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Is COIN in Afghanistan Realistic? cont.

By Taylor Marvin

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte.

One of the most practical ways to judge a conflict’s chances of success is to try and visualize each sides’ path to victory — the practical, incremental steps each force must take to achieve its overall objective. For a conventional conflict this is easy: defeat the enemy’s forces, destroy their capability to make war and capture their capital. For a modern asymmetrical conflict this is more complex but can be done; you can reasonably draw out the steps needed to capture an enemy leader or prevent a genocide. For our war in Afghanistan it’s much more difficult.

We achieve victory in Afghanistan when we are able to impose our desired political and economic outcome on the country: violence rates low enough to permit only the central government to hold civil authority, broad legitimacy of the government that allows it to be an effective governing body, destruction of the most extreme elements of the Taliban and absorption of more moderate Taliban and tribal fighters into legitimate public society, a robust security force that denies al-Qaeda the ability to operate from Afghan territory and most importantly a economy that offers Afghans enough opportunities to cement the stability of the social order and development.

If this state is the overall goal of the war, what is the path to getting there? If we use the strategies of COIN to visualize the sequential, concrete steps towards victory we get something like this:

  1. Militarily deny the Taliban the ability to control and administer population areas, separating them from their base of support and denying extremists a platform to enhance their public legitimacy.
  2. Convince Afghans that NATO and central government have the will and ability to continue to protect the population and allow for a moderately stable civil society.
  3. The central government gradually establishes legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan society. This is the key to counterinsurgency; if Afghans don’t feel that the government is stable enough to protect them, effective enough to justly govern and fair enough to deserve their allegiance they will look for alternatives, either in the form of the Taliban or tribal societies. Unfortunately this step is difficult, and largely out of American hands. The central Afghan government must become visibly democratic, increase the areas of the country it controls enough to administer, publicly combat corruption and establish strong enough civic institutions to provide public services, security and justice to Afghans.
  4. Reduce Taliban influence, either militarily or by absorbing militants into civil society.
  5. Stimulate economic growth to offer Afghans economic opportunities beyond subsistence farming or poppy growing. This is vital; economic opportunities are a powerful force of stability and rising incomes are what ultimately insure the legitimacy of the government and disenfranchise radical ideology.

The path to an American defeat is simpler:

  1. NATO troops continue to be unable to maintain stable control over the south and east of Afghanistan and the Afghan Army unable to assume a real responsibility for security.
  2. American troops continue to alienate the Afghan population. Most of this can’t be avoided. If America is going to fight the Taliban and kill al-Qaeda leaders then will we have to continue to utilize the airstrikes and drone assassinations that kill civilians and incite hatred of Americans and the government we support. Moreover, the longer American soldiers occupy Afghanistan the more civilian enemies we will make; a very visible occupying force is guaranteed to provoke resentment and increase support for the Taliban.
  3. The Afghan central government continues to be enormously corrupt and generally ineffective and unable to provide security, public services or economic activity. Afghans increasingly feel that the government doesn’t respect their needs and is a puppet of the American occupiers and that the Taliban both represents them and can provide the social order and justice that the government can’t. Karzai’s government is largely composed of Afghan ethnic minorities and has proven that it cannot provide any real services to its citizens and the longer this status quo continues the less and less loyalty Afghans will feel to the government.
  4. The Taliban is able to assume the mantle of legitimacy in much of Afghanistan; gradually raising the costs of continued American involvement in the country enough that domestic pressure caused the US to withdraw. The remnant of the central government quickly falls.

Which of these scenarios seems more likely? The most important developments to an eventual US victory is the emergence of a legitimate, effective Afghan government and growing economy; if these don’t occur we simply won’t win. What is discouraging is that these two necessary developments are the furthest from American influence. Afghanistan is a country that has never had a government actually able to administer all of its territory or anything resembling a growing national economy and the cultural and geographic barriers that prevented these institutions from emerging in the past haven’t changed.

The key point is that every real development in Afghanistan in the last five years has favored the Taliban — the Taliban only has to preserve the current status quo to ensure its eventual victory. McChrystal once remarked that no one is winning in Afghanistan, but really that stalemate means that the Taliban is. Every day that the US is unable to improve security or stimulate the emergence of a legitimate, effective central government is progress towards an eventual Taliban, not American, success. So once again, who’s path to victory seems easier to imagine?

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