Because there was such an obvious ink between the Taliban government and the 9/11 attacks, the American military effort in Afghanistan has always seemed to be a righteous fight.
This perception has become more heightened as events in nearby Iraq have demonstrated that poor planning and inadequate resources have exacerbated the folly of a half-baked attempt to bring democracy to a country where many don’t understand what the word means.
But recent events in Afghanistan have demonstrated clearly that righteousness is no guarantee of success, as a resurgent Taliban has caused increasing security problems in and around Kandahar and along the rugged border with Pakistan.
In the end, the achievement of a stable, unified Afghanistan will be less a function of American military power than of classic nation-building. Meanwhile, the problems continue. Here, five years on, is an assessment of where the U.S. and its allies stand in Afghanistan.
A complicated ethnic situation
Like many modern nations, particularly those created by European colonizers, Afghanistan is an artificial country.
It came into being at the end of the 19th century, the result of the British foreign minister of the time drawing a boundary along the Hindu Kush mountain range as he decided how to administer English colonial holdings. In the process, the line separated the Pashtun, who form the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan (about 40 percent), with similar numbers in neighboring Pakistan. Among these people, allegiance to either country is negligible and identification with local tribal leaders is very strong.
As a result, any successful Afghan central government is likely to be weak and will have to rely on the ability of local chieftains to control their people. In addition, its borders will continue to be porous. Strength at the center has never been the Afghan way, and a strong Afghan national army is unlikely ever to become a reality.
Thus, American efforts to shape a new Afghanistan will succeed only to the extent that local leaders become the agents of security, change and development. This is by no means impossible, but history has shown that most revolutions — and this is certainly a revolution in every sense — have consequences that are only vaguely sensed at the beginning.
A tougher-than-tough terrain
By any measure, Afghanistan is a tough environment. Much of the country — a series of high plateaus squeezed between mountain ranges — looks, quite literally, like the surface of Mars. Communication and commerce, and thus national cohesion, require huge effort and lots of patience.
Afghanistan has thousands of square miles of trackless wasteland, and tribes move frequently. In the east, along the border with Pakistan, lie steep, rugged highlands that make any kind of movement difficult and, in the snowy winters, impossible. The largely Pashtun Taliban takes advantage of the terrain by hiding among fellow Pashtuns inside Pakistan and emerging at will after the snows have melted. I have been on the border and can report that finding the enemy in the mountains is very hard indeed.
And talking of the border, there has been much criticism of Pakistan’s President Musharraf for not making enough effort to eliminate the Taliban safe havens in his country, but the truth is that the Pakistani army has little inclination to patrol this inhospitable and rugged area, even if all their troops were loyal to Musharraf. Which they are definitely not.
Invasion hard, occupation harder
Unable to defend against massive American military power, the Taliban was routed quite easily in 2001. But, as events in Iraq demonstrate, that’s where an inviolable military principle (call it Jacobs’s Second Law of Land Warfare) comes in: It is easier to take an objective than to hold it.
The hoped-for rapid reduction of American military strength after the elimination of the Taliban government has proved to be more than a little premature, and we now have more than 20,000 American troops there (only a couple of hundred fewer than at the height of the invasion).
Among these Americans is an unusually high concentration of intelligence agents, special operations forces and other unconventional operators -- and properly so, too, because success in Afghanistan will depend on the development of actionable intelligence, the use of special tactics and, perhaps most important, the training of indigenous forces.
After being a “forgotten war” for several years — especially in light of the Iraq conflict — we Americans have become concerned about the fate of our Afghan operation because of the recent increase in Taliban activity and their employment of terror tactics, infrequently seen there before now, like suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). While IEDs are dramatic and often devastating, a massive effort to neutralize them will merely waste resources that will be more productively employed in destroying the infrastructure that produces them.
For instance, we've spent about $1.5 billion on a program to find sophisticated ways to detect and neutralize IEDs. But it's effective only at the margins. The best way to combat them is to prevent their emplacement in the first place. I've been ambushed many times, but never on a road. You should never drive down a road that hasn't been cleared, but we don't have enough troops to keep the roads safe.
Furthermore, if we were to conduct proper counterinsurgency operations — and we know how to do that, too...we would make the enemy's situation untenable — but we don't have enough troops for this, either.
The Iraq factor
One of the criticisms leveled at the Bush administration’s adventure in Iraq is that it took attention and resources away from Afghanistan before the mission there was accomplished. The criticism has some validity, though mainly not because of equipment or manpower considerations (the two operations, after all, require decidedly different assets).
Most significant, however, is that the slow progress in Iraq has demonstrated to enemies like Iran and Hezbollah that we do not have the stomach to commit the forces necessary to ensure victory. And this lesson has not been lost on the Taliban, either.
Dealing with a drug-based economy
Afghanistan’s principal economic contribution to the world has always been opium, and subsistence farmers, who are in the majority, produce lots of it.
Ironically, when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, it sometimes did a creditable job of stifling poppy cultivation; now, opium production is quite high, and the Afghan government has little ability to reduce it. Destroying poppy fields may temporarily reduce opium in the world marketplace, but it will do little to engender support for the Afghan government among the people who rely on poppies for their livelihood.
Neither the Americans nor the Afghan government is ignorant of this, and, second only to the establishment of local security, the most important objective in the country is the building of a proper economy. In this geographically inhospitable land, this can only be accomplished by the building of roads to connect distant and disparate communities, and until this is accomplished, both the economy and security will suffer.
Many ask whether Afghanistan is ungovernable. As discussed, it is something of a fake country. But there is also a cogent argument that we have made good progress there and merely need to persevere. Success with local security, intelligence collection and economic development is the prescription for mission accomplishment.
Making war on a concept, such as terror, makes just as much sense as making war on one person, like bin Laden. Neither will get you much security in the long run.
We need to keep working in Afghanistan, but we can’t succumb to the temptation of trying to conduct a conventional campaign against an unconventional problem. We do know what’s required, but there is always the danger that the vagaries of politics will dictate tactics rather than shaping strategy.
As we have seen in other places, that would result in an unpleasant self-fulfilling prophecy.
Col. Jack Jacobs (U.S. Army, retired) is a military analyst for MSNBC.