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Two officers on the battlefield offer a new metaphor for the understanding conflict in the region -- and how to end it.
The battle for Marja in southern Afghanistan and the coming campaign in Kandahar are important, but victory on these battlefields will not win the war, though they will help set the conditions for success. It will take a comprehensive, holistic effort to bring stability to Afghanistan.
Drawing on our experience as institution builders, and after spending six months on the ground in Afghanistan, we would like to offer a different way to think about diagnosing this country’s ills — and finding the appropriate cures. In the course of our duties, we have helped build the Afghan army, police, air corps, educational institutions, military hospitals, logistics, and the bureaucracies of defense and interior. Rather than describing Afghanistan with the language of war and battles, we have come to think of the country as an ailing patient — in many ways analogous to a weakened person under attack by an aggressive infection.
To extend this analogy further, to rebuild the country’s long-term health, Afghan and coalition leaders must address the ailment at three levels: curing the body, mind, and spirit of the nation. This means rebuilding the body of physical infrastructure and physical security; restoring the mind of governmental and educational institutions; and reinvigorating the spirit of civil leadership and traditional, tolerant Islam.
This diagnosis of Afghanistan’s illnesses came too late, allowing the infection that has debilitated it — i.e., insurgent forces and the Taliban — to grow in strength. As a result, a low-level antibiotic is now insufficient to the task of restoring health. For several years, coalition and Afghan senior leaders did not fully appreciate the potential lethality of the Taliban’s infectious insurgency.
The 30,000 additional troops approved by U.S. President Barack Obama in December 2009 can be viewed as a late but powerful and much-needed dose of antibiotics. The surge was designed to shock and stunt the insurgency, thereby gaining time and space to allow the country’s indigenous immune system to be restored.
NATO’s combat presence in Afghanistan is considerable. At its peak, combat troops will number nearly 130,000. NATO countries provide the conventional combat troops distributed across the country by region, with especially heavy concentrations in the south, where the Taliban infection is particularly virulent. These troops are augmented by special operations forces and complete coalition air dominance through both manned and unmanned armed platforms.
To be sure, similar to a powerful antibiotic, the use of large numbers of combat troops brings with it side effects that can cause discomfort and pain to the body politic of Afghanistan. The effects range from disruption of civilian day-to-day life to, regrettably, sometimes civilian casualties. Senior NATO commanders seek to minimize civilian casualties and thus apply combat power with restraint and, to the extent possible, surgical precision.
This surge of combat power, along with the Marja and Kandahar offensives, will suppress the Taliban infection in the near term, but is only a temporary reprieve. The current high level of U.S. and NATO combat power cannot be maintained forever. Therefore, without a rejuvenated immune system, the infection will come back.
The Afghan equivalent of the body’s immune system is the collective security forces: the police, the military, and the security bureaucracy. But the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are underdeveloped and need time and space to develop to a point where they can effectively shoulder the responsibility of suppressing nascent infections that threaten the country’s health.
Some have asked: How could the ANSF still require growth and development almost nine years after international forces entered the country? Like a doctor who fails to correctly diagnose an illness, so did security experts fail to appreciate the danger of the Taliban. Moreover, the coalition did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the task entailed in building an indigenous immune system comprised of a large and robust army and police. NATO officials now recognize the size of the task, and the immunity-building effort has, accordingly, expanded dramatically.
In November 2009, the NATO alliance stood up a dedicated training command with the mission of building the ANSF. NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan is responsible for the generation, development, and professionalization of the Afghan army, police, army air corps, and all the various supporting structures, from back-office support systems to military schools. The financial resources devoted to this training mission are among the largest of its kind in the world.
But it isn’t just dollars flowing into the country: Trainers, instructors, advisors, engineers, and logisticians are flowing in rapidly and will peak at several thousand. Training facilities and infrastructure include basic-training camps in every regional command, logistical infrastructure, new military hospitals and clinics, and a national military academy modeled after U.S. military academies. The output of these camps and schools is rapidly climbing, producing almost 10,000 police and soldiers per month.
Spirit of Service
Although we have made massive investments in the surge and are moving aggressively to restore Afghan immunity, efforts to restore general health are lagging. The rebuilding of critical infrastructure, the restoration of good governance, and expanded education will be essential to restoring the body and mind.
Restoring the spirit of Afghanistan is perhaps the most difficult and complex. The challenges are twofold: the restoration of Afghanistan’s tradition of tolerant Islam and the restoration of a sense of service to nation and tribe that predated the rise of warlordism and its associated corruption.
Fortunately, Afghan leaders today realize that a spirit of national service was lost for a generation and are taking steps to fill the void. At a conference at Camp Eggers in Kabul, sponsored by NATO Training Mission in early 2010, we listened as senior Afghan leaders vigorously debated how to restore a sense of service and virtuous leadership. For all the recent turmoil in the U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Kabul government has kept its word: establishing new officer training schools for police; implementing a lottery system for officer assignments (as a counter to favoritism and nepotism); and developing new laws (now awaiting final approval by the Afghan parliament and president), which seem likely to pass, that together will strengthen the professionalism of the security forces. At the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, one can already see the new spirit of national service and selfless leadership becoming manifest in young men and women.
The road to a healthy body politic is not easy, but the first step is appreciating what a lasting cure will require.