by Louis DeAnda
Afghanistan. It’s the longest continuous conflict in United States history and unfortunately may be a harbinger of conflicts to come in the next decade. What the U.S. takes away from this conflict in terms of lessons learned will shape our preparation for the next conflict not just militarily, but politically as well.
This is critical because our next significant foreign intervention will very likely follow a path similar to that of Afghanistan. This prediction is logical because any transnational terror group with the motive, means, and opportunity to project strategic damage upon the West will likely headquarter in lawless or underdeveloped countries having dysfunctional governments that demonstrate ambivalent or outright hostile perspectives towards the West, and the U.S. in particular. These transnational terror groups will likely have close affiliations with established regional insurgent movements as well as transnational organised crime networks. They are likely to be at least partially funded through drug trafficking and, in all likelihood, they will be Islamists.
Had anyone told the G.W. Bush administration in late 2001 that its planned strategy for Operation Enduring Freedom would consume more than ten years of effort, cost more than a trillion dollars, kill and wound more than 19,000 service members,and span two presidential administrations while achieving only modestly ambiguous results, it is reasonable to assume that a serious reexamination of doctrine and strategy may have occurred. The applied doctrine of nation building as a transition from invasion and combat was logical given the circumstances and conditions of the conflict, but the execution of that doctrine proved to be fundamentally flawed and therein lies the critical lesson of this conflict: How to efficiently wage war while implementing a nation building strategy in a tribal land.
You have to get out into the provinces to really appreciate the scope and depth to which the concept of tribe and village transcend any notion of national identity. Ethnolinguistic groups within Afghanistan include the Pashtun (42%), Tajik (27%), Hazara (9%), Uzbek (8%) and an assortment of remaining ethnicities including the Balochi and Sindhi along the South-West Afghan border with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), and up north the Aimak, Pamiri, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Nuristani.These ethnic groups are distinct in their sociopolitical affiliations. In small villages, the majority of the population will never leave the local confines of their village, much less their province – they have no reason to.
Most Westerners and Americans in particular simply cannot fathom the degree of primitive existence that many provincial Afghans lead. I was conversing not long ago with a remarkable friend of mine who happens to be a retired Special Forces professional and is now a human terrain specialist for another organisation. He had spent months with his two linguists out in the Afghan “backcountry” mapping villages and their ethno-political affiliations (think of a cross between Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness). He reported to me that many Afghan villages have no need for electricity. Now, think about the staggering implications of that statement and how it fits within the context of nation building as an interventionist doctrine. There is nothing that electricity would do for Afghans! They rise at dawn and retire at dusk. They largely cannot read, have no electrical appliances, no cell phones, and lead a primarily agrarian existence through subsistence farming or animal husbandry. Social issues are reconciled or managed by village elders as they have been since before recorded time.
For millennia, Afghans have regarded hard-style foreign interventions as a direct casus belli; one of the rare occasions for disparate tribes to cease their routine intra-tribal feuding and unite in ferocious commitment not merely to successfully repel or defeat the invader, but to unequivocally annihilate him. Alexander, Genghis Khan, Babur, Tamerlane, the colonial British (three times) and the Soviets learned this lesson the hard way; the bloody way. This imposes a major obstacle for traditional Western military strategies.
The U.S. military machine was never designed or intended as a nation building instrument and it does that job poorly. It was designed and built as a modern instrument of destructive policy to be focused upon a defined opposing force; to close with and destroy an enemy force by fire, combined arms manoeuvre, and shock effect. When highly restrictive rules of engagement are imposed upon them with the goal of mitigating civilian casualties the consequences are multi-dimensional and all negative. First, the restrictions immediately serve to level the strategic battlefield, artificially creating a highly undesirable parity between the qualitatively inferior insurgents and the superbly equipped and trained U.S. forces. Next, the restrictions cede a kind of permanent tactical advantage to the insurgents who can prepare for and initiate an engagement without any fear of kinetic preemption by U.S. forces, even when the insurgents are under direct and close observation. This is terrible for our soldiers’ morale.
The Taliban and Haqqani fighters know this and leverage that gift to its fullest. They build entire strategies around our restrictive rules of engagement and it creates an attrition dynamic that favors the enemy. The steady drip, drip, drip of killed and injured soldiers is then amplified by a Western media that uses the self-created condition of stalemate to reinforce their perception of quagmire to a war-weary American, if not global, audience.
The U.S. and ISAF special operations forces, however, are quite well suited to stability operations because its personnel are well trained in unconventional warfare and foreign internal defence strategies. Put simply, they know where, when, and how to apply a wide variety of counter-insurgency tactics that will not alienate the indigenous population. They speak the languages, understand the various tribes and ethnic groups involved, and retain a high degree of situational and cultural awareness through the deliberate development of close relations with village leaders and key personalities that have influence where it counts. Their operational record in Afghanistan has been nothing short of exemplary.
The U.S. is fighting a largely foreign insurgency that has some tribal and religious affiliations with Afghans, particularly along the South-East and Southern frontier with Pakistan. We cannot alienate the population through hard-style military tactics lest we commit the same fundamental mistakes as the Soviets and British, so the U.S.’s military strategy is one of generalised restraint. There are serious drawbacks to that strategy, as we can see after ten years of soft intervention. The dilemma here is patent: How to nation build in a country that largely doesn’t need electricity, is tribal, and regards foreign intervention as hostile? How to win the approbation of diverse tribal populations that spend as much time feuding with each other as they do any centralised authority in Kabul?
My friend in human terrain gave me the answer.
The 80% solution
The late U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neil was fond of stating, “All politics is local.” More recently, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once asserted a simple formula for political success and said that he couldn’t understand why more politicians didn’t grasp the concept: “Find 75 or 80% [popularity] issues. Stand next to them and smile. Let your opponent frown!”
The 80% solution in Afghanistan is local and it is…agriculture.
In Afghanistan, only 18% of the land is arable, yet that 18% feeds 80% of the Afghan population. We should be pushing hard to develop and improve that 18% of land into a slightly higher percentage that feeds 100% of the Afghan population. That could then even create a surplus for export to Pakistan, Iran, and China, three countries of great strategic interest to the U.S. and which border Afghanistan, each with large populations that need food. The key agricultural problem in Afghanistan is its lack of infrastructure that prevents crops from being harvested, brought to market, and sold before they spoil. This in turn creates highly localised markets that depress crop revenues and leads in many areas to the profitable substitution of opium harvesting. The construction of farm-to-market roads would permit a significant increase in the realised potential percentage of traditional crops. Improved irrigation systems, improved farm implements and fertiliser technology round out the highly focused emphasis of this initiative. The ‘Aggies’ at Texas A&M University could design a strategic project for this with a high probability of success.
If we can improve the quality, quantity, and consistency of agriculture in the villages, those farmers will be able to hire and pay their fellow villagers to help them. Those villagers will use that income to make small but very critical improvements in their lives. They may largely be undereducated but they are far from stupid. They will know who is responsible for the strategic improvements and realise the potential those improvements bring to them individually and to the village.
The opposition in this conflict is the Taliban and related insurgent movements. Contrary to some (very) erroneous reports by Western media, the Taliban is overwhelmingly disliked within the country. The bone-snapping stupidity of some members of the media never ceases to amaze me and unfortunately many Americans make judgments based upon this flawed reporting. The scope and degree of disapprobation increases with proximity to urban centres where the educational levels are higher and access to modern information media is plentiful. The Taliban bring nothing to the table for these people. They represent a puritanical and fascistic form of Islam, profoundly xenophobic and ferociously intolerant towards any expression or demonstration of religious or intellectual pluralism. Their treatment of women is nothing short of barbaric. Their regard for the sanctity of life is absent. They are drug traffickers. I’ve personally interviewed people here in Kabul who interacted with them and the stories they tell would simply make your blood boil.
If the United States of America is losing to a predatory invasive culture like that, then it’s because we’ve decided not to win or don’t know how.
Winning within tribal cultures
Tribal cultures are unique operating environments and we should be maximising the review of human terrain efforts as a means of realising some unconventional approaches. Economic success through agricultural improvement will significantly neutralise the insurgencies over the long run in the same way that the Arab Spring phenomenon is neutralising tyrannical regimes throughout the Middle East. The Taliban has nothing to offer.
What we appear to be doing now is placing an overwhelming emphasis upon government reforms and improvement in the major cities. This may be logical because at this moment the only continuous source of government revenue is the Afghan Customs Department. But however it may be improved, government will not grow the economy of Afghanistan. What is needed is a kick start to the one sector of enterprise that is functioning in the country. Growing that single sector could have positive effects in multiple strategic dimensions.
In Afghanistan, winning won’t take place on the battlefield; our self-imposed rules of engagement have predetermined that. Instead, victory will have to take place in the wheat field where the politics of progress and economics will prevail where bullets fail.
Department of Defense. (2012, September). Operation Enduring Freedom U.S. casualty status: Fatalities as of August 31, 2012. Retrieved from www.defense.gov
Rashid, A. (2008). Descent into chaos. New York: Viking.
Gingrich, N. (2010). Speech before the 2009 David Horowitz Restoration Event. Retrieved August,
Central Intelligence Agency. (2012). World factbook: Afghanistan. Retrieved from www.cia.gov