General David D. McKiernan

During his address this evening to the Atlantic Council, ISAF commander General David McKiernan emphasized the many positive trends in Afghanistan, noting that he preferred a “Glass Half Full” view. 

At the same time, he emphasized that Afghanistan is in the middle of a war — not a peacekeeping, stability, or human assistance operation.  Afghanistan is not Iraq and faces a myriad of complex challenges, including a near total lack of human capital, a population that has mostly faced a lifetime of violence, and a tribal relationship almost impenetrable to outsiders.

Most interestingly, he defined — for the first time I’ve seen from anyone close to his level of responsibility and seniority — the answer to a seemingly simple question:  What is winning?   He did it, not from a U.S. or Coalition strategic perspective, though, but from that of the average Afghan:

  • A sense of security at home and for the country
  • Trusts government and is willing to defend it
  • Expects economic and social progress

This, he acknowledges, is mostly a political problem which will require a regional approach.  One thing’s for sure, McKiernan assured us:  “We’re not going to run out of bad guys.” 

It’s a powerful set of challenges, indeed, and he readily notes that it’ll be “some years before we get there.”  Naturally, he would not commit to a precise number — that’s above his pay grade — but he noted that the average successful counterinsurgency required thirteen years.   And, he didn’t add, Afghanistan is probably more complicated than any of them.

Regardless, he vowed that “we’ll leave the country much better off than we found it.”  He casually added, however, a huge caveat: “If the will of the international community remains strong.”

David Kilcullen, an anthropology PhD widely considered one of the world’s leading experts in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism and one of the advisors to General David Petraeus leading up to the Iraq Surge, told the New Yorker‘s George Packer last week that “The situation in Afghanistan is dire. But the war is winnable. ”   His prescription, however, makes it clear that winning is next to impossible.  He lists four fundamental issues that remain unresolved:

(1) We have failed to secure the Afghan people. That is, we have failed to deliver them a well-founded feeling of security. Our failing lies as much in providing human security—economic and social wellbeing, law and order, trust in institutions and hope for the future—as in protection from the Taliban, narco-traffickers, and terrorists. In particular, we have spent too much effort chasing and attacking an elusive enemy who has nothing he needs to defend—and so can always run away to fight another day—and too little effort in securing the people where they sleep. (And doing this would not take nearly as many extra troops as some people think, but rather a different focus of operations).

(2) We have failed to deal with the Pakistani sanctuary that forms the political base and operational support system for the Taliban, and which creates a protective cocoon (abetted by the fecklessness or complicity of some elements in Pakistan) around senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

(3) The Afghan government has not delivered legitimate, good governance to Afghans at the local level—with the emphasis on good governance. In some areas, we have left a vacuum that the Taliban has filled, in other areas some of the Afghan government’s own representatives have been seen as inefficient, corrupt, or exploitative.

(4) Neither we nor the Afghans are organized, staffed, or resourced to do these three things (secure the people, deal with the safe haven, and govern legitimately and well at the local level)—partly because of poor coalition management, partly because of the strategic distraction and resource scarcity caused by Iraq, and partly because, to date, we have given only episodic attention to the war.

His prescriptions are detailed and largely defy excerpting.  This, though, is key:

There has been an emphasis on fighting the Taliban, which has led us into operations (both air and ground-based) that do a lot of damage but do not make people feel safer. Similarly, we have a lot of troops in rural areas—small outposts—positioned there because it’s easier to bring firepower to bear on the enemy out in these areas. Meanwhile, the population in major towns and villages is vulnerable because we are off elsewhere chasing the enemy main-force guerrillas, allowing terrorist and insurgent cells based in the populated areas to intimidate people where they live. As an example, eighty per cent of people in the southern half of Afghanistan live in one of two places: Kandahar city, or Lashkar Gah city. If we were to focus on living amongst these people and protecting them, on an intimate basis 24/7, just in those two areas, we would not need markedly more ground troops than we have now (in fact, we could probably do it with current force levels). We could use Afghan National Army and police, with mentors and support from us, as well as Special Forces teams, to secure the other major population centers. That, rather than chasing the enemy, is the key.

Police are another main issue. We have built the Afghan police into a less well-armed, less well-trained version of the Army and launched them into operations against the insurgents. Meanwhile, nobody is doing the job of actual policing—rule of law, keeping the population safe from all comers (including friendly fire and coalition operations), providing justice and dispute resolution, and civil and criminal law enforcement. As a consequence, the Taliban have stepped into this gap; they currently run thirteen law courts across the south, and ninety-five per cent of the work of these courts is civil law, property disputes, criminal matters, water and grazing disuptes, inheritances etc.—basic governance things that the police and judiciary ought to be doing, but instead they’re out in the countryside chasing bad guys. Where governance does exist, it is seen as corrupt or exploitative, in many cases, whereas the people remember the Taliban as cruel but not as corrupt. They remember they felt safer back then. The Taliban are doing the things we ought to be doing because we are off chasing them instead of keeping our eye on the prize—securing and governing the people in a way that meets their needs.

Pat Lang, a retired Special Forces officer and consultant, thinks McKiernan, who he greatly respects as an operational commander, is being misled on the diplomatic front by the State Department and “his political science advisers.”

The Afghan government of today is merely one of the many “players” in the complex socio-political situation in Afghanistan.  If the United States backs the Karzai government with the idea of creating a highly centralized state in Afghanistan, then it is going down the road to re-creating the same social chaos that led to several years of ferocious tribal and factional revolt in Iraq.

Afghanistan is never going to be the kind of country that the neocons would like to see.  Success in Afghanistan will require a realistic use (manipulation if you prefer) of the actual playing pieces on the board of Afghan Chess.

Can the existing Afghan government adequately engage its tribal and clan competitors and adversaries?  I doubt it.  The ability to coordinate the efforts of varied tribal entities often depends on a certain independence of interest. 

It should be noted that I came away from McKiernan’s talk — as I did a less public appearance at the Council by CENTCOM leader David Petraeaus last month — that he is intimately and completely aware of all this.   So, by the way, is John Craddock, the SACEUR, if his call to action at RUSI is any indication. We have, at ISAF, CENTCOM, and NATO commanders who fully understand both the military and political challenges they face and are doing what they can to meet them given extraordinarily limited resources.

One who shares that optimism is John Nagl, a principal author of the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual who’s now at the Center for a New American Security.  In an interview earlier today with NPR’s Melissa Block, he says that “I’m much more optimistic about Afghanistan than I was two weeks ago, before I headed over there.”

Nagl says he agrees with other experts that conditions have deteriorated and the U.S. is in what he calls a stalemate. But he adds that since last year, the U.S. has established a counterinsurgency academy to train both Americans and Afghans. McKiernan has asked to stay for two years to execute a plan, and he has asked for more resources, including soldiers, economic aid and new diplomats.

“If he gets all of those things that he requested, with the understanding of counterinsurgency that he and his command have, this is a war that we can turn around,” Nagl says. “I don’t think we’re winning right now, but I think that we can win this war. … The question is whether we can give them what they need to accomplish this job.”

As an outside analyst, it’s hard to see the glass as anywhere close to half full.  As a commander in charge of motivating young soldiers — and host nation politicians, soldiers, police, and civilians — to risk their lives, there’s no other possible attitude. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  Thanks to my OTB colleague Dave Schuler for his insights here and here, which contributed substantially to my analysis.