Time to End Combat Operations in Afghanistan

The Panjwai massacre was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
By: /
March 23, 2012
Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs

Robert Bales’ murderous rampage was a game-changer for the international mission in Afghanistan. When he killed those 16 Afghan civilians, the minimal amount of trust that remained between Afghan society and the international coalition evaporated. That relationship had already been frayed by the Koran-burning episode, reports of U.S. soldiers desecrating Taliban corpses, and numerous other incidents of civilian collateral damage from NATO military operations. Relations between the West and the Karzai government, already deeply strained, deteriorate with each passing month. The Panjwai massacre was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In order to win a counter-insurgency (COIN) mission, you need trust – a level of active consent from the local population and government. In the early years of the Afghan mission, that consent was robust, as evidenced by every major opinion poll conducted. Unlike Iraq, where most of the population reviled the coalition occupation from its outset, a majority of Afghans were loath to see the foreigners leave. That sentiment has gradually shifted in recent years, and this incident will remove any doubt that the trend has reversed.

It is time to admit that the frontline military operation is no longer viable. Winning Afghan hearts and minds, so integral to the COIN doctrine, is simply not possible in the contemporary operating environment. Ending the combat mission, however, does not mean turning our back on Afghanistan. We have seen the blowback from such neglect in the 1990s, and I firmly believe that a replay of that horror is in the cards if the West washes its hands of Afghanistan once again. The following are some broad steps that the U.S., NATO, and the international community should take in the coming months to shift course:

    1. End major combat operations over the next three to six months, and pull back forces from rural areas to main NATO bases like Bagram and Kandahar Air Field. The bulk of those frontline combat forces should be withdrawn by the beginning of 2013, retaining only enough troops to protect major NATO installations and to provide support for the NATO training mission.

    2. Launch a major diplomatic offensive with three prongs:

        • Mend fences with the Karzai administration and push hard to finalize an agreement that would enable a residual U.S. force to be based in Afghanistan on a long-term basis. Restarting the Bush administration practice of weekly communications between the U.S. and Afghan presidents and providing Afghanistan observer status in the trial of Bales are steps that could be taken immediately to calm tensions. The United States (and the West, more generally) has to end the squabbling with Afghan President Hamid Karzai – a relationship the Obama administration has badly mismanaged – and reinvest in his leadership. Karzai is the democratically elected leader in Afghanistan, however flawed the election was, and whether the West likes it or not. Karzai is a political survivor trying to bolster his support base in advance of a NATO exit. His harsh statements about the West following the Panjwai massacre should be understood in those terms.

        • Work to re-establish talks with the Taliban and help bridge the gap between the Karzai government and the militant group. The fact that the Taliban opened an office in Qatar shows that they are serious about negotiations. Their suspension of talks after the Panjwai massacre shows that they are in the driver’s seat of the process; the U.S. should retake the initiative and push to restart talks.

        • Redouble efforts to develop a robust regional co-operation framework with Afghanistan’s neighbours and major regional powers, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian states, and key Gulf countries. None of these actors want to see the return of full-fledged war in Afghanistan, even if they are reluctant to see a long-term U.S. presence. There are several regional initiatives ongoing, but none have produced more than polite statements on paper. The U.S. and its NATO partners must deploy some serious diplomatic muscle, perhaps under UN auspices, to secure regional guarantees of non-interference and co-operation. There is no doubt that this will be difficult in light of the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program and the mini-Cold War between Islamabad and Washington (that must be de-escalated). There is more common ground in the region over Afghanistan than is often assumed.

    3. The training mission in Afghanistan must continue for at least five more years with ongoing security co-operation beyond that. Trainers and mentors withdrawn from Afghan police and army units following the Koran burning and the violent incidents it triggered should be redeployed once tensions have subsided. A dedicated trust fund should be endowed and adequately funded to support the equipment, training, and recurrent budgetary costs for the Afghan security forces for at least a decade. This is a great deal cheaper than maintaining high levels of NATO troops in the country and the only way to ensure that the Afghan security sector does not crumble from the inevitable budgetary crunch that will emerge when western aid and attention declines.

    4. Maintain current levels of development aid focusing on areas of the country where there is a permissible security environment. Attention must be dedicated to strengthening governance and service delivery at the sub-national level, providing a much-needed peace dividend to restive communities. Aid should be channelled through Afghan government institutions, NGOs, and private-sector businesses as much as possible. The benefits of building local capacity through such aid practices outweigh inevitable losses from aid leakage due to corruption and mismanagement.

    5. Western states should encourage the Afghan government to devolve greater power and political authority to the local level. The unitary state experiment in Afghanistan has not been a successful one, for the most part, and greater attention must be given to decentralization and shared sovereignty that would empower local leaders, both state and non-state, to govern and exercise their authority under the overarching umbrella of the central government. This is not something donors can do, but they can encourage their Afghan counterparts to consider it. It may require constitutional changes, but it will better reflect realities on the ground.

This shift in approach is fraught with dangers, and is no panacea for Afghanistan’s current predicament. In fact, it may simply be too late to preserve some of the laudable achievements of the international engagement and turn the sinking ship around. It is not, however, too late to take steps to avert a civil war that will have disastrous consequences for the Afghans and the whole region.

Photo courtesy of Reuters