In late May, some 40 Pakistani journalists received a summons to an unusual press conference given by Baitullah Mehsud, the rarely photographed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who is accused of orchestrating the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, of sending suicide bombers to Spain earlier this year, and of dispatching an army of fighters into Afghanistan to attack U. S. and NATO forces in recent months. Surrounded by a posse of heavily armed Taliban guards, Mehsud boasted that he had hundreds of trained suicide bombers ready for martyrdom.
It was an extraordinarily brazen public performance for a man who is supposedly on the run. The conference wasn't in a Pakistani jail or a U.S. detention center, but in a school in South Waziristan, on Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan. And the meeting wasn't secret: According to two of the journalists who attended, reporters were given 24 hours' notice and were able to call in news from the press conference on their satellite phones.
Don't be surprised. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan achieved wonders--but only in the short term. Today, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are running free. Pakistan seems unable or unwilling to clamp down on leading militants on its territory, and jihadist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have increased enormously in the past year. More Pakistani citizens died in militant violence in 2007 than in the previous five years combined. Similarly, in Afghanistan's eastern provinces, violence is up by 40 percent in the last several months; more American soldiers are now dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq. And, as is by now well-known, U.S. intelligence assesses that Al Qaeda has regrouped along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has grabbed the attention of American politicians across the spectrum. John McCain and Barack Obama have both recently called for thousands more American soldiers to go to Afghanistan. But simply throwing more soldiers at the problem will do little if the next White House doesn't pursue the kind of strategic reset that helped the U.S. military to dampen down the violence in Iraq.
The solution is twofold. First, recognizing the peril that the descent of Afghanistan into a failed state would cause, the United States needs to seriously reconsider its stopgap policies there. It must overhaul its approach to the insurgency by building up the size of the Afghan army and police, and by embedding the best American advisers in their ranks. It must fix the problems in the NATO mission, decouple the Taliban from the drug trade, embark on effective reconstruction, end coalition air strikes that kill civilians, and block the Taliban's freedom of movement throughout much of the country.
Controlling the Taliban, though, is not only an Afghan problem, and it is tied directly to the second part of the solution: Pakistan. As much as the Pakistanis suffer from Islamist insurgents, the country's powerful military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), also tolerates the Taliban as a sort of backup plan to assert control if the United States suddenly decides to cut and run from Afghanistan. To defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the United States must start dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan as one region, not as separate entities.
For American interventionists, Afghanistan was supposed to be the model: a quick war and a thorough renovation of the country, its infrastructure, and its political system. Instead, the country is in danger of becoming a bigger mess than Iraq and commands only a fraction of the budget and attention. Unless that changes, the model victory will turn into a model disaster.
In 2002, the Taliban were not much more than a nuisance; today, they are much more than that. They have been encircling Kabul with an eye to cutting it off. They have been ambushing convoys of supplies on their way to the capital and holding territory in the neighboring Wardak province. Last month, they killed ten French soldiers in Sarobi, 30 miles from Kabul. These operations are beginning to convince the population that international forces are losing control.
As a result, the enthusiastic support Afghans have given for the U.S. invasion is now eroding. An ABC News/BBC poll released in December 2006 found that "big majorities continue to call the U.S.-led invasion a good thing for their country (88 percent)," while polling last year showed that number dropping to 76 percent; meanwhile, support for U.S. efforts declined from 57 percent to 42 percent between 2006 and 2007. This increasing disenchantment does not represent buy-in for the Taliban, but rather disillusionment about the deepening security problems and the lack of tangible reconstruction in many parts of Afghanistan.
To roll back the Taliban, which must be the first step in stabilizing Afghanistan, more soldiers are needed. In this, both American presidential candidates are correct. But their public statements don't acknowledge the scope of what is needed: Classic counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that Afghanistan needs something like half a million additional soldiers and policemen to secure its population.
Iraq has around 550,000 members of the Iraqi security services and some 140, 000 American soldiers stationed there, while Afghanistan--which is one-third larger and has four million more citizens--has only 140,000 soldiers and police and around 70,000 US and NATO troops. You can't bring security to the country with those low numbers. And, without security, you can't have reconstruction.
Still, Afghanistan does not need a lot more American boots on the ground. It needs the right kind of boots. Because the U.S. military and NATO are now stretched to breaking point, the vast majority of additional soldiers and policemen must be supplied by the Afghans. To that end, the coalition must send more Special Forces and civilian advisers who specialize in the training of indigenous forces.
Which raises a question that is now weighing heavily on the minds of senior U.S. military officials: Could the security shortfall in Afghanistan be reversed by replicating the "Sons of Iraq" program, which helped dampen down the Iraqi civil war by putting on the U.S. payroll 100,000 Sunni militants who subsequently helped to decimate Al Qaeda in Iraq? Yes and no. The Sons of Iraq signed up not only for a U.S. paycheck but also because Al Qaeda in Iraq had turned its guns against fellow Sunnis who did not precisely share its ultra- fundamentalist views. The Taliban have not engendered anything like the intense anger among Afghans that the foreign-led militants of Al Qaeda did among the Sunnis of Iraq.
However, according to a senior Afghan official, President Hamid Karzai's cabinet is seriously considering the idea of establishing tribal militias of 50 to 300 men to establish security at the district level and to provide some counterweight to local militants. The idea is potentially a good one: Ordinary Afghans tend to trust their tribal shuras to solve their problems, and these "Sons of Afghanistan" would fill the security void until the Afghan army and police reached levels at which they could secure their country--many, many years from now. Such tribal militias could be paid with U.S. funds just as the Sons of Iraq are. Such a plan, though, must be implemented carefully, to avoid recreating the warlord-led militias that have been so successfully disbanded since the fall of the Taliban.
Another promising alternative would be for the United States to provide logistical and financial support for the Afghan government to institute a draft for males older than 18. These draftees would serve for two years and would help to stand up an Afghan National Guard, which in turn would help bring security and foster a sense of Afghan nationhood.
But just as important as building up the Afghan army and police force is combating the insurgency by reducing its size. In the post-Taliban Bonn conference that set the stage for the present Afghan government, there were no mechanisms to include the Taliban. This is no longer a viable position. Already an effective amnesty program has disarmed hundreds of Taliban soldiers; the time has now come to reach out quietly to more senior members of the Taliban who are open to negotiating a lasting peace.
In all this, the United States must take the lead. Over the past three years, since NATO took over responsibility for military operations in the north, west, and south of the country, violence has grown exponentially. It's still politically and financially useful for the operation to be a genuine multi-country coalition, but the time has come for the United States to admit that the military operations, particularly in the unsettled south, must be taken over by Americans with help from those allied Special Forces who are up to the job. Even the most able NATO allies don't have the capability of American forces, while other NATO allies come to the table so freighted with "national caveats" about what they can and can't do that they are largely useless in battle. Those NATO forces should be deployed in more settled parts of the country for the peacekeeping operations that they signed up for in the first place.
Of course, the rising violence is fed by non-military conditions on the ground, not least the widespread feeling among Afghans that they haven't seen much for the billions of dollars of reconstruction aid that supposedly has been lavished on the country. Much of that money has been consumed by the various international organizations whose four-wheel drives clog the streets of Kabul. In March, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief released findings that some 40 percent of aid to Afghanistan is funneled back to donor countries.
To reverse the justifiable resentment Afghans feel about this, the United States should focus on completing some high-profile projects with real benefits to the Afghan people. Three projects come to mind. The first is to turn on the lights in Kabul, which receives on average only a few hours of electricity a day. The second is to secure the Kandahar-to-Kabul road, the most important in the country, which was opened as a black-top freeway with much hoopla in 2003 but which would now be a suicidal route for anyone driving it without a security detail. Third, finishing the Kajaki dam in southern Afghanistan should become a top priority; when completed, it will provide electricity to some two million Afghans, most of whom live deep in Talibanland.
Also currently feeding the Taliban's ranks is America's boneheaded counternarcotics strategy. America's primary policy prescription is poppy field eradication, and a more failed policy is hard to imagine: Afghanistan continues to produce ever-larger amounts of opium and its derivative, heroin--providing 93 percent of the world's supply--and the Taliban insurgency is financed in good part by this trade. What's more, two million Afghan farmers and their families survive on poppies, and those whose crops are destroyed are generally the poorer ones who can't pay the bribes to have their fields left alone. No surprise that those farmers are easy recruits to the Taliban cause.
Instead of penalizing these poor farmers, the United States needs to invest in the legitimate Afghan agricultural economy--though subsidies, price supports, and seeds for alternative crops--and to build roads to get those crops to market. As it did with Colombia's drug kingpins in the 1990s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should make use of Afghanistan's shame-based culture and make public the list of the country's top drug suspects, including government officials.
Finally, if the United States wants to stop adding fuel to the Taliban fire, it must stop killing civilians. Because Afghanistan is an economy of force operation, U.S. military operations call for air strikes far more often than is the case in Iraq, with predictable consequences. In an ABC News/BBC poll of Afghans in 2007, 34 percent said civilians had been killed or seriously injured by coalition forces in their area. Of the some 700 civilians killed in the first six months of 2008, around one-third were killed by Afghan, American or NATO soldiers, according to U.N. figures. That is an improvement over the same time period in 2007, when coalition forces killed more civilians than the Taliban, but the numbers must continue to come down.
All these efforts will fail, however, if America doesn't recognize another threat to its Afghan policy: Pakistan, which is offering crucial safe haven to the Taliban even as it professes its cooperation with the United States. A careful study by the United Nations released last September found that suicide attackers in Afghanistan "draw heavily from [religious schools] across the border in Pakistan." And a survey of 90 insurgencies since 1945, done by Seth Jones, a political scientist at RAND, found that "insurgents have been successful forty-three percent of the time when they enjoyed a sanctuary."
How the Pakistan sanctuary fuels the violence in Afghanistan can be seen in the case of Rahmad Khan, a cow herder in Pakistan's tribal area, whom I met in a Kabul jail in July. Khan told me he was about 30, that he couldn't read or write, and that he was recruited three months earlier to be a "martyr" in Afghanistan in the jihad against the foreign occupiers. He told me he made about eight dollars per month herding cows--not enough to get married--and agreed to do a suicide operation because "in Paradise, I would find houris (virgins) for free." He was taken to a madrassa where militants were manufacturing suicide vests and then over the border to Afghanistan. But the vision of the virgins disappeared in a flash after Afghan policemen in May thought he seemed nervous, arrested him, and found he was wearing a suicide vest.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds more Rahmad Khans standing by. In 2007, more than 50 suicide attacks took place in Pakistan and some 140 in Afghanistan, many of them undertaken by the Taliban. Right now, the Pakistanis are holding on to their radical groups as an insurance policy for asserting de facto control over Afghanistan should the Americans withdraw. The new president should make it clear this country will stay in Afghanistan for decades to come as only a long-term U.S. commitment will convince the Pakistanis to end their tolerance for the militant groups headquartered on their western border.
There are some promising signs that the Pakistani establishment is waking up to its domestic militant threat. In July, the new prime minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gillani, told a press conference, "Pakistan is not fighting the war of any other country. The war on terror is in our own interest." But, even if the Pakistani government turns on all of its militants, there is no obvious quick way to end their safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), areas that for centuries have not been fully under any government's control, that have female literacy rates of only 3 percent, and that are largely controlled by the Taliban. The Pakistanis tried the hammer approach there in 2003 and 2004 with a number of military operations, but they were badly defeated. That approach was followed by appeasement in the form of "peace" agreements-- nothing more than admissions of military failure--that led to greater militant control in the FATA. The most recent approach is a mix of peace agreements, military operations and reconstruction, which on paper is not a bad idea, but, even under the most optimistic scenarios, it will take many years to pacify the region.
The United States has earmarked $750 million for development in the FATA and $400 million to bolster the Frontier Corps, the local paramilitary force, which is a good start, but it may be premature: The FATA is in the grip of a violent insurgency, and even the less violent agencies, such as Khyber, are unsafe. Reconstruction in such a context may simply not be possible. To help tamp down that insurgency, America should assist the Pakistanis in building up their counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities. The Pakistani army is built for a land war with India, not fighting terrorists and insurgents. Pakistani officers should be encouraged to attend COIN courses at American war colleges and the United States should support courses in counterinsurgency at Pakistan's National Defense University. None of this would cost a lot of U.S. dollars and would yield potentially large results, as the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has done in Iraq.
Another area where small amounts of U.S. aid could yield large results is helping to support deradicalization programs for jailed Pakistani militants. Such programs have had some success in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Singapore but have not been tried in Pakistan.
In the larger regional picture, the United States must also put serious diplomatic effort into settling the Kashmir dispute, something the Indians and Pakistanis have been moving forward on for the past several years with scant American support. Kashmir is a core grievance for many Pakistani Muslims and is also a training ground for jihadist terrorists, some of whom end up working with Al Qaeda. Some kind of equitable Kashmir settlement would curtail this violent training and help to end the support that elements of the Pakistani establishment give to Kashmiri jihadi groups allied with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Finally, as part of a regional grand bargain aimed at satisfying Pakistan, the United States should encourage Afghanistan to recognize formally the Durand Line of 1893 that demarcated Afghanistan's border with the British Raj and is the de facto border with Pakistan today. Afghanistan does not recognize the Durand Line and so technically claims territory deep inside Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. For Afghan leaders to continually complain about Pakistani incursions over a border they don't even acknowledge makes no sense.
As the new president assumes office in January, some will no doubt advise him that increased American engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan of the sort outlined above will be costly and dangerous. His best response is that, on September 11, we learned that neglect of Afghanistan and Pakistan costs even more.