On October 7th 2001, the Unites States and United Kingdom launched their attack on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The initial phase of the war consisted of minimal ground troops which coordinated attacks with the Northern Alliance, allowing them to do the lion’s share of the fighting. Some argued too few troops and reliance on the Northern Alliance was a mistake, however, it was the only way to began the war as quickly as was done and to avoid the previous mistakes of the British and Soviet Union who sent overwhelming ground forces in and were soundly defeated.
A small agile force allowed for maximum flexibility, leverage of local know-how and avoidance of being seen as an occupier like the UK and USSR. The country fell quickly and an new government was formed. Avoiding an occupational government was a key part of our Afghan strategy insofar as again avoiding being seen as occupiers as well as avoiding decades long occupation such as in Bosnia and Kosovo where the US and other partners shouldered most of the burden. We were to help them help themselves, not just help them. This too was successful. According to Douglas Feith, “Creating a stable, post-Taliban Afghanistan is desirable, but not necessarily within the power of the US.”
Yet, with the initial war goals accomplished, the US and its coalition partners bumped up against the next set of problems, none of which had much to do with the war itself, but rather with the nature of Afghanistan itself, namely: geography and history. While America’s strategy to win the initial war was built on an understanding of the failures of the UK and USSR, these underlying problems cannot be so easily researched and solved. Afghanistan was created, in short, to serve as a buffer between British India and the expanding Russian Empire and for this it worked rather well. The extremely rugged topography of the country has always made having a central government extremely difficult, regardless whether that government was democratic or dictatorial.
In fact, geography alone goes a long way in terms of explaining the failure to establish any functioning government over history. While the country’s political borders create a single political entity, its geography does the opposite, breaking it into largely isolated pieces. In this sense, the difficulty establishing a single authority is not unlike the problems archipelago nations like Indonesia or the Philippines have. With transportation and communication difficult, basic commerce becomes challenging, much less enough common experience to build the idea of a nation. Additional problems of porous borders and drugs further complicate the situation.
With this in mind, this blogger cannot support the popular criticism that Afghanistan suffers from a dramatic shortage of troops. Indeed, one of the main tenets of US strategy has been a small force, which by the way, did accomplish its tasks. While small increases in troop numbers may make a difference in certain areas, any large increase would ultimately harm our efforts. Our goal should not be more, but rather smarter. This includes more coordination with international NGOs and pressure for partner countries to fulfill their promises such as Germany training the Afghan police, Italy helping build their judicial system and the UK fighting drugs. The US cannot be the fallback for every lazy partner. In addition, success stories such as the training and now active operations of US-trained Afghan commando units. Threat’s Watch notes that:
[...] the development of the Afghan commando force must continue apace if it is to demonstrate the level of operational efficacy and, equally important, sustainability to permit a draw-down of US Special Forces units. Still, the Afghanis and their Green Beret mentors appear to be off to an auspicious start, and if ultimately successful, the entire Western world will reap the benefits of a counterinsurgency force equipped with the technical know-how and linguistic and cultural sensitivity to disrupt insurgent networks in an immeasurably pivotal theater.
Indeed. Additional US forces would largely foster continued dependence on foreigners and create a larger footprint leading to more resentment and incidents. While more boots on the ground may indeed help in certain areas or situations, they are not the answer. A smarter, more resilient and better coordinated strategy must be be adopted by all of the coalition partners in order to make any headway on these deeply rooted historical problems and most important of all, it must be communicated clearly and realistically to locals, partners and the world.