural areas. Not many people see that.”

British General Sir David Richards, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan until February 2007, said in October 2006 that the majority of Afghans would decide within a year whether to abandon the international community’s efforts and instead support resurgent Taliban militants.
Measures of Nation-Building
Jones and his RAND colleagues have estimated the amount of time, troops, and money required for successful nation-building efforts, based on historical cases. In a country such as Somalia or Afghanistan, he said, it takes “much longer than five years to be successful.” It has been nearly six years since reconstruction began in Afghanistan in late 2001, but any assessment of the nation’s progress must account for enormous internal variations.

In Afghanistan, Jones sees distinct nation-building timelines for the south, east, north, west, center, and areas in between. In the south and east, where most of the fighting has occurred, “we’re closer to years one or two than five or six.” In the north, home to the Northern Alliance that helped rout the Taliban in 2001, “we certainly would be in year five or six. The security situation is relatively benign. Reconstruction is actually possible. International organizations can take money, build infrastructure, and train staff at hospitals in the north.”

In the west, there has been faltering progress. “A year ago, the west was on par with the north. That clock’s begun to slow down a little bit” because of the spreading insurgency in areas such as Shindand in Herat Province. Likewise, the center was holding until recently. “Kabul was on track for progress until 2006. That’s slowed down, too.” He cited a May 2006 U.S. military convoy traffic accident, which killed at least one Afghan civilian and sparked mass rioting, as the turning point in the capital.

Then there are the remote villages scattered about the country. “If you were to travel from Kabul to Herat by foot, you’d see areas that haven’t been touched and have probably seen literally nobody come through. Pockets of the country where there’s been no assistance or international presence or funding at all are in year zero or have even gone back in time.”

Regarding the number of troops required for successful nation-building missions, RAND analysts have proposed a “gold standard” of 20 security personnel per 1,000 inhabitants, or 2 percent of the population. The personnel could be any combination of international troops plus local forces. Under favorable conditions, the criterion could be reduced to a minimum of 10 security forces per 1,000 residents, or 1 percent of the population.

As of a July 2007 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimate, Afghanistan has nearly 32 million people. Today, security forces in the country total only 143,500 — including 85,000 Afghan personnel, 35,000 NATO personnel, and 23,500 U.S. personnel — amounting to less than half of 1 percent of the population. While there is no fixed formula for the number of troops required for success in any given country, the proportion of troops to population in Afghanistan has historically been among the very lowest (see Figure 2).

“The challenge is to match resources with objectives,” said Jones, “to lay out a strategy that is possible to implement. The fact is you won’t have the required number of U.S. troops unless the U.S. redeploys them from other countries, such as Iraq. That puts the U.S. in a perplexing policy position. More troops would be better. A lot more would be best.”

Best of all worlds, noted Obaid Younossi, a RAND analyst who grew up in Afghanistan, would be for an increased number of U.S. and NATO forces to focus on training and equipping even larger numbers of indigenous Afghan security forces so they could play a greater role in combating the insurgency and other criminal activities. “Afghanistan has no shortage of potential fighters,” said Younossi. “Throughout their history, Afghans have demonstrated that they are fierce protectors of their sovereignty and freedom.”

A lot more money would be best as well. Jones has written that foreign aid of $100 per capita per year would be a “minimum level for successful stability operations.” But when foreign aid to Afghanistan reached its peak in 2002 and 2003, it averaged only $57 per capita per year. To put these numbers in perspective, the comparable foreign aid figures for the relatively successful nation-building efforts of the 1990s in Kosovo and Bosnia were, respectively, $526 and $679 per capita per year (see Figure 3).

The prognosis for Afghanistan today is even worse than the diagnosis of national need would suggest, according to Jones, because the sickness now extends beyond the nation itself. “Even if you had maximum troops and maximum money at your disposal” to treat Afghanistan, “that would not get you to success, because you’re talking about a larger geographical area. We are now at the point where this is a regional problem.”

The National Intelligence Estimate, written by the U.S. National Intelligence Council and constituting the most formal assessment since 9/11 of the terrorist threats facing the United States, concluded in July that the strategy for fighting al Qaeda across the Afghan border in Pakistan had largely failed. The report found that al Qaeda has strengthened significantly over the past two years, primarily because of the safe haven in which it has been operating in Pakistan.

Pakistani tribesmen read a pamphlet distributed by militants at the main bazaar of Miran Shah, the main town of the volatile Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, along the Afghan border, on July 15, 2007. That day, militants in the region, where Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents operate, announced that they were breaking a ten-month-old peace deal with the Pakistani government.
Given the Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan, the estimates of need for Afghanistan “would be insufficient to deal with the sanctuary,” said Jones. “To expand the scope of the problem regionally, the numbers would have to increase commensurately.”

“What the U.S. has done since 2001 is fight a Pakistan-Afghanistan insurgency in Afghanistan only. We could send lots of troops from Iraq to fight in Afghanistan and still not deal with the sanctuary challenge.”
The correct way to do the math today would be to add the population of Afghanistan to the populations of the Pakistani territories of northern Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and then calculate the required troops and dollars for the larger region. “Because that’s where the insurgency is taking place,” Jones emphasized.

“It would be helpful to redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. But that would not, in and of itself, cause success. What the U.S. has done since 2001 is fight a Pakistan-Afghanistan insurgency in Afghanistan only. We could send lots of troops from Iraq to fight in Afghanistan and still not deal with the sanctuary challenge.”

Knowing the Terrain
Many countries in the region have complicated U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, he said. “Pakistan has the most significant role. Iran has a small amount of arms flowing in. Indian involvement in reconstruction in Afghanistan has caused Pakistan to feel very insecure. The Russians are providing support to tribal leaders and warlords in the north of Afghanistan. Engaging a variety of actors in the region is an important step to take.”

Mohammed Shah speaks in his village of Spirwan, Afghanistan, on February 24, 2007. He said errant NATO bombs killed his wife, two daughters, and three sons. He lost his entire family that day. Before the deaths, “I wasn’t with the Taliban, and I wasn’t with the government. But now I am Talib.”

Figure 4 —The 1893 Durand Line Is the Source of a Continuing Border Dispute Between Afghanistan and Pakistan

The good news is that the world need not look far for a solution. In late November and early December 2001, just days after the Taliban’s ouster, world leaders demonstrated how shared problems in the region could be resolved. The United Nations convened the regional powers in Bonn, Germany, to negotiate the architecture of the current Afghan government. Among those representing the U.S. delegation were its leader, Ambassador James Dobbins, who is now a RAND analyst, and Zalmay Khalilzad, a former RAND analyst who is now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The negotiations included the other key regional players: Iran, China, Pakistan, Russia, and India. By all accounts, the group succeeded in establishing a mutually acceptable government in Afghanistan.

“But that dissipated quickly,” said Jones. “We need to return to that framework. Working on a regional strategy to deal with the insurgency is critical.”

One source of regional conflict is a long-festering border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The dispute dates back to 1893 when Pakistan was still part of British India. At the time, Sir Mortimer Durand, foreign secretary of the colonial government of India, and the ruler of Afghanistan, Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, agreed on a border between Afghanistan and the British Indian empire and called this border the Durand Line. Today, Afghanistan considers the Durand Line, which divides the Pashtun population, to have lapsed. Pakistan, however, still recognizes the Durand Line (see Figure 4).

“This is a major source of tension,” said Jones. “The Afghans claim the border should be drawn much deeper into what is now Pakistan. Pakistan wants to leave the border where it is. There have been no efforts to resolve the situation.”

Meanwhile, Pakistani concerns have mounted about the growing role of India, which has established close diplomatic ties with the Afghan government, constructed its parliament building, and rebuilt many Afghan roads. To the chagrin of Pakistan, India has become Afghanistan’s “closest regional ally by far,” said Jones.

“This is driving some elements of the Pakistani government to support Afghan insurgent groups. In strategy journals in Pakistan, there is a constant driving theme that India has encircled them. So there are some Pakistanis who are willing to work with groups like the Taliban that can push the Pakistani sphere of influence into the south and east of Afghanistan. In a sense, Afghanistan is the site of a proxy war between Pakistan and India.”

No wonder the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan has become a no man’s land inviting to terrorists, while India and Pakistan wrestle for Kabul. Jones believes that India should become a central player in a new round of regional negotiations that would have two goals: to deny the Taliban and al Qaeda their sanctuary in the ungoverned border area and to remove Kabul as a point of contention between India and Pakistan.

If regional negotiations could once again set the ground rules for rebuilding Afghanistan, Jones proposes that an international civilian leader be appointed to coordinate foreign aid efforts in the country. After the fall of the Taliban, in contrast, Western countries established a “lead nation” approach to rebuilding Afghanistan’s security sector. Under the lead-nation approach, Germany would train the Afghan police, Italy would reform the judiciary, Britain would counter narcotics, Japan and the United Nations would disarm illegal armed groups, and the United States would build the Afghan Army.

“This arrangement was not successful,” said Jones. “Rather than revisit the lead-nation approach, one option would be to move in the direction of what has been done in the Balkans.” There, for example, the international community’s high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a rotating position held by world diplomats since 1995, beginning with former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and followed by successors from Spain, Austria, Britain, Germany, and Slovakia.

Afghan girls in the northern Parwan province walk toward the Mollia Girls School on its inaugural day of August 31, 2006. The school serves five villages with a total of about 350 school-age girls.
“A high representative would obviously not actually run Afghanistan, but he or she would increase efficiency,” said Jones. “The main job would be to coordinate civilian reconstruction efforts” among local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and international agencies such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

“What gives me hope is in the areas of Afghanistan where international assistance has touched the population, mostly in the urban areas,” said Jones. “Seeing the changes in education — in the number of schools, the number of people going to school, the number of girls going to school — does give me hope that, over the last several years, the international community has had a positive impact on some places in Afghanistan.”

Ground Zero
The dangers of delaying assistance to the rest of Afghanistan are graver than ever, Jones warned. “The Taliban, al Qaeda, and other insurgent groups are more competent today than they were on 9/11 in several ways.”

Technologically, they have improved their use of media for spreading propaganda and for recruiting, and they have expanded their use of improvised explosive devices. “They’ve developed more-sophisticated types of weapons because they’ve been involved in fighting on multiple fronts against U.S. forces, especially in Iraq. This is an important area of increased competence.”

Structurally, al Qaeda has struck an adroit balance by emboldening new autonomous franchises while retaining its top-down leadership. Jones described al Qaeda today as four rings of concentric circles: al Qaeda central, affiliated groups, loose networks of affiliated individuals, and other individuals inspired to take independent action.

“My biggest fear about Afghanistan is that the population could give up on the government.”
Numerically and geographically, “al Qaeda has spread its tentacles.” Between 1995 and 2001, the group averaged fewer than two attacks per year. Between 2002 and 2006, it averaged ten attacks per year, excluding Iraq and Afghanistan. The attacks have spread to London, Madrid, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria.

The trend is especially alarming inside Afghanistan. “The number of insurgent-initiated attacks in the country increased by 400 percent from 2002 to 2006. The number of deaths from these attacks increased over 800 percent during the same period,” said Jones. “Many of these attacks were against Afghan civilians, international aid workers, and coalition forces. The increase in violence was particularly acute between 2005 and 2006.”

Jones worries mostly about the Afghan people. “My biggest fear about Afghanistan is that the population could give up on the government. In 2001, there was hope and expectation that the Afghan government, with international assistance, could make life better for Afghans, bring electricity where there was none, increase the flow of water to villages, provide essential services that the Taliban government did not do, increase the basic economic and health and other conditions in the country. My biggest fear is that the Afghan population will eventually give up on the government’s ability to provide these services. It’s already happened in some places.”

An Afghan woman walks along a snowy path in her neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan, on February 19, 2007.
Younossi mentioned that the Afghan government manages only 20 percent of the foreign aid now being sent to the country, with the rest being managed by nongovernmental and international organizations. “If the local government were allowed to manage a larger portion of the aid,” he suggested, “the government might stand a better chance of winning over the people.”

Jones concurs. “Ultimately, counterinsurgency is about governance, about the local government being able to provide security and basic services to its population. Some areas of the country haven’t seen those. That’s what I stay up late at night thinking about: when the population gives up or becomes too fearful because the Taliban has gained control again. That’s the center of gravity. If you lose the population, you lose the war.”

Related Reading
“Afghanistan Needs Help,” United Press International, December 19, 2006, Obaid Younossi.
America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, James Dobbins, John G. McGinn, Keith Crane, Seth G. Jones, Rollie Lal, Andrew Rathmell, Rachel M. Swanger, Anga Timilsina, RAND/MR-1753-RC, 2003, 280 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3460-X.
Full Document

“Averting Failure in Afghanistan,” Survival, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 2006, pp. 111-128, Seth G. Jones.
The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, James Dobbins, Seth G. Jones, Keith Crane, Beth Cole DeGrasse, RAND/MG-557-SRF, 2007, 328 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3988-0.
Full Document

Establishing Law and Order After Conflict, Seth G. Jones, Jeremy M. Wilson, Andrew Rathmell, K. Jack Riley, RAND/MG-374-RC, 2005, 292 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3814-1.
Full Document

“Force Requirements in Stability Operations,” Parameters, Winter 1995, pp. 59-69, James T. Quinlivan.
As of press time: Full Document

“Pakistan’s Dangerous Game,” Survival, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 15-32, Seth G. Jones.
Securing Health: Lessons from Nation-Building Missions, Seth G. Jones, Lee H. Hilborne, C. Ross Anthony, Lois M. Davis, Federico Girosi, Cheryl Benard, Rachel M. Swanger, Anita Datar Garten, Anga Timilsina, RAND/MG-321-RC, 2006, 388 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3729-3.
Full Document

Securing Tyrants or Fostering Reform? U.S. Internal Security Assistance to Repressive and Transitioning Regimes, Seth G. Jones, Olga Oliker, Peter Chalk, C. Christine Fair, Rollie Lal, James Dobbins, RAND/MG-550-OSI, 2006, 232 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4018-3.
Full Document

“The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” National Intelligence Estimate, Washington, D.C.: National Intelligence Council, July 2007, 6 pp.
As of press time: Full Document

The UN’s Role in Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq, James Dobbins, Seth G. Jones, Keith Crane, Andrew Rathmell, Brett Steele, Richard Teltschik, Anga Timilsina, RAND/MG-304-RC, 2005, 318 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3589-4.
Full Document

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