Thursday, September 08, 2016

Afghanistan: A Potential Sanctuary for International Jihadists

A common argument is that after 2,500 people dead and $1 trillion spent, it's time to get out of Afghanistan. We need to wash our hands of the whole affair because, like the British in 1841 and the Soviets in 1989, it's proven to be too much for us.
    There is the obvious flip side to this argument; namely that in order for us to make sense of our substantial sacrifice, we should actually try to win.  Otherwise every one of those more than 2,500 US deaths was in vain.  But for now, let's set that aside, and think this through logically.  Hard-nosed brass tacks suggests we need to stick around and help make it come right.
    The prime reason we don't want the Taliban back in is because the Taliban could easily allow extremists into the country who could threaten us again. This is, after all, the reason we went in in the first place.  
    In 2001, we saw that few actions short of invading would allow us to impose our will on the ground.  We recalled how, after the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, Bill Clinton shot over 75 cruise missiles into Afghanistan and killed about 20 low-level extremists.  This accomplished nothing.  
    The counter-argument to this is that the Taliban are nationalists. They couldn't care less about hosting internationally-oriented Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda.  Furthermore, given that the last time they hosted international jihadists they lost their country, they are unlikely to do it again.  They care more about Kandahar than Dallas.  And the Islamic State, internationalist jihadists who might care about America, are the Taliban's sworn enemy.
    Convincing?  Not really.  The Pakistanis support the Taliban, and the Pakistanis are fighting with India over Kashmir.  Every day, the Pakistanis help train jihadists to fight in Kashmir - who are internationally-oriented. If the Taliban takes Kabul, Pakistan would insist that their Kashmir fighters be trained in Afghanistan.  Once one group if international Islamic jihadists is based in Afghanistan, we can expect that to continue and other groups to follow.
    There's more.  The Taliban has historically proven itself incapable of governing. The Islamic State currently has about 1,500 or 2,000 fighters in Afghanistan.  The Taliban would have trouble opposing their expansion, given the task is too much for the current government, which has 350,000 men.  So we can expect ISIS to expand in Afghanistan if the Taliban take over.
    The fact that the Taliban say they don't want internationalist Islamic jihadists on their soil doesn't stop them from having the capability to host them. They are obviously capable of changing their Afghan-first orientation and hosting whomever they like in the future.  
    Foreign policy planning is generally constructed on the basis of the enemy's capabilities, not their intentions.  Intentions can change, or might be unknown. Capabilities are quantifiable.  Predictable.  So you plan off the capability, not the intention.  
    We have little insight into the mindset of the Taliban leadership (let alone their Pakistani sponsors). Entrusting the safety of America to statements made by Taliban fighters who are currently trying to kill our troops is naive. They don't have our best interests at heart.  They will probably say anything to win. Their statements need to be double-checked.  
    Reagan famously said in relation to the Soviets "trust but verify."  Trusting the Taliban without verifying their actions goes against the grain our history.
    People also say that there are plenty of places for Islamic jihadists to hide in the world, so shutting off one source of sanctuary (Afghanistan) makes little sense when alternates include Sudan, Somalia, and so on.  But, frankly, Afghanistan is the worst possible sanctuary.  Try flying from the Sudan to New York.  Or calling.  It's hard.  But it's easy to drive from Kabul to Pakistan and get on one of the hundreds of daily international flights out of there. It's easier by an order of magnitude.
    Well, let's not beat a dead horse.  Common sense suggests we should stay and see it out.  But there is one last point worth considering.
    It cost us so far about $1 trillion and counting.  To make it come right costs relatively little, perhaps $4 billion from us and another $2 billion from other allies over the next ten years.  Is that a lot of money?  Well, compared to the events in Paris, Nice and Brussels, it's probably a wise investment.
    We don't have those mass-casualty events because almost all Muslim people in America are loyal and proud people. We don't have the Muslim ghettoization that occurs in France or the UK.  The Muslims here are generally open and free, and can be our best (though not perfect) defense against extremism.   
    In order for us to keep our homeland defense strong we need the international arena to not worsen.  Turning Afghanistan into a sanctuary for internationalist Islamic radicals would give them a boost that could destabilize the balance that is currently keeping our continent safer than Europe.       
    Not to mention that the ordinary Afghans have stood by us in thick and thin, trying to help us make their society better and safer.  I've seen Afghans who risked their lives to keep out the Taliban. This is not an impossible task. These people want to win. We should help them.
    It's good for them and good for us.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

In Afghanistan The Future Never Arrives

In ten years in the war zone I never got the impression that the Afghans and Americans really understood each other.  Americans could never understand why the Afghans did so many things different from them.  And the Afghans never understood how a superpower could allow the Taliban to come back, resurgent, a few years after toppling their government.
    The Afghans could never understand why violence increased year after year, from 2003 onward. (This year the numbers are high again. The UN says security incidents are down 3% from last year, but armed clashes are up 14% as gun battles increase).
    They could never understand why the US has given Pakistan over $1 billion every year since 9/11, even though it harbors, arms and assist the Taliban which is killing US and Afghan soldiers.
    Afghans could never understand why so many villages saw so little aid even though America spent $1 trillion there. (We have spent about $110 billion in aid, but almost all if it, around 80%, has gone to the Afghan armed forces.  Much of the rest was squandered, though some got through).
     They could never understand why we sometimes had a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, while other times we helped Afghan officials steal billions from their own people. (Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid Karzai's brother, was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, controlled much of the economy of Kandahar Province, had his hands in the drug trade, and was reportedly a CIA asset.  He died from a gunshot wound in 2011).
    Nor do Afghans understand how we have allowed the Afghan security forces to fare so poorly, so security gets steadily worse in their homes. (Even today, the security forces are hobbled by lousy logistics, poor performance, a tiny air force and vast manpower shortages. Supposedly there are 350,000 army and police, but in Helmand, the worst of the 34 provinces, probably only 10,000 men actually serve).
    Lastly, Afghans don't understand why healthcare and education are doing so poorly.  (A recent news report described two teachers in Ghazni Province teaching 600 students. Earlier this year the Afghan government looked into the school problem, and 224 schools found in Kandahar Province alone are closed due to poor security).
    For their part, the Americans don't understand the Afghans either. They don't see how a government can do so poorly, despite receiving billions of dollars in assistance. (The system that the US and UN set up in 2002-203 was fundamentally top-down, because no one trusted the lower levels of government to do a good job. Setting up the government in this way was a massive strategic mistake that causes enormous problems even today).
    The Americans don't understand how so many Afghan officials funnel resources to their home tribes, leaving people from other tribes out in the cold.  (Under the Afghan tribal system, the tribe must be served first, and all others get seconds. This is understood in Afghanistan, but it is a consideration not meant to be abused).
    Americans don't understand how Afghans can be so ungrateful, after over 2,500 US soldiers have died and we have spent $1 trillion. (Afghans are extremely grateful when there is adequate security. When there is none, they believe American must be conspiring with hidden motives, since there can be no other explanation to explain such lousy outcomes).
    Most Americans do not really understand the Afghan culture, nor the people.  Nor do they find Afghans particularly interesting.  (Most soldiers' only contact with ordinary Afghans is a fleeting interaction with figures standing beside the road.  There have never been enough interpreters for ordinary foot soldiers to use.  At least the soldiers can talk to the interpreter assigned to their platoon in their free time).
    So American soldiers tend to see Afghans as caricatures who grow poppy, plant IEDs and ask for more stuff.  This does not foster much mutual understanding.  Meanwhile, of the relatively few US civilians, the vast majority never leave their bases.  The US Army officers have carried the brunt of understanding the Afghans, with little training to help them.
    Despite this massive deficit of understanding and outcomes, the Americans have always maintained all is well, even as the situation there steadily deteriorates. Even today. In June 2016, the US general in charge of communications, Brig Gen. Charles Cleveland, spoke to reporters:  "Frankly, there will be bad days over the coming months - there's no doubt about that," he said. But the Afghan forces, he added, are "slowly but surely getting progressively better."  
    That good news doesn't ring true when the Taliban hold more ground today than at any time since 2001, and the Afghan security forces struggle to maintain tenuous control in probably half the districts.
    One of the main reasons we have done so badly in Afghanistan is because we don't understand Afghanistan or its people. Nor do the Afghans understand us.  Deadlock.  Our lack of awareness means we don't do sensible things, such as solve problems related to: perfidious Pakistan, the staggering security forces, the rickety government system or the lack of aid reaching the villages. (There is plenty of talk but never a solution).   
    The result is a deteriorating muddle against a relentless and ruthless enemy.  And US troops stay on and on as midwives of a successful future that never arrives.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Corruption and a Lousy Economy Is Killing Afghanistan

Kabul - Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?
    We here in America are used to the concept of the "squeezed middle." In Afghanistan, there is very little middle class to squeeze.  Most people are poor, unemployment is rife and it's made worse by corruption that was baked into the system during the Karzai regime.
     The numbers here are pretty bleak.  Some estimates (from the World Bank) are that unemployment runs at just over 8%.  But most estimates (from the CIA) put the true unemployment rate at 35%, and youth unemployment is up around 60%
    Those are Great Depression level numbers.  It's hard to imagine that these kinds of things can happen to an economy, but then we can consider Greece, where the numbers are only slightly better, and we realize it can truly happen anywhere.
       But Afghanistan is worse, because of the corruption and nepotism that is endemic to the system.  These are having a knock-on effect that threaten to derail the entire government.
    This is how it works.
    Most of the country works in agriculture. Having a mass of unemployed farmers won't usually derail the country; in this arid, mountainous country where only about 6% of the land is able to be cultivated, some unemployment is expected.  But right now it's a huge number.
    But the real problem comes when you also inject corruption into a system that fails to work properly.
    The government is struggling to provide projects that will improve people's lives and help them work more productively.  Build roads, clean canals, dig wells.  But there aren't many projects, because only a tiny percentage of the money Afghanistan receives from donors for its projects is ever spent; basically about 18%-25% of it. The Afghans have the money but cannot spend it because the financial system is enormously, ridiculously complicated.  We, the foreigners, foisted this system on the Afghans but it is literally too cumbersome to manage.
    In the ministries in Kabul and in the provinces there are too few people who can understand and make it work.  So the basic problem is that there is a limited number of the right people.  They need to be smart, educated and hard-working; and undaunted by a flood of paperwork.
    Luckily, Afghans are generally hard-working and patriotic. The universities are good; with graduates that perform better than many US local colleges. Say you are a college graduate.  You live in Kandahar and you are trying to get a job with the government.
    So when a smart, hardworking Afghan graduates from college he finds that the government that sorely lacks talent... does not offer him a job.
    He sits around, applies to jobs and does not get a single one.
    The problem is that in order to get a job you need to know someone.  Or be part of a tribe that is powerful in that area. Or have ready access to thousands of dollars to buy your way into a government position. (A $6,000 bribe is enough to get a mid-level job. That $6,000 buys you a job that pays you $300 a month).
    So on one hand you have a government that is tied in knots for lack of expertise and hard workers. One the other you have applicants who would be of great benefit. And never the twain shall meet.
    Instead nepotism gets the relations of high government officials into those posts that open up.  These relations tend not to be college educated, nor hard-working. They go to the embassy in Washington DC, or the ministry buildings in Kabul or the provinces and do very little.
    This wouldn't matter if Afghanistan had a vibrant economy where the private sector could take up the slack when the government underperforms.  But it doesn't.  
    One reason unemployment is so high is because economic growth has dropped off a cliff; it went from 12% growth a year in 2012 to 3.5% growth this year.  Meanwhile the population grows more than 2% every year; in other words the economy is barely growing enough to give jobs to all the newcomers.  
    Worse, the average annual income is $400 a year.  So there is not much money washing around the system, and if a family gets into trouble it is little use to ask for help from Uncle Abdullah, who's rich.  He isn't.  
    What usually happens to families who run out of money is they run up bills at the local store, which responds by jacking up prices. Items bought on credit cost 50% more than cash items. A farmer will often owe his shopkeeper about $1,500 at the end of the year just for the fuel he uses to run pumps that irrigate his fields.  If he grows wheat, $1,500 is about what that wheat is worth, so he is losing money if you consider his labor, seed and so on.
    What to do about all this?  Entire reports have been written on how to stamp out corruption from the system.  President Ghani, in power for a year, has tried to some extent.  He appointed a few clean provincial governors, who are generally sidelined by the local powerbrokers. Almost nothing improves.  The government has announced a few more projects.  But is it enough to affect many villages?  
    Meanwhile, ISIL is paying $500 a month to people willing to sign up to their extremist vision.  
    In Afghanistan, everything is connected.  Security, the economy and society.  When one thing perks up, it can help the other pillars of the nation.  But not much is perking right now, nor does it look likely to for the foreseeable future.