Dec 14, 2009

The ‘civilian surge’

By Ikram Sehgal

Of the initiatives laid out in the new Obama doctrine for Afghanistan, the ‘civilian surge’ is perhaps the most important. Military successes in the field will amount to nothing if not followed up closely by addressing the root causes of public disaffection. According to McChrystal: “our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the support of the population. This will require a better understanding of the people’s choices and needs. Progress is hindered by the dual threat of a resilient insurgency and a crisis of confidence in the government and the international coalition. We must never confuse the situation as it stands with the one we desire, lest we risk our credibility. The needs of the population must be “by, with, and through” the Afghan government. A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the one in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution. Eventual success requires capable Afghan governance capabilities and security forces.”

McChrystal recognises that, “all ethnicities, particularly the Pashtuns, have traditionally sought a degree of independence from the central government, these and other factors result in elements of the population tolerating the insurgency and calling to push out foreigners. Nonetheless, the Afghan people expect appropriate governance, delivery of basic services, and the provision of justice. While Afghan is rooted in tribal structures and ethnic identities, Afghans do have a sense of national identity. The population can also be a source of strength and intelligence and provide resistance to the insurgency. Alternatively, they can often change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents.” McChrystal talks about “the weakness of state institutions, mala fide actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and coalition’s own errors. The Afghans do not trust the government or that they will provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.”

Kim Barker confirms this: “Corruption has grown around Karzai like a fungus, touching almost every ministry and office. This pervasive culture of graft is blamed for driving a wedge between Afghans and their government — even driving some toward the Taliban. For Afghans, corruption falls into three categories: (1) first is petty corruption by lower-level government employees who are looking out for their own survival; (2) next is large-scale corruption, which is committed by ministers and relatives of top Afghan officials involved in lucrative international contracts or the drug trade; (3) last is what Karzai described as western-driven corruption, which begins with the foreign contractors who live conspicuously well in Kabul. They sub-contract work to local Afghans, who then make their own with other Afghans. The end result is that the bulk of every aid dollar is wasted. But this, at least by western standards, is technically legal — a seeming loophole that many Afghans find absurd, if not hypocritical and offensive.” The recent presidential and provincial council elections were a disaster and there was no credibility of the election results. Rural populations were largely excluded from the political process. By empowering local communities, they must be encouraged to support the political system.

Some issues are critical to a civilian surge; (1) the so-called Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) provide major elements of governance in the areas they control and/or contest; (a) a body receives compliant against their own “officials” and acts on them and (b) “Sharia” courts deliver swift and enforced justice, providing security against a corrupt government, government and coalition forces, criminality, and local power brokers; (2) major insurgent groups use their Pashtun identity to deliver immediate and enduring messages, out performing government and coalition at information dissemination. The perception of inevitability of their victory is a key source of their strength; (3) major insurgent groups use violence, coercion and intimidation against civilians to control the population. Inflicting casualties on coalition forces, they deny them freedom of movement and access to the population, while defending vital terrain; (4) the insurgent groups adopt social strategies that exacerbate the breakdown in Afghan social cohesion; and (5) some local and regional power brokers are current or former members the government, their financial independence and loyal armed followers gives them autonomy from the government, this further hinders efforts to build a coherent Afghan state.

For any state to function effectively, particularly a land-locked country with a large rural population, emphasis must be on agriculture. If an effective buy-back scheme is introduced, the population will be able to feed itself, and have enough left over for the other needs. Fruits and vegetables can be grown in enough qualities for local consumption as well as traditional exports. Some industrial zones must be set up with government-owned factories producing goods till they become economically viable and can be taken over by commercial entities. A free trade zone (FTZ) is proposed on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line in FATA, support facilities for commercial and industrial activities can be set up on the Afghan side.

McChrystal’s view of the regional actors is interesting: “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India. Iran plays an ambiguous role in Afghanistan, providing developmental assistance and political support to the government. While Iran does not pose a short-term threat, it has the capability to threaten the mission in the future. Afghanistan’s northern neighbours have enduring interests in, and influence over, particular segments of Afghanistan. They pursue objectives that are not necessarily synonymous with the Coalition’s mission.”

What is missing is the recognition what Pakistan means to Afghanistan. To quote Kim Barker, “Najibullah’s fall from power is a reminder that the fate of the Kabul government is closely tied to what happens in Pakistan (Najibullah remained in Afghanistan and was killed by the Taliban in 1996). As much as he was able to compromise and negotiate with his adversaries, he ran up against an even stronger opponent in Pakistan, which offered sanctuary to his enemies and a great deal of funding, weaponry, and logistical support to groups that opposed his rule. The road to Kabul lies through Islamabad — and these days even more through Peshawar, where the Pashtun insurgency has its base.”

Kim Barker has it right when she states: “The future of Afghanistan, then, is not about military strategy, about which side the Afghans like more, or about democracy and human rights. It is about who the Afghans think will be strongest in five or 10 years; it is about picking the winning side, about survival. If Afghans believe that the Taliban-led insurgents plan to be around longer than the more powerful West and are stronger than Afghan government security forces, Afghans will tilt toward the Taliban. And if Taliban leaders and their underlings begin to sense this, they will have no incentive to negotiate or reconcile with the Afghan government or the U.S.-led coalition.”

If the “civilian surge” gets the Taliban to the table, the Obama Doctrine will work.

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