Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Third Way: Ending the Illusions in Afghanistan - Part 2

I have recently had the honour and pleasure of corresponding with Shane Schreiber, a decorated Army officer currently serving in the CF. He has written an article outlining some of the problems and potential solutions in Afghanistan, as he sees them, and we are publishing it here at The Torch.

The article is a lengthy one, so I have broken it down into two parts: this is Part 2, which delves into some of Schreiber's suggested solutions to the myriad problems facing Afghanistan and the ISAF mission there. Part 1 of the article can be found here, and should be read prior to this conclusion.

As I mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, I believe Schreiber's perspective is well worth your consideration: he has numerous overseas operational deployments, including two tours in Afghanistan - one as a Company Commander in Kandahar in 2002, and another as Chief of Joint Operations for ISAF Regional Command South Headquarters, Kandahar in 2006. He holds three post-secondary degrees, and is an award-winning author on military affairs.

Obviously, the views he expresses here are his own, and are not reflective of Government of Canada, Department of National Defence, or Canadian Forces policy or opinion.

While you may or may not agree with each point he makes, I believe we need to listen more to credible people like Schreiber before forming our own opinions. He is but one example of the thousands of men and women (civilian and military alike) in this country who, each individually, have amassed more academic and hands-on knowledge and experience in Afghanistan than any dozen journalists and pundits you care to name.

- Damian

* * * * *

We also need to stop deluding ourselves and the Western public at large about what can reasonably be achieved in Afghanistan. The reality is that Afghanistan is, for a host of reasons, likely to remain an impoverished, fragmented and underdeveloped nation. The threat of the Taliban insurgency is but one issue. Afghanistan’s almost total economic reliance on either foreign aid or the opium economy will not be resolved in the near future, unless opium is legalized, taxed, and begins to contribute to the development of society, as opposed to destroying it. For Afghanistan, opium could and should be an opportunity, and not a curse, and Western leaders may have to finally face the fact that Afghan opium farmers are not responsible for the woes of heroin addicts in Moscow or Tehran or Amsterdam or New York. The opium trade is driven by demand, not by supply. Legalization may seem almost as impossible as eradication, but it stops the criminalization of vast numbers of the Afghan populace who must rely on opium for their livelihoods. Legalization also offers the opportunity to legitimize many of the Afghans involved in the trade, making fewer enemies of the state than there are now. It has the potential to not only generate significant amounts of newly legitimized money in the Afghan economy, but also create an incentive to “de-couple” the enterprise from the Taliban.9 This idea is not as radical or far-fetched as it may first sound, if one only thinks back to the issues created (and then resolved) in the United States by the Prohibition Acts and their repeal in the 1920’s.

Even if opium were to be legalized, billions of dollars will still need to be invested in rebuilding (or just building) the infrastructure to support a modern economy. An entire generation of Afghan economists, businesspeople, government officials, doctors, lawyers, urban planners, entrepreneurs and even politicians will have to be trained and kept in Afghanistan. It will take a generation to create a sustainable Afghan economy, and even then, it will be weak, fragile, and relatively dependent on outside assistance – just like many of the economies of the world. Afghanistan’s current economy is rated by the World Bank as one of the 43 “Low Income” economies, along with Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, Zimbabwe, et. al, but with one crucial difference – the West has invested significantly in Afghanistan, and this investment will likely begin to pay off in the next 2-20 years making its economy more viable and sustainable than some of its peers.10

Like its economy, Afghan politics will continue to look very messy from a Western perspective. Westerners, however, have to keep in mind that Afghans have a very different take on how power is shared and allocated within and amongst groups. Afghans practice a far more active “democracy” with different (but perhaps no less valid) ideas on what should constitute enfranchisement, how elections are held, how consensus is reached on issues, and how they are affected. Corruption and incompetence will continue to be an issue at all levels (as some would argue they are in many Western democracies) but formal and informal power sharing by like-minded moderates has already taken hold in Afghanistan, and is overcoming a millennia of myopic tribalism – a significant advance for Afghanistan. We must also accept that for the long term health of Afghanistan, the West will have to openly support moderate elements by almost any means possible in their struggle to rise above the tribalism and sectarian politics that has kept, and may yet keep Afghanistan from becoming a functioning nation-state. In short, the West may have to accept a very different form of democracy in Afghanistan than is found in America or Europe. If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then we need to be prepared to wake up with a few disappointments as Afghanistan goes through its painful political and social metamorphosis.

Of course, the greatest disappointment has been and will continue to be the presence of a robust and violent civil war between the Taliban and their radical Islamic allies, largely from the South, and the moderates, with their power base in the North. As any student of history can attest, civil wars are never civil, but this cruel oxymoron is likely an apt description of what is occurring in Afghanistan.11 The very term “insurgent” means to rise up from within – to rebel against duly constituted authority.12 The West has certainly had its experience with rebels, and if we accept that the Taliban are largely an outgrowth of the struggle for power between conservative, fanatically religious Pashtun –based elements in the South against the more moderate tribes of their own ethnic group, and the other ethnic groups with whom they have been clumped in Afghanistan, then we can begin to see why a “counterinsurgency” strategy adopted in Afghanistan runs the risk of falling short. That the renegades have adopted the tactics of terror as the most effective means to pursue their struggle is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that we know from other experiences (such as Northern Ireland and Palestine) that will take years to moderate, and only if their political aspirations can find voice in legitimate participation within the power sharing framework of government. The problem for the West will be accepting that any group whose values are so anathema to ours should have a voice in the outcome of “our” project in Afghanistan. Alas, we must accept that, in the final analysis, it is an Afghan problem, for which the Afghans have been largely responsible for creating, and must now be largely responsible for solving. We can pick sides and support, but we cannot impose a lasting solution, short of radically altering the current ethnopolitical makeup of Afghanistan, an undertaking that the West, for moral and political reasons, has no will to undertake. In short, the civil war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan, for that matter) is far from over, and will continue to shape the future of those two nations, and much of South Asia, for years to come.

If the bad news is that we need to significantly temper our expectations as to what can actually be accomplished in Afghanistan, especially in the next 1-3 years, then the good news is that we are already well on our way to “victory.” From a personal perspective, having done a military tour of duty in Kandahar in 2002, and again in 2006, I was completely buoyed by the progress that had been made during that time. In 2002, there was virtually no infrastructure to speak of – no real roads, electricity, medical facilities, agriculture, industry, and no contact with the outside world. Afghanistan lived as it had during Alexander the Great’s time, save for the addition of a few beat-up trucks, and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. When I returned in 2006, Kandahar had advanced nearly 2 millennia – the electricity worked (sometimes), there was a real and effective highway that allowed a flourishing if nascent commerce to begin, there were cell phones (sometimes), and houses, and investment in construction and agriculture and business. And hope. If I had seen at the end of my tour in 2002 what I saw in 2006, I would have said that our mission in Afghanistan was complete: we’d taken a nation in ruins and despair, and given it a real if fledgling hope for a new future. And it is likely that this hope - the rising expectation that the immediate future will be better than the immediate past - that has been part of present consternation in Afghanistan. Hope begets hope, and rising expectations have a way of outpacing our ability to deliver on them. It should have been no surprise that Afghanistan could not maintain the pace of progress established, as the simpler development tasks were achieved largely in a vacuum. Further progress now faces both increasing complexity and entropy. If Afghanistan had advanced centuries in the few short years between 2002 and 2006, it has perhaps come but decades since, and now deals with all of the problems of an ethnically riven, economically challenged, politically fragile post colonial postmodern state - just like approximately 50 other nations in the world. That the election in Afghanistan has been tarnished by fraud should not be the headline; rather, the miracle is that there was a Western style election at all. That opium dominates the economy should not be seen as catastrophic, but rather as a potential source of income for Afghanistan. Concern that the radical Islamic Revolution spearheaded by the Taliban and their ilk is gaining momentum needs to be balanced by acknowledging and supporting the coalescing of moderate forces against this movement. One may despair over the wide swath of territory that the Taliban claims to reign over, but the fact is that it controls only the hinterlands, and can prosecute its campaign solely through the use of terror tactics, thereby creating the seeds of its own destruction. While much remains to be done in Afghanistan, one would be wise to look back at how far it has come in the last decade.

Finally, many in the West need to accept that we have a stake in the outcome of this civil war, and that we are going, to some degree, impose our will upon the people of Afghanistan. We need to accept that much of what we have done and are doing is in our self-interest, first and foremost. This does not make us morally bankrupt or evil; it does make us human. Afghans acutely understand our “humanity,” despite (or perhaps because of) the West’s often sanctimonious proclamations. If, however, the West is honest with itself, and sees its engagement in Afghanistan for what it really is, then the honest description of the problem may provide a better prescription for the cure. The West has neither the will, nor the intention of continuing a large scale military –led intervention indefinitely. There is a finite amount of time and resources we are willing to commit to the project. Time is running out on this special offer.

Having lifted the veil that has obscured our thinking on Afghanistan, a number of steps required to forge a better future become clear. First, the United States needs to broker a deal between the two clear front runners in the recent Afghan elections so that they share power, and unite the moderate forces as best they can. Together, Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah received approximately 80% of all ballots accepted as legitimate; even with allegations of fraud and low voter turnout, this puts them together as virtually the only contenders for the office.13 Moreover, they represent opposite and important ethnic groups, Karzai being Pashtun from the South, Abdullah a Tajik from Kabul. Regardless of the results of the run-off election, Afghanistan would benefit from a coalition of these two important moderate leaders, and a return to the more inclusive form of decision-making embodied in the Afghan tradition of the loya jirga.

Second, the West needs to accept and embrace the reality that we will likely remain “farangi” (foreigners) even in an Afghanistan that we accept and support. This means that Western militaries are unlikely to ever completely win the “hearts and minds” of the people, but they can minimize the resentment and support for the other side that they generate. In some way, the West’s path to success in Afghanistan lies more in the realization and acceptance of the fact that in Afghanistan, we are the insurgents. Western forces are the outsiders introducing new ways, challenging the existing status quo, undermining centuries of cultural and socio-political tradition. Mao has already told us how an army should behave to win a protracted guerrilla war, and many of his epithets are echoed in General McChrystals’ recent guidance to his forces in Afghanistan.14 More importantly, the fact that we are so clearly outsiders underlines the importance of getting Afghans to fight for their country, a responsibility that the West to some degree absolved them of by acquiescing in Karzai’s refusal to implement conscription.15 We added to this by taking from them their personal weapons in our rush to disarm the warlords that we thought were the root cause of Afghanistan’s agony. Having disarmed most Afghans, we took from them both the ability and the responsibility to secure themselves. We have denied them their right to self-defence, and left them with neither security from our forces, nor the ability to secure themselves at the family, village, and tribal level. The disarmament process essentially gave free reign to the Taliban, forcing the average Afghans who want to oppose the Taliban to bring a stick to a gunfight. Much has been made of the “asymmetric” threat posed by the terrorists, and the advantages it may accrue them. We need to take that advantage away from the Taliban, and accept that every Afghan has a stake in this fight, and therefore the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to bear arms. The Afghan government must be urged to adopt a conscription policy in order to generate sufficient forces in the short term to deal with the existential threat posed by the Taliban and its compeers. The warrior tradition of Afghanistan needs to be fully exploited by the moderates in defence of their future. Karzai and his tribal leaders need to call for a Afghan levee en masse, a clarion call to arms to the people of Afghanistan. This “Afghan Awakening” would serve as a real indication of their earnestness to their Western allies – and the Taliban. Anything less must be seen as wanting on the part of Afghans. Furthermore, the successful tactic of using locally generated indigenous forces to “symmetrically” battle the Taliban should be vigorously re-adopted, with Western conventional might again providing the firepower, but not the face, to defeat the hard points of the Taliban rebellion. The risks of close combat and the responsibility for local protection need to fall to the Afghans now, and if they refuse to take them, then they have sealed their own fate. Any increase in Western (read American) troop levels in Afghanistan need to be preceded by significant measures taken by the Afghans themselves; they can no longer be mere interested bystanders at the fight for their future. This perception of Afghan indifferent acceptance of their fate, or unwillingness to choose a side is one of the most frustrating things Westerners often deal with, but if it does not change, then they will not win.16

Where to use these Afghan troops? There are areas of distinct Taliban support throughout Southern Afghanistan, largely in Uruzgan, Kandahar, and Helmand Provinces, as well as in the east, along the border with Pakistan. These areas are well known to ISAF military planners, and they need to be cordoned and controlled, and not coddled. A conventional offensive aimed at isolating and disrupting the Taliban and their supporters must be accompanied by increased pressure on their leaders through the use of Special Forces and UAV attacks with robust rules of engagement. Pakistan, too, must endeavour to undertake large scale offensives to reclaim control of the FATA and deny sanctuary to renegade elements. China and India need to be diplomatically engaged to assuage Pakistani fears of a “two front war,” so that full resources may be pushed toward the Durand Line. In fact, that troublesome imaginary line should be considered irrelevant for military purposes, as neither nation can enforce their sovereignty over it, and therefore it need not be recognized. Allowing forces and effects to flow across ineffective and imaginary boundaries (in other words, acting like the Taliban in some small way) again helps to erode their asymmetrical advantage.

Thus, in answer to the question “McChrystal’s plan or Biden’s plan?” the answer is: both. And more.

Of course, along with an increased emphasis on military operations against the Taliban and its supporters, will come increased casualties, and the West needs to be ready for that, too. If implemented immediately, it should take the Afghan government no more than 6 months to conscript the necessary forces, and another 6 months to train them in the rudimentary soldier skills and command and control techniques required to prosecute their war. In that time, additional forces from the West should be trained and then deployed. Once both the Afghan militias and Western conventional forces are prepared, the offensive operation should last no more than one year – enough time for the extant Afghan National Army to gain the experience required to run future campaigns on their own with support from Western firepower. And then Western conventional forces must largely exit the country in an orderly manner, leaving the Afghan National Army and Provincial militias to defend their country.

Force alone, however will not undermine the insurgency, and that is why it cannot be the only arrow in the quiver. Along with the surge must continue and multiply the efforts of the international aid agencies, especially in the large cities. Money needs to be carefully tracked, and objective, trustworthy third party international officials should arbitrate and ensure payment when necessary to stop the wholesale graft apparently rampant in the current regime. Military commanders at almost every level should be given large sums of money to “buy off” fighters and informants, and pacify locals. Projects should aim to improve the basics of life and provide sustainable infrastructure – small scale electricity generation, water, irrigation, trades educations, agriculture, artisanship, healthcare workers and facilities, etc. In short, Afghanistan must be given another two years to prepare for the rest of its life.

All these activities need to transpire under a tight and non-negotiable schedule. The West needs to dictate the terms of battle, location, and extent. There will be no decisive victory, but there will be enough time bought for the Afghans to make a choice, and seize the opportunity for a chance at a brighter future. The Taliban will be bent, not broken by the military offensive, but it will have bought Afghanistan the last, best chance it has to rise above what it has historically been: a cock pit of internecine violence and petty fiefdoms that has been forgotten by the world. We need to be honest with the Afghans – this is their last and best chance. After this surge, they will either succeed in becoming merely another developing nation with existential issues, or a wasteland of their own making. Most importantly, we need to be honest with ourselves. The West has neither the patience nor the inclination to prop up a dysfunctional nation for an eternity. We need to accept that Afghanistan in the near term will not look like Boston, or even Bosnia. We need to isolate and pacify the Taliban and its heartland in Southern Afghanistan, and continue to disrupt the terrorist networks lodged in the Eastern provinces along the Pakistani border. We need to build a coalition of moderates that can create broad consensus and effectively share power. We need to help Afghanistan build a generation of new leaders and an economic foundation for future progress. Last, but most important, we need to be honest about our expectations and our commitment, and demand honesty and commitment in return.

We should give it one last good shot, and then move on to wherever we are needed next – Africa, or the Arctic, or our own backyard. We are, after all, only human. Afghanistan need not be a graveyard of empires, only of illusions.

- Shane Schreiber


9 For a more in-depth consideration, see,“Nato to Legalize Afghanistan’s Opium?” Spiegel, 27 Mar 2007,,1518,473933,00.html accessed on 21 Oct 2009, and Anne Applebaum, “Legalize it: How to Solve Afghanistan’s Drug Problem,” Slate, 16 January 2007 accessed on 21 Oct 2009. see also the Senlis Council (now International Council on Security and Development – ICOS) website accessed 21 October 2009 for their recommendations in this vein.
10 See World Bank Economic Indicators,,contentMDK:20421402~pagePK:64133150~piPK:64133175~theSitePK:239419,00.html#Low_income accessed on 21 October 2009.
11 See James Dobbin’s Ending Afghanistan’s Civil War – Testimony Before the United State’s House Armed Services Committee, 30 January 2007, Rand Corporation, January 2007 accessed on 21 October 2009. Gwynne Dyer, among others, also makes this case;see, for instance, Gwynn Dyer, “Afghanistan, An Unwinnable War,” The Straight, 8 October 2008, accessed on 21 October 2009.
12 accessed on 20 Oct 2009.
13 According to the BBC Newservice, in the latest recounts by respected US-based group Democracy International, Mr Karzai's share of the vote was 48.29%, and Mr Abdullah has 31.5%. accessed on 21 Oct 2009.
14 On Mao, see his famous Little Red Book, which is nearly ubiquitous, especially Chapters 8 and 9, and Samuel Griffith, ed. and trans., On Guerilla Warfare (University of Illinois Press, Champagne: 2000). General McChrystal’s direction to his subordinates has been widely publicized; see, for instance, COMISAF GUIDANCE aval at accessed 20 Oct 2009, or his TACTICAL GUIDANCE at
15 This may now finally happen under pressure from the United States, see accessed on 21 Oct 2009.
16 For a good example of this frustration, see “Canadian Rips Afghan Elders,” Toronto Star, 29 September 2009, accessed on 21 Oct 2009.


Blogger Scott Kohlhaas said...

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2:59 a.m., November 03, 2009  

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