The South Asia Channel

Five Questions Congress Should Ask About Afghanistan After Kunduz

The Kunduz debacle will likely be misdiagnosed as a military rather than political problem. It's not about U.S. troop numbers, but rather the Afghan government itself.

US Army General John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), US Forces Afghanistan, arrives to testify on the situation in Afghanistan during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Army General John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), US Forces Afghanistan, arrives to testify on the situation in Afghanistan during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The Taliban’s seizure of Kunduz, a provincial capital, is a disaster for the Afghan government and an indictment of American policy. If the Taliban can control it and Baghlan province to its south, they can separate the anti-Taliban strongholds of Badakhshan and Balkh from one another and isolate the former from Kabul.

The Obama administration is scrambling for solutions while the Afghan government pleads for more support. Congress is to soon hear testimony from the U.S. military commander, the superb General John Campbell, on the situation in Afghanistan. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees, however, are at high risk of asking the wrong questions of a badly flawed policy and absent strategy.

The Kunduz debacle will likely be misdiagnosed as a military rather than political problem. This will lead Congress to fixate on troop numbers rather than the more important issues that are spiraling Afghanistan toward another civil war, or worse. Barking at Gen. Campbell is barking up the wrong tree.

The fall of Kunduz has little to do with a lack of American firepower, paucity of American troops, or inadequately trained Afghan National Security Forces. This fiasco has everything to do with an entrenched predatory kleptocracy, a government divided against itself, and the absence of a clear strategy to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Militaries and police tend not to put their lives on the line for a government they do not trust.

Certainly a significant American troop presence in Kunduz could have prevented its capture, but the Taliban would have merely chosen another city. There are plenty of others suffering from the same calamities that made Kunduz such a ripe target.

As Afghan expert Sarah Chayes notes in her book, Thieves of State, the Afghan government became a predatory kleptocracy that actively marginalizes and abuses sectors of the population. In places such as Kunduz, government and security officials have extorted funds and resources from unprotected parts of the population while duping international military forces into killing or capturing their rivals. These practices alienated people from the government and pushed them toward the Taliban.

Kunduz is also plagued by a unity government divided against itself. The U.S.-hatched deal to end the 2014 election crisis doomed the government to gridlock. The bickering Ghani and Abdullah camps cannot agree to reforms necessary to dismantle the kleptocracy, improve the elections process, engage Pakistan, or address serious governance shortfalls. They cannot even get a minister of defense confirmed.

The former Kunduz provincial governor — a Ghani supporter — and the police chief — an Abdullah supporter — were famously at one another’s throats from Day 1. A reported priority for the provincial governor was to get the notoriously predatory Afghan Local Police in Kunduz under control,  an impossible task without support from the police chief. Such dysfunction demoralized the security forces and created perverse incentives that compromised defense of the city in the pursuit of narrow interests.

The Afghan government has failed to meet one of the lowest comparative governance bars in modern history — the deeply tyrannical, abusive, misogynistic, and bizarre rule of the Taliban from 1996-2001. People in Kunduz might not be happy to see the Taliban return, but they did not seem to resist. For their part, the Taliban promise sharia, schools, and public safety. The battle to regain the city could be a long one.

The Afghan government has no strategy to address these challenges. It is in classic fire-fighting mode. The fractious National Unity Government cannot agree to a coherent game plan to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Some believe a peace process is needed, others demand Taliban surrender. Many are perfectly happy enjoying the riches of perpetual conflict, skimming millions of American tax dollars into personal bank accounts.

Is Afghanistan doomed? Not yet, but time is running out. Congress can help by lifting its sights from the less relevant military details to the more important policy and strategy matters. Once these are addressed, the military details can be more easily discussed.

Here are five questions Congress should ask Gen. Campbell, and the real answers to them:

  1. What are the main challenges for success? Weak and bad governance, predatory government and security forces, regional malign activity, resilient insurgency, potential reemergence of terror safe haven, and donor fatigue.
  1. Explain the joint U.S.-Afghan war strategy; what is the governing document? It does not exist. The Afghan army’s military campaign plan is therefore useless.
  1. What is the coordinated plan for Afghan political reform, and how is the United States applying the benchmarks, rewards, and penalties? It does not exist either.
  1. What is the coordinated plan to gain regional support for the U.S.-Afghan war strategy? It’s nonexistent.
  1. What is the coordinated plan to bring about a credible peace process and how is the United States helping? There isn’t a plan and the United States isn’t helping.

Gen. Campbell will be unable to answer the last four. To be fair, they are not in his “lane” as the commander of the Resolute Support mission. The upshot is that any troop options are expensively irrelevant as long as questions 2-5 remain unanswered.

The next hearings should be with the individual responsible for those efforts.

Who is that person? Therein lies the rub. No one below the president of the United States has the authority and responsibility to direct and integrate interagency efforts, and he cannot manage an individual conflict full-time. In practical terms, that means no one is really in charge of the U.S. war effort.

Bottom line: One great way to take care of our troops, tax dollars, and national interests is to ensure there is a proper strategy for success. Congress should not approve any more U.S. funding for the Afghan security forces or for U.S. troop presence until questions 2-5 are answered satisfactorily.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher D. Kolenda is the president and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership. He commanded paratroopers and then served as senior advisor to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three commanders of international forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

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