Notes from Mazar e Sherif: Tactical Challenges, Strategic Quagmire

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June 29, 2011

I am writing this on my phone from a c160 flying from mazar e sharif to herat where we have spent the past 48hrs. This morning, we awoke to the news that last night insurgents struck an international hotel in Kabul.  This felt a world away, and frankly, neither surprises me, nor tells us very much about the state of the war.  The briefings we have received in our first Regional Command (RC) visit, however, point to some real challenges. Challenges that frankly make me question the integrity of the transition, which as I mentioned in my previous post, is the singular focus of ISAF at the moment.

The main base in northern Afghanistan, RC-N, is run by the Germans, and is meticulous. The bunks are clean, the roads and paths nicely paved, there is a beer garden and night club. What we heard though, is of a war effort disjointed from the strategic narrative being pushed by Kabul. Two specific tactical challenges point to potential fundamental flaws in the transition plan.

The strategy, as outlined by HQ, sounds reasonable and feasible. Over the next three years build the Afghan army and police so that they can take over the security role vacated by ISAF forces. This is supposed to happen in a series of tranches, whereby control of governance and security are transferred.  In RC-N here is how that is to work in reality: the Afghan National Army (ANA) supported by ISAF, takes a village, forcing out the insurgents.  The Afghan National Police (ANP) then holds the village, while a comprehensive approach is applied to the village, mainly focusing on governance reforms. As we draw down, we will have ideally left secure communities, policed and governed by Afghans, with some operational support and long term development assistance continuing. Take, hold, build.

Here are two problems as recounted by a German Colonel and his team who run the mentoring program for RC-North.  First, the ANP is incapable of holding villages once ISAF and the ANA have departed. The police force, intended to grow to 170,000 by transition, gets approximately 4 weeks of training.  They are largely illiterate, and they are principally trained to act as checkpoint guards. They are incapable of patrolling and securing villages so immediately after forces leave, the insurgents simply return. The village is then taken again.  Each time this happens, more civilians are killed, and the population stops informing on the whereabouts of IEDs, increasing ISAF casualties. In the past year, there has not been a single village held by the ANP.  This is worth repeating.  In the words of the Colonel, speaking abouf RC-N, the insurgents always come back, there have been no successful hold phases in the past year.

The second challenge is related to the governance component of the comprehensive approach. Simply put, we don't have close to enough resources to implement the governmace reforms required. As the same ISAF Colonel put it to us,  the comprehensive approach is a headline. At a macro level, the resource imbalance is astounding. The military resources present here represent a remarkable logistical feat. Civilians, however, are almost nowhere to be seen. At a tactical level, what this means is that we don't have the resources to mentor administrators, lawyers and judges in the communities we are trying to hold. This leads to few of the reforms that we have promised Afghans and which we have determined are required for strategic success. They see the same corruptions and abuses of power that they have lived with for so long. In short, implementing the comprehensive approach will require both additional military resources to hold the villages ourselves, but also more importantly, a massive civilian increase that we are simply unequiped to provide.

Ultimately, we are able to take villages, which is not surprising given the scale and sophistication of our force deployment. But we are unable to either hold or build. Simply put, there is a structural imbalance in our comprehensive approach strategy.

What this means in the North (and a big caveat that these observations are only based on what we have been briefed on in this part of the country, though a part that is supposed to be amoungst the most secure), is the following. A comprehensive approach is required to nationbuild, ie to achieve the overarching objectives of the transition of providing governance reforms and basic development. If we are not willing or able to provide the correct kind and magnitude of deployment, we are likely going to leave a country with wide areas back in the control of the only groups able to provide security, governance and jobs - the various warlords, and criminal groups that make up the insurgency. We can likely keep the Taliban out of power in Kabul, and al-Qaeda out of most of Afghanstan, and we will have done a lot of good throughout the country, but nationbuilding by force is tough business, and I remain unconvinced that we have proven able to accomplish it.