Notes from Kabul: Thoughts on Building Peace and Nations in an Insurgency

Eleven years into the post-9/11 operation to remove the terrorist threat posed by the Taliban and their one-time Al-Qaeda allies from Afghanistan, the international effort is winding down. International troop numbers have already shrunk from a peak of over 135,000 in 2011, to a forecast 100,000 by the end of 2012. If plans work out, this will be half this number again by the end of 2013 and reduce further to around 25,000 12 months beyond that date. At the same time, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is being built up as a 350,000-strong local lead.  

Things have changed a great deal, and much of it for the better.

The province of Bamyan is one example.  In 2001 it was best known for the giant Buddha statues which the Taliban blew up in a pique of religious intolerance in March 2001. Today it is a centerpiece of mining prospecting, a sector which offers as much as $1 trillion in rewards for the country – providing that long-term stability and rule of law can be assured for investors and the prospects do not fall prey to corruption and a flurry of speculators.

It is too easy, especially for those far away, to dismiss the progress made in Afghanistan by enormous sacrifice and cost. As of the start of 2012, an estimated $285 billion in military and other forms of assistance had been invested there since the 2001 invasion, including nearly $40 billion in development assistance. Today Afghanistan’s inflow of development aid – US$16 billion in 2010 alone – is about the same as the country’s gross domestic product.

Yet the international operation contains many lessons for others. And many of these lessons – while apposite for others – are not especially positive, despite (and perhaps because of) the extent of international dedication. In part, some of the reasons for failure are entirely of the interveners' own making. As will be seen, others relate more specifically to the nature of Afghanistan’s own politics, the health of its civil society, its tribal ties, and leadership.

Initially the centre-piece of an anti-terrorist action which morphed into a counter-insurgency and peace-building operation, today Afghanistan contains elements of all three.

‘Peace-building’ may best define the mission as the international community seeks to cement its security gains and craft the terms of its withdrawal. In the Afghan context, it is one of state-building, where foreign militaries and donors acting in partnership with local actors attempt to provide the security, aid and political back-up enabling the reconstruction of the domestic physical and economic infrastructure along with the political and social fabric. They are usually guided both by national interests (given the threat these countries can pose to others, such as through terrorism), and a sense of charity and empathy towards those less fortunate. Peace-building is led by the notion that not only do others want to be helped, however, but that they can be helped.

This is not to belittle the sacrifices made. On the international side, there are many people involved with good intentions and making remarkable sacrifices of family, resources and, sadly too, lives in these foreign pursuits. These missions are however hamstrung by a number of qualities.

There is widespread risk aversion. This is likely to increase in Afghanistan as nations, soldiers, contractors and civilians eye the withdrawal date for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at the end of 2014. Similarly, the volume of international development aid is already reducing: USAID, for example, has reduced its commitments from $3.4 billion in 2010 to $2.1 billion in 2011 to $1.8 billion in 2012 and probably $1.5 billion in 2013, even though the backed-up aid pipeline for future projects remained in late 2012 at $5 billion.

No-one wants to be the last person to die in Afghanistan for a mission that is already seen by many to be over. The extent of the aversion means that the ratio of security providers versus development implementers, or process against projects, is skewed towards the former. The result is a Kabul-centric international system of people keeping people busy, or of providing security for others attempting to make things happen.

Afghanistan has also been suffocated by having too many, rather than too few people, perhaps because of the focus on counter-insurgency density ratios of troop-to-insurgents as an article of faith. This is certainly true of the ISAF bureaucracy, and lends itself to a focus also on process rather than outcomes, and often to overwhelming an already weak local state partner by the swarm of NGOs, IGOs and other mostly foreign actors. There are often too many people dedicated to apparently the same tasks, not least in the field of development aid.

The Failure of Aid

Overall, Afghanistan is characterized by a failure of aid. This applies in part to the issue again of process over implementation. The UK Department of International Development has no fewer than 60 staff in its Kabul office to administer £180 million annually as one example. USAID has a staff of 250 in Kabul. Paradoxically, the ability for these organisations to oversee projects and scrutinise spending is highly limited.

It is also exemplified by a widespread institutional defensiveness which emanates, though this is changing for the better in Afghanistan as the end of the (current) mission draws near. Given the volumes of aid which have flowed to there since 2001, over $40 billion in total, Afghanistan is a worst-case example of such ‘best-practice’. The fact that this is now widely recognized including by the aid-agencies themselves, illustrates how deep-rooted these practices are and yet, paradoxically, fundamentally how difficult it is to impose from outside a new operating system.

In particular, the aid mission in Afghanistan has been continuously epitomized by a failure to understand and act to assist the private sector. Hardly surprising since ‘Most bureaucrats in aid have no experience in business,’ as one aid administrator has reflected, ‘as they have never been in business their lives.’ Furthermore, aid has served to reinforce corruptive practices and distort local lines of accountability. Aid missions have also typically been ideological and personalized. Nowhere more can this be seen in the issue of support for or against electrical power as an article of faith. This is exacerbated by the duration of the mission in Afghanistan. As one advisor now in Somalia put it, ‘Afghanistan is so last year’. The quality of individuals involved has suffered, as has enthusiasm, while retaining little of the continuity between missions.

There is also a focus on studying things and coming up with grand new ideas as another attempted silver-bullet rather than attempting to improve the current realities and thereby enable growth and jobs.

Take the carpet sector, one that employs over three million Afghans, more than drugs.

Today many carpets are smuggled out through Pakistan, both to avoid taxes and to gain a ‘Made in Pakistan’ label to enable onward export. Reinforcing success of the licit economy rather than focusing on the illicit, drug economy is one of the many lessons learnt about aid to Afghanistan. Afghans need to improve their relationship with Pakistan and vice versa, of this is should be no doubt. But finding logistical trade route alternatives will help, as will better aligning Afghan products to market demands. The aidistas have helped very little in this regard, dismissing the sector as a ‘no-growth area’ and favouring a focus on mining, which is important, but would be a long-term revenue earner rather than a job intensive sector.  

Develop Like the Donors

Overall there is a systemic and conceptual failure to concentrate aid efforts to develop the target state in the same way as the donors themselves developed earlier. There has been systematic compromise favouring short-term expediency and desire to get on with local power-brokers at the expense of much else. In this regard, military needs have not always productively intersected with developmental requirements.

For example, seed and fertiliser programmes aimed at creating a bubble of activity and growth in areas (such as Kandahar and Helmand) where the insurgency has been at its worst, has created ‘imbalance in the market and a false set of expectations’. Indeed, the problem in these areas is not the volume of agricultural produce per se, but communications, access, markets and power. Along with diabolical relations with Pakistan this is also why so little value is added to Afghanistan’s products, and explains why most markets sell the same local stuff where much of the alternatives on offer as a result are from, guess where, Pakistan.

Too little attention has generally been lavished on areas of comparative stability and success, in the north and west for example, while the instability in the restive south and east has benefited greatly from extraordinary aid flows and foreign military attention. It has, in one sense, paid them to be troublesome. International assistance, military and civilian, to Afghanistan has been tactically-driven, not strategic.

There has similarly been too much focus on big men, and too little attention on civil society. Naturally local elites are mostly very happy to go along with such interventions, since they can make a lot of money out of this. The big money in this regard is not from the annual aid tranche (which peaked in Afghanistan at around $10 billion in 2010) but from military construction and logistics contracts, the share of nearly $100 billion in annual military expenditure. Little wonder that foreigners say ‘the Afghans play us’.

Yes they do, not least since they realise that this opportunity will not last.

By comparison, society’s smaller men (and women) are usually prey for the different protagonists. As one ISAF officer in Helmand said: ‘What most farmers don't want are guys in black turbans or, for that matter, us interfering in their lives; like everyone else they want only to get on with their lives.’

The most positive outcome of the past decade has probably been in cell-phone usage which has empowered the individual over inefficient governance and institutions. Around half of Afghanistan’s 35m population has sim-cards and access to television, 85 percent listen to the radio, and more than two million surf the internet. Cell-phone banking is now available, hopefully spearheading lower capital costs and improved access. Digital communications is also a key tool in turning the tide on widespread government corruption, connecting and emboldening civil society. It will be hard to put this technological progress back in the box, no matter who comes to power in Kabul; and in the interim,  the means should be found to encourage it.

Widespread corruption will only be defeated by the emergence of a middle-class. Big men can be temporarily shamed and squeezed by sanctions (though this depends on the presence of will, and qualities of moral governance more than expediency), but will in the long-term only be ended by a powerful and vociferous segment of the population which is aggrieved over corruption because they don't benefit from it and it costs their pocket.

Comparing Leadership

On leadership, it is instructive to compare Colombia and Afghanistan, the former which has since the advent of President Alvaro Uribe Velez in 2002 (and subsequently from 2010 or President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón) has been blessed with exceptional qualities. The manner in which President Uribe conceptualised the government’s approach in dealing the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrilla movement has been instrumental in Colombia’s success in this regard. The government in Bogota has viewed the struggle with the FARC as one in extending governance and state authority to the 75 percent of Colombia where it was not present for a long time, through a concept known as ‘democratic security’.

As one retired general put it in 2010 about the FARC’s motivation, ‘They fight because they do not have opportunities in life. The areas where they live were not taken care of by the state – simply, the government did not go there. There are few options for them but to pick up a gun, even though that is not an easy life. It is also partly about values. It is also not just about a lack of education: after all, everyone is a doctor in Cuba, but there is still no employment.’ He added, ‘If there is space where the state is not present, then someone else will be – whether this be the delinquent, the terrorist, the drug-dealer, the guerrilla, or the paramilitaries.’

At the time of Uribe’s inauguration under the sound of distant mortar fire in August 2002, 120 (of 1,099) mayors could not govern from their municipal offices, and there were no police stations in 158 of these municipalities. As his vice-president (and radio journalist) Francisco Santos Calderón put it: ‘The security situation was like the parable of the frog which is slowly heated up in warm water, never realizing that he is being cooked alive. Well, the population was the frog, and we did not realize how bad things had become as a society.’ Colombia was then, as one cabinet minister noted, ‘like Europe in the middle-ages, a bunch of city-states.’

Uribe’s campaign to counter the FARC involved a targeted military approach backed up with liberal economic reforms (creating a decade of solid growth and foreign investment), reintegration of guerrillas in society, a counter-narcotics strategy, political talks with the FARC, infrastructure expenditure (especially on roads – they ‘move the guerrilla out and business in’, says one officer) and extensive consultations in the countryside led by leadership. Uribe led the way in the latter regard, staging day-long, televised consultations known as consejos comunitarios (Community Councils) each Saturday across the country, where the audience could pose questions to him and ministers. This way he covered most of the 1,100 municipalities and 32 regions in his eight years, many more than once, creating positive public relations, but a genuine feedback loop.

Will someone be to Afghanistan what Uribe, and now Santos have been to Colombia?

Act According to Local Realities

Poor political leadership reflects, to an extent, local realities, including whether elites can get away with it. But states are the way they are and won’t be changed quickly by a few good men arriving with impressive technology and kit.

For example, Afghanistan operates according to tightly-bound links of kinship, tribalism and patronage. Nationalism is, at best, sub-ordinate to these impulses.

In this regard, foreign forces can serve just to make things unstable by their presence, by taking the fight to the enemy. Afghan detainees in Helmand articulate ‘British forces are a tribe from the north who come down and fight the Afghans about every 100 years.’ Or as one conflict and development adviser based in Helmand for seven years has observed: ‘Being here in Helmand has made things less stable even though it has also increased freedom of choice.’ The contrast with the more base-bound Italians in Herat may be illustrative – where less activity seems to have led to less insecurity.

Related to this, Afghanistan has also become a mission where Special Forces have taken the combat lead in killing or ‘lifting’ insurgents from the battle-field. Although these operations continue  apace it would seem that they have done little more than create some temporary security space, or ‘mow the grass’ as one British Commander has put it. It certainly has not answered and resolved ‘why’ the targeted individuals take up arms.  

Here is probably the greatest challenge, what one military officer described as ‘the Alpha male phenomenon’. There is a need to shape the military – among other interveners – as much as anything. There is little doubt that the military should be consulted on the ‘how’ in such peace-building environments, given that they are often the only institution willing and able to operate in these risky environments. But given their institutional and personal interests in so doing, their view should not be decisive on the ‘whether’ to intervene question.

Lessons for the Future?

This raises, in turn, how future missions might better occur – or, indeed, with the benefit of hindsight how the Afghan mission might better have been conducted. This question assumes that the mission in Afghanistan would inevitably, as it has done, have gone beyond the immediate aim to remove the Taleban from power and its sanctuary for Al Qaeda.

Colombia’s recent success at addressing the related problems of extending governance and inclusive growth in countering a narco-insurgency, stresses the importance of having local leadership concerned with the minutiae of government alongside military strength, strategies that encourage economic growth, and a political process enabling reintegration.  But where the local government is much weaker, as in Afghanistan, and there is a requirement to base foreign peace-keepers and builders as topical ‘nibs’ through which the counter-insurgency ‘ink’ of governance and stability can flow, a model of the future could be that of a ‘turbo-charged’ Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), run by private civilians, less risk-averse than bureaucrats, and enabled by Special Forces in more of a traditional ‘white’ civic action rather than ‘black’ interdiction role. Less use of military forces, more of civilian aircraft and technologies, and overall much greater focus on enabling the economy for Afghans rather than spending money on them through traditional aid would bring greater rewards. Indeed, the Afghan role of the US Department of Defense’s Task Force Business & Stability Operations (TFBSO) is one that deserves to be replicated on a greater scale, offering support to Afghans in the areas that they need it most.

This turbo-charged PRT, or perhaps better named State Enabling Team, should be project focused – on implementation and execution, with minimal process. It would aim to facilitate the development of the economy rather than develop it through more traditional aid delivery, whilst not providing a target, and therefore not exacerbating the problem. At its core should be an ethos of augmenting local economic actors and therefore maintaining a high-rate of cost-effectiveness. The civilian elements should have significant private sector experience, and should not be bound by public sector ‘duties of care.’ These elements should be supported by discreet and capable military elements capable of not only protection of the unit, but conducting traditional Special Forces roles, such as training local security forces, and with the option of intelligence and targeting functions should the local dynamics change. These State Enabling Teams would, in sum, be low-profile, private sector focussed and unhindered by the bureaucracy of conventional military and diplomatic missions, with the objective of bolstering local government capacity and business.  Fundamentally, they would operate within the confines of local political power structures, and not attempt to change them. 

The Most Important Lesson of All

This highlights the most important lesson of all. The success of the transitions – political, developmental, and security from international assistance to the Afghans – hinges on stopping doing things for the Afghans. This is counter-intuitive to most energetic, motivated, dynamic officers, especially those in the military, who are programmed to take initiative and to resolve problems.

In this way, the success of the post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan will depend not on largely subjective political judgements about whether Al-Qaeda is damaged or disappeared or the Taleban in trouble, but on whether the Afghans can sort things out themselves or not.

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Comments

A fascinating article, almost with something for everyone to takeaway.

The most stunning passage for me was: 'The most positive outcome of the past decade has probably been in cell-phone usage which has empowered the individual over inefficient governance and institutions....It will be hard to put this technological progress back in the box, no matter who comes to power in Kabul; and in the interim, the means should be found to encourage it'.

I would disagree with one passage: 'foreign forces can serve just to make things unstable by their presence, by taking the fight to the enemy. Afghan detainees in Helmand articulate ‘British forces are a tribe from the north who come down and fight the Afghans about every 100 years.’ Or as one conflict and development adviser based in Helmand for seven years has observed: ‘Being here in Helmand has made things less stable even though it has also increased freedom of choice.’ The contrast with the more base-bound Italians in Herat may be illustrative – where less activity seems to have led to less insecurity'.

Yes the British in Helmand effectively picked a fight with the locals; a fight that continued, later a much higher, USMC-led tempo, with allies, notably Denmark, Czech Republic and a few others. Making a contrast with Herat is simply invalid. Herat was a benign environment, with little known, reported Taliban activity and the Italian national, parliamentary caveat precluded fighting the Taliban! That said Italy has had 45 casualties and has been engaged in combat. The UK incidentally has lost just over 440, Denmark 43 and the Baltic states 13.

"The success of the transitions – political, developmental, and security from international assistance to the Afghans – hinges on stopping doing things for the Afghans. This is counter-intuitive to most energetic, motivated, dynamic officers, especially those in the military, who are programmed to take initiative and to resolve problems."

That pretty accurately sums up my time (2010-2011) in NTM-A. Hell, virtually no one in any decision making, or resourcing position grasped this concept. Plenty understood that achieving increased material benchmarks made them look successful though. No coincidence that "intelligent" and "perceptive" were not used as descriptives for those officers.