Sunday, November 27, 2011

So What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

That's a pretty good question.  I asked it, myself, a lot of times before I ever thought to come here.  Most of my answers to myself were pretty negative.  If you read the papers, you'll think that the only Americans here are soldiers who are constantly getting in firefights or driving over IED's.  You'll also get the idea that Afghanistan is populated only by dirt-poor Taliban who grow poppies for the drug trade during the day and plot ways to kill Americans by night.  You'd think that we're wasting money by the truckload on roads that aren't built and buildings that are falling apart, and giving it away to corrupt officials and crooked contractors.  You'd probably think that we've got no strategy at all, that we're just reacting to whatever the Attack of the Day is, and lying to reporters about how great things are going.  And you'd be wrong.

The reality is far, far, far more complex than that.  I think it's far more complex than even Iraq was.  Iraqis, at least, have an appreciation and understanding of modern ways of doing business, of how government works, what industry is, what schools should do, and so forth.  They may not always act in accordance with what Westerners would do, but they have a fairly good understanding of modern society.  Afghans, in general, don't.  Their country has been in at war for over 30 years now and wasn't very advanced before that.  They've essentially been on international welfare for ages.  (And if you think we know how to get people off welfare, you haven't been paying attention to Detroit, south-central LA, or most any other major city).  The more I learn about Afghanistan, the more complicated it gets.  I'm not alone: this slide below was prepared for General McChrystal to illustrate just how hard it is here:

General McChrystal's response to this was, "When we understand this slide, we'll have won the war".  He wasn't kidding.  Anytime you do anything here, it affects everything else, one way or another.

So now that we've established that this place is hard, and that you the public are probably misinformed, the question is, what's really going on here?  Well, that's like the parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant.  I'm just one of those blind guys, grappling with my own little corner of the elephant.  But I think my perspective is a pretty good one.

We're following a strategy that's being driven by a lot of things.  Time and politics are the two primary drivers.  There's a line in the sand that says that the Afghan government will be running the whole show by the end of 2014 and that international forces (including US) will play a minor and supporting role after that.  (Note that this does not say that all US and NATO troops will be out of the country, contrary to what a lot of pundits think).  This timeline is driven primarily by the domestic politics in both the US and Afghanistan.  That's the mission that's been handed down, so the US/NATO military forces, the various embassies, and the Afghan government, are all working unbelievably hard to try to figure out how to do it.

Our mission is to build the capability of the Afghan society, primarily the government, to manage their own affairs.  That means teaching them effective leadership and management skills and helping them build organizations that can function.  We're helping them establish ways to budget for, and then carry out, essential services.  We're building up Afghan security forces that can maintain control of the country and keep insurgents marginalized.  We're laying the groundwork for economic growth so that more people can have jobs and less incentive to plant bombs.

For years, we've been doing a lot of this stuff for them.  People told us they needed a road, we built them a road.  They needed electrical power, we put up a diesel generator plant and distribution system, and then provided the fuel to run it.  We became a "shadow government" because we know how to do things, while the Afghan government was not capable of providing those services.  But we can't do this anymore.  It's time to get the Afghans to learn how to do their own road maintenance, collect fees for electrical service, and provide fuel for the generators.  So we've shifted our focus to training, mentoring, and assisting the Afghan government to do these functions for themselves.  This has been going on now for a couple of years.  We've already transitioned some areas over to Afghan control and they're running the show there.  In three years, it'll all be under Afghan control.

I've been involved in planning efforts for our corner of Afghanistan, which includes the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Daykundi, and Zabul, all in the southern part of the country.  Our military and civilian team has been following an extremely complex and thorough planning process.  Basically it starts three years out with what the situation should be at the end of 2014, and works backwards, identifying what needs to happen in order to get to that point.  It identifies the risks, opportunities, hard-and-fast requirements for specific actions, assumptions, facts, best-guesses, resources, and much, much more.  There are dozens of people involved, representing dozens of organizations, all of which are putting some of their best minds to it.  For weeks now, we've been doing an iterative process: breaking off into specialized groups, brainstorming, identifying the key issues, discussing with other groups, comparing notes, re-working everything, doing everything we can to develop a solid campaign plan that can effectively achieve the mission, and is robust enough to handle the unexpected.  The end result will be a campaign plan that will guide operations over the next few years.

Little of this is visible to the boots on the ground, reporters, or others who have not been involved.  But the effects of the previous generations of campaign plans can be seen.  The district of Arghandab, that I wrote about a few weeks ago, was an unbelievably fierce battleground 18 months ago, but is pretty quiet now.  Most other districts around here are fairly quiet, too.  Yes, there are still kinetic operations going on not far from here, but the insurgency has been pushed way back.  Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan and Pakistan area has been torn to pieces.  The Taliban is still here and still effective, but it was never really popular, so their base of support has been seriously eroded.  We've made a lot of progress.  It's fragile, but it's progress.

The challenge now is to get the Afghan government to a level where they can sustain that progress by themselves.  The reality is that they're going to need a lot of help, both now and for the foreseeable future.  But that's our mission.  That's what we're doing in Afghanistan.

1 comment:

  1. Imo the longer your their the less sense it'll make, but it's a noble idea