Outlook: Half Measures Won't Work in Afghanistan

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Associate Editor
Monday, September 28, 2009; 11:00 AM

In Afghanistan, writes Post associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran Obama must go either very big or very small. A consensus-building, middle-of-the-road approach -- the kind of approach that he is naturally drawn to and that Congress seems to prefer -- will result in a slow bleed of American troops and treasure.

Chandrasekaran was online Monday, Sept. 28 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about his Outlook article, "Go All-In, Or Fold," and the war in Afghanistan.


Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Hello everyone. It's a pleasure to chat with you today. Since I'm a reporter for the paper, and not an opinion columnist, I'm not going to take a position on what we should do there. My piece on Sunday was intended to highlight an argument made by several people I spoke to on a recent trip to Afghanistan: Either you fully resource the counterinsurgency mission, or you pull back dramatically and mount a far narrower counter-terrorism mission; the middle ground, they contend, is the most dangerous place in a war. Okay, let's get to your questions. As usual, please forgive any typos. I'm pecking away as fast as I can and in the interest of getting to lots of questions, I'm not going back over every line carefully.


Bloomington, Ind.: The United States created the conditions for a failed state in Afghanistan when it armed the Mujahedeen and failed to provide the support needed to form a legitimate government when the Soviet Union retreated. The problem to solve is not al-Qaeda but a failed state that made it possible for al-Qaeda to operate. While creation of a stable state in Afghanistan is in the interests of all countries in the region, particularly Russia and China, these countries have little motivation to provide significant support unless there is the reality of American determination to solve the problem of the failed state. At this point, with the uncertainties of American politics there is a wait and see what pieces to pick up when the Americans finally pull out. The half-measures that you reference may be worse for the Afghanistan people than a quick pull out.

Significant economic opportunity needs to be created for the Afghan people to avoid a failed state. China, Russia, India and other countries in the region can provide considerable support that creates economic opportunity for the Afghan people. This suggests that the buildup to demonstrate American will needs to be done in the context of inviting China, Russia and India to participate in the solution. Broaden the problem from a NATO problem to one that includes significant participation by the Chinese. But without American leadership and will their most prudent course would be to simply wait until we fail.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Your point about economic opportunity is spot-on. So much of what drives the insurgency at a local level is a lack of basic employment. The Taliban's growth in much of Afghanistan's south and east is far less about ideology than jobs. There are legions of unemployed young men over there -- and they're never going to get married and start a family if they don't have a job -- so when the Taliban comes by and offers them $10 a day to lay roadside bombs or participate in ambushes, a lot of them sign up.

Economic opportunity, in my view, can come in a number of forms -- none of them mutually exclusive. You're right about increased investment from other countries in the region. China has already made some small steps: A Chinese firm recently acquired a large copper mine south of Kabul. But a real in-flow of Chinese investment could have significant impacts. So too for India, although there is a cost in terms of perceptions in Pakistan. But there's also much more the United States could be doing to tailor aid and reconstruction programs to focus on generating sustainable employment. The State Department and USAID are making changes in this regard and it will be interesting to watch what the impact of those effort are.


washingtonpost.com: article, "Go All-In, Or Fold"


Boston, Mass.: Secretary Gates said we needed to keep U.S. "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan, in part, to give us good intelligence to go after/kill leading Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders (if they moved back in). I wonder if that is true given that we don't have a major military presence in Pakistan (beyond what I assume are some Special Forces/CIA types) and yet we seem to get good local intelligence from the Pakistani's to target/kill al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders there.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. A few points to consider: Pakistan has a far more developed intelligence service than the Afghans do, so they're able to provide information to the United States about al-Qaeda/Taliban activity that we wouldn't be able to get from the Afghans. Second, there's a lot of debate about the real value of the intel we get from the Pakistanis. U.S. officials have argued that the Pakistanis only give us what they want to give us, and they protect people they want to protect. Would we want to be in a similar situation in Afghanistan? I have no direct confirmation of Special Forces teams on the ground in Pakistan -- although I heard lots of rumors -- but boots on the ground, or at least lots of intelligence operatives on the ground, is essential to pick up actionable intelligence, and to filter out the chaff. That's one of the big worries about a counter-terrorism only approach -- would the United States be able to collect the necessary intel and then act on it in a timely way, if we have no real presence on the ground in Afghanistan, or only a very limited one?


washingtonpost.com: "Go All-In, Or Fold" (Post, Sept. 27)


Seattle, Wash.: Is there really a choice? If the U.S. withdraws and leaves the south and east to the Taliban then (in roughly your words) the Taliban can operate across the border to destabilize not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan then, at that point we have returned not just to the pre-2001 condition but probably much worse.

It is hard for me to see drones having much effect and, if they were used extensively and effectively the image of our country using robot assassins on a large scale is really unthinkable. We would soon regret relying on this tactic. I think you give much more attention to pointing out the risks of engagement and too little to the risks departure.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I addressed some -- but not all -- of the risks of scaling down to a counter-terrorism approach here:

The fold approach -- to engage simply in counterterrorism operations -- is riddled with its own drawbacks: The Taliban would effectively control the country's south and east, and a civil war would probably resume among it and ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras for control of the west and the north. Counterterrorism missions would be hindered by a lack of on-the-ground intelligence. Pakistan could be further destabilized as the Taliban reverses its operations and starts using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks across the border.

See previous answer for other risks of a counter-terrorism only approach. That said, drones are having an impact in our fight against the AQ leadership in Pakistan and proponents of a draw-down in Afghanistan contend we could have similar results there.


washingtonpost.com: "Go All-In, Or Fold" (Post, Sept. 27)


Fort Dix, N.J.: Sir,

Does the U.S. Army even have 45,000 troops available to send to Afghanistan?


Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. I've heard different things from different folks at the Pentagon. Some contend that we don't have those forces at the ready. That's true, but could some units being readied for Iraq, and others on training rotations, be quickly retooled to go to Afghanistan? Probably. A ramp-up in Afghanistan would also probably mean a modest acceleration in the withdrawal from Iraq.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Is it fair to consider a war in Afghanistan as not one war but many different wars in many separate virtually autonomous villages? It is not only a war that would have to be fought and won in each village, but one where it is also a war to win the support of village residents who probably most want there be no war?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's not only fair to think that but very accurate. And that's what makes this conflict so challenging. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that's also why the national government in Kabul (questions of its legitimacy aside) has only limited influence over much of the country. Afghanistan is really a collection of very insular, tribal communities. That means military officers and diplomats on the ground need to more carefully tailor their approaches to the communities were they are located. What works in Helmand doesn't necessarily work in Khost, which makes sharing "lessons learned" so difficult in Afghanistan. Most importantly, it means that efforts at engaging tribes and trying to craft any sort of reintegration plan for insurgents -- like what was done in Iraq with the Anbar Awakening -- will be much, much more complex in Afghanistan. You're not going to be able to come up with national or even province-wide programs. It'll have to be at the district and village level, and it will have to be tailored to the unique tribal dynamics in each area. That will be tough and time-consuming.


Washington, D.C.: Is it perhaps more likely that with Taliban success (ugh) in Helmand and other areas, it is not likely that they would opt to share the spoils with al-Qaeda? And that the more logical focus is Pakistan? It would appear that an unpopular government that more or less controls on Kabul is not a meaningful partner on the ground for US interests.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: For now, intelligence experts tell me that the Taliban in Afghanistan have opted not to extend a welcome mat to al-Qaeda's leadership -- what still remains of it -- to return to their redoubts in Afghanistan. Why is that? It could be because the Taliban are trying to portray themselves as a nationalist movement fighting in response to foreign occupation and that inviting AQ back in could compromise support among some Afghans. It could also be because while the Taliban operates with effective impunity in parts of Afghanistan, they don't have unhindered passage everywhere. The lawless tribal regions of Pakistan still may be seen as safer by AQ's leadership than Afghanistan.

As for the point about the government, this is the issue that really gives officials in Washington a lot of pause at the moment. How do you implement a counter-insurgency strategy, which involves empowering and re-establishing government authority in insurgent-held areas, if that government is perceived a fundamentally illegitimate by the people?


Rockville, Md.: I was in Vietnam after the U.S. military left and saw the results of intelligence operations from another country -- often run by people who landed at the airport to meet agents. Most was obviously false to anyone who could drive to the location in question and just look around. It is very important to have "boots on the ground."

I also expect Taliban to set up many fake "battle positions" that we can bomb and they can show as "weddings" or "parties" or social gatherings after the fact. It will be a field day for decoy activities.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good point, and one, I suspect, that people who question a CT-only approach, and advocate for full COIN, would agree with. We already know that the Taliban tries to lure NATO troops into firing on buildings with women and children. (That's why General McChrystal has sharply limited the use of air strikes against housing compounds.) With less on-the-ground intelligence from U.S. and NATO personnel, and a greater reliance on overhead imagery and Afghan sources, it is likely that civilian casualties will increase, giving a propaganda win to the Taliban.


Richmond, Va.: Canadian General Jonathan Vance recently gave the elders in what was supposed to be a model village a roasting for not helping point out that locals were planting roadside bombs, one of which injured a Canadian soldier. If the locals in a model development community aren't willing to help, why should a local in an impoverished area who has no hope of employment help? Are the people just that scared of the Taliban or just that used to being at war all of the time? Are the allies just thought of as just another occupying force to be replaced by another?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's hard to overstate the level of fear and intimidation among the Afghan population. Sure, the Canadians have surged troops into Dand district south of Kandahar, where that model village is, but those troops are now moving to other parts of the province. Security had improved there for a while with the additional forces and some reconstruction projects funded by the Canadians. It will be instructive to see what happens as the Canadians further reduce troop levels there. Will the gains last, or, as this incident illustrates, will security worsen? Following is a few paragraphs I wrote in a recent piece about the district and the model village program:

NATO officials regard only one of the districts around the city as reasonably stable, and that is because Canadian commanders concentrated the bulk of their forces in the area over the past six months. They also poured money into development projects, with the aim of getting residents to band against the Taliban.

The effort in Dand district has shown promising signs, in part because of what some Canadian development specialists regard as a mistake: The district chief hired his brother to administer a Canadian-funded public works project aimed at generating employment, and the brother gave most of the jobs to fellow members of his Barakzai tribe. That nepotism, however, wound up encouraging Barakzai elders in Dand to write a letter to the local Taliban commander telling him to "stay away," according to Canadian officials. Young tribesmen also have mounted informal security patrols in the area.

But what occurred in Dand may be hard to pull off elsewhere, Canadians note, because that district has fewer tribal rivalries and is relatively small, resulting in a much higher concentration of NATO troops to residents than will be possible in other places. And thus far, NATO officials have been reluctant to embrace tribal solutions to combating the insurgency out of fear that will create a new class of warlords.


Anonymous: The dynamic of war changes by the day. If Obama decides to "pull out" and he explains his reasons for and the perils of doing so to the public he will have their support.

On the other side of the equation, with a government that is not supported by its people and with unwanted foreign armies roaming the country and while fighting the enemy, killing innocents, we have little chance for long-term success no matter how many more troops are committed.

The middle ground is no choice at all.

Yes, the proper course ahead is clear to me. We pull out and strike back again if and when future attacks against us occur that have originated from Afghan territory. We make that point clear to the Taliban as we depart and it may give them pause for the future harboring of al Qaeda training camps.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: A questioner's argument for adopting a CT mission:


Washington, D.C.: Rajiv,

There is growing opposition to this war not only in this country, but in many of the countries helping us fight. Before the President decides whether or not to send more troops, shouldn't he assess the potential loss of help he could encounter from our some of our weary allies? If we are going to lose international support, wouldn't it be counter-productive to add more troops only to have just as many troops as we had originally?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The Obama administration is engaged is discussions with our NATO allies and is assessing the level of support, if any, for increased troop commitments from European nations. The Dutch, for instance, have said they no long intend to continue on as the lead nation in Uruzgan province after next year. Troop commitments in Afghanistan have been very controversial of late in Germany and Italy. But it is also worth noting that the new NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has been very supportive of the Afghan mission and has indicate his support for sending more resources there.


Falls Church, Va.: Rajiv: What did you think about Andrew Bacevich's accompanying piece to your article? I believe this fold -- decapitate, contain and compete is truly the best option for our long and short-term interests. I have worked long in the humanitarian advocacy field and am not a peacenik necessarily. I, and many of my colleagues in the human rights world, did encourage the U.S. to get militarily involved in Bosnia, Kosovo and in the early days of the Rwanda genocide. I also think it shocking that McChrystal's strategy did not even include any serious reflection on the role of religion in the area and our long-term. I thought your assessment of our options to be compelling and it's time for the involved citizenry to weigh in. I, for one, will call my rep and both senators' offices today and let them know -- I say "fold."

washingtonpost.com: Let's Beat the Extremists Like We Beat the Soviets (Post, Sept. 27)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I think Bacevich made some very good points and was pleased the Outlook editors placed his piece next to mine. If you haven't read it, click on the link above.


Wokingham, U.K.: Is it clear that the election was a disaster, making the original hope of raising support by liberating the Afghans from local tyrants look very thin? In that case it seems that they will never accept us. In that case, won't 40,000 additional troops (including a few British and German perhaps) merely be 'devoured by the vastness' of Afghanistan as the Germans thought they were in Russia?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That's certainly a fear of those who question the wisdom of ramping up the COIN mission. I think it all depends on how those additional troops are used. If they're spread around the country, yes, there will be an insignificant impact. But if they are concentrated in key population centers, as McChrystal wants to do, it may have an impact on turning around those areas. His hope -- it is untested -- is that if NATO creates zones of stability, that stability will project outward, like an oil spot or an ink blot. But that is an assumption in the Afghan context at this point, not a proven fact.


Rockville, Md.: "How do you implement a counter-insurgency strategy, which involves empowering and re-establishing government authority in insurgent-held areas, if that government is perceived a fundamentally illegitimate by the people?"

Corruption can either be "retail" or "wholesale" but I know of no government without some of it. If we support only a perfectly clean government -- we might as well give it up now. It will never happen. If we want to win, we need to limit the worst cases of corruption but know that some will always be there.

Part of the "anti Vietnam" work was to say the government in Saigon was corrupt. So it was. And it was a serious reason for many Vietnamese to oppose their government in the South. But we can also find it in Chicago and L.A.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: You're right, and so the question becomes: What is a manageable level of corruption? You're never going to wring it out of Afghan politics and society entirely. As you note, we haven't even done that in the United States. But how do you reduce it to a level where it doesn't fundamentally compromise your nation-building effort? Right now, people are turning to the Taliban because they don't want to pay bribes to the police every time they set up a checkpoint on the road. It's that small-scale corruption that helps build support for the Taliban. It's also the hardest form of corruption to address. But address it the Afghans and NATO must if they want to win back the support of the people.


New York, N.Y.: Sir,

If Iraq can be turned around, why not Afghanistan? I was an infantry grunt during the surge in 2007, and why is there skepticism and reluctance to apply those hard-fought lessons to Afghanistan?

Also, I noticed very little discussion of the other component of COIN doctrine, mainly civilian reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. Where are the PRT's, the CA teams, and US AID. All those focus is on combat units.

Thank you, 11bravo

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The role of civilians -- State Dept, USAID, etc. -- will be a key part of the discussions at the White House about the strategy going forward. It wasn't Gen. McChrystal's job to assess the civilian side of the operation -- that will be coming from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. But I've been told that the National Security Council will be examining carefully the role of civilians in the overall COIN strategy.


Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for taking the time to join the discussion today. Tune back in at 11 a.m. next Monday for another chat related to the previous Sunday's Outlook section.

And before I go, a big shout-out to the new Outlook editor, Carlos Lozada. This Sunday's section was the first one under his leadership. Stay tuned for great things from him and his smart staff.


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