July 08, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading: Ethan Kapstein

Canadian and other soldiers who see precious little progress in Kandahar should keep in mind (as I always tried to do) that in Afghanistan, the "flypaper theory" really does work. We fought the bad guys in the south and east so that the north and west (Kabul, Mazar, Herat) could prosper, could make gains in human freedom, could watch their kids grow up... because ultimately what will finally delegitimate the Taliban in Afghan eyes will be when people in non-Taliban areas are visibly more prosperous. Ethan Kapstein documents the peaceful half of the country:

Nor is all this growth dependent on foreign aid. In fact, the regions of the country that are enjoying the most economic activity-like Herat and Balkh (where Mazar is located)-are probably those where the least aid has gone on a per capita basis. In both these provinces, for example, strong governors have made security a priority, giving entrepreneurs the breathing space to exploit existing business opportunities.

Kapstein's recommendations, all of which make a lot of sense to me:

First, the military should focus on its primary mission of providing security and bolstering the Afghan National Army and Police, giving entrepreneurs the "breathing space" to develop their economy.

Second, the United States and its coalition partners should support those regional authorities who are creating a more secure environment by providing them with some transparent and accountable budget support. Too much aid money is going to projects like schools and meeting halls that are not necessarily the local priority.

Third, the United States and European Union should pass free trade agreements with Afghanistan. It is absurd that local entrepreneurs face high tariff barriers when they ship their goods to Afghanistan's coalition partners. As in much of the developing world, it seems that Washington and its European allies prefer providing aid to supporting trade.

Posted by BruceR at 08:17 AM

Today's essential Afghan counterpoint

Robert Blackwell:

Announcing that we will retain an active combat role in Afghanistan for years to come and that we do not accept permanent Taliban control of the south, the United States and its allies could withdraw combat forces from most of Pashtun Afghanistan (about half the country), including Kandahar, over several months.

We would stop fighting and dying in the mountains, valleys and urban areas of southern Afghanistan where 102 coalition soldiers were killed in June, the most in any month of the war and almost three times as many as a year ago. But we could be ready to assist tribal leaders on the Pashtun periphery, who may decide to resist the Taliban.

We would then focus on defending the northern and western regions containing roughly 60 percent of the population. These areas, including Kabul, are not Pashtun dominated, and locals are largely sympathetic to U.S. efforts.

Ann Jones:

You have only to look around in Kabul and elsewhere, as I did this month, to see that the more American military there is, the more insurgents there are; the more insurgent attacks, the more private security contractors; the more barriers and razor wire, the more restrictions on freedom of movement in the capital for Afghans and internationals alike; and the more security, the higher the danger pay for members of the international community who choose to stay and spend their time complaining about the way security prevents them from doing their useful work.

It seems to me there's a potential causality error here. There's less war and more public support for ISAF in the north and west. There is also significantly less ISAF presence in the north and west. Blackwell's argument only works if you assume that the light footprint is a result of the goodwill, and not the other way around. The risk in making Fortress Northern Afghanistan is that the insurgency just follows you there, because the oppressive foreign presence itself produces significant alienation, and delegitimization of local power structures.

The stronger argument would be that the ISAF footprint should be lightened throughout the country to close to northern levels, to avoid the negative impacts Jones is describing, even if that means increased insurgent freedom of movement in other parts of the country.

The necessary second part of any kind of force-lightening strategy, though, is the abandonment of the kinds of societally transformative goals we've heard in the past... accepting Afghans as they are, and merely promoting the interests of those uninterested in resuming the "terrorist haven" aspects of Taliban foreign policy. That also would mean limiting our military presence to enabler support to whatever the Afghan military wants to do... which would likely not be overly congruent what we would want them to do. The historical analogies to the Arab Revolt, or British policy towards American Indians in the early 19th century, or American FID work in Latin America, should be obvious. It's a mindset shift, to be sure. But just moving our conventional forces wholesale to parts of the country where they don't hate us YET doesn't seem to promise to be an improvement on anything.

Posted by BruceR at 07:46 AM