Strategic Chaos & Taliban Resurgence

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For a far more critical assessment of the situation in Afghanistan than that provided by the MoD news site, the testimony of Mark L. Schneider – Senior Vice President, International Crisis Group – before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia is highly recommended.

Schneider begins by providing quantitative and qualitative arguments illustrating the Taliban’s resurgence. Among other indicators, he cites the fact that while suicide bombings were up 27% in 2007 over 2006, they were up a massive 400% when compared with 2005. He also points to the increasing emergence of an opium-based shadow economy, whose taxation is empowering a range of sub-state actors, not just the Taliban.

His analysis of how this situation was allowed to develop is worth quoting at length. The criticism of the excessively fragmented implementation of the counterinsurgency campaign is particularly damning, considering that ever since Templar in Malaya, the need for a unified civil-military command structure has been a truism of COIN practice. His criticisms of the role being played by PRTs are also worth considering.

The current state of affairs was not inevitable. It resulted from policy choices early on in the international community; light military and political footprints with the co-opting of local and all too frequently corrupt militia leaders rather than international boots on the ground. There was a failure to get UNSC-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) out into the provinces. In 2002, Crisis Group was arguing for a peacekeeping force of 25,000 to 30,000. Instead, there were 4,500 ISAF troops confined to Kabul. There was no reassessment of strategic alliances in Pakistan to ensure the Taliban sanctuaries across the border were closed down.

Today the lack of strategic coherence within the international community effort is reflected in separate civilian special representatives of the United Nations, of the European Union and of NATO, with no clear authority one over the other; and in a reluctance on the part of the United States and other major country contributors to be coordinated by any one of them.

On the military side there remains the US led Coalition Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) undertaking training of local security forces as well as its own operations, with separate commands, reporting to EUCOM and to NATO, reporting to CENTCOM and at least one reporting to the Special Operations command in Tampa.

The NATO-led ISAF has 40 contributing nations acting under a UNSC mandate and NATO command with five regional commands and 26 national-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s) underneath it. Many of the nations involved have national caveats that restrict where the ISAF commander can send his troops and what they can be required to do. This means that the burden of risk and casualties is unevenly borne by the U.S., UK, Canada, the Netherlands and others whose forces are permitted to go to the areas of heavy fighting.

The PRT’s were established with the reasonable purpose of the military being able to provide some direct community benefits where insecurity prevented other, more appropriate, civilian actors from doing so. But there are serious questions about the use of PRT’s as instruments to achieve the wider goal of national development. While one could argue that differing local conditions may require flexibility in defining activities in a province, except for the 12-U.S. run PRT’s, there is little commonality among them and they operate without any transparent or common doctrine or even reporting lines for non-military actions.

The PRT’s may provide some capacity to undertake efforts in insecure provinces; however, many of the areas where the PRT’s operate are no longer high risk security. Reconstruction and development are not the role, responsibility, or comparative advantage of the military. In more stable areas, Afghanistan civilian agencies with their international civilian counterparts should be in the lead. Yet, there are no agreed-upon benchmarks for determining when that transition can take place and when it should take place. Today, the PRT’s often seem a supply-driven phenomenon, a way for nations to fly their flag in Afghanistan, but with little evaluation as to comparative impact or effectiveness.

Such an approach, particularly without strong civilian leadership, has meant a lack of a comprehensive international cooperation strategy. Instead, each country involved often appears to see Afghanistan largely through the lens of where they are based—the UK sees Helmand as Afghanistan; the Dutch, Uruzgan; and Germany, northern Afghanistan.

Schneider’s testimony is not consistently bleak, and he cites several causes for optimism, before stressing the vital importance of staying the course in Afghanistan. However, as he comments at one point, ‘While effective military action may deny victory to the insurgency—only effective governance will defeat it.’

Read the full testimony here.

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