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White Paper: Turnaround Afghanistan

As conditions worsen in Afghanistan, a turnaround will require a shift in US policy and strategy.


The desired outcome--and best way to deny Al Qaeda/Taliban sanctuary--is a stable Afghanistan characterized by local consensus government. Such governance is the only viable approach, and has always worked there given Afghanistan's unique combination of ethnic and tribal diversity, challenging terrain and lack of adequately strong national identity.

Yet current US policy--create a national Afghan government--undermines local consensus government, albeit unintentionally, by over-emphasizing national political and military power under Hamid Karzai. Local population groups feel threatened and disempowered because they view Karzai and his government as unjust, and turn to the Taliban. Thus, our policy and military strategy must shift toward a stable Afghanistan with a regional approach.

Under such a policy, Karzai would continue to lead the nation of Afghanistan while provinces and districts would gain somewhat more autonomy, with security forces that are mostly regionalized instead of nationalized. The central government would focus on the key functions that citizens expect: facilitating aid distribution and helping to settle disputes at the outer boundaries of local consensus governance.

At some point in the future Afghanistan may indeed be ready for a stronger central government. In fact, this recommended type of federated approach often leads to an eventual need for stronger central government. For example, the USA started with a federated approach that led to a true nation as institutions strengthened and popular consent increased. Thus for vital US interests today, the right policy is "achieve a stable Afghanistan," implemented by a workable strategy.


Regional stability operations, led by military special forces but with a strong inter-agency composition, is the right strategy to achieve policy success, in contrast to the current strategy.

In 2009, the coalition shifted from a strategy of conventional military operations to counter-insurgency (COIN), then added 30,000 troops to implement COIN. US leaders are applying the Iraq model, with a similar strategy shift, expecting similar results of reasonable success.

However, Iraq had the three essential elements of COIN:
a) a strong collective sense of national identity
b) the infrastructure to connect people and markets (highways, telecom)
c) legitimate national authority

In Iraq, the US is succeeding well enough because all three required conditions are present. A key fourth factor is the doctrinal ratio of troops-to-population. That force level was present in Iraq.

In contrast, Afghanistan has none of the three required conditions, plus the troop-to-population ratio would require at least another 100,000 troops.

In summary, while COIN was the right strategy in Iraq, it is the wrong strategy for Afghanistan. Despite all the enthusiasm for COIN in Iraq, these four conditions mean COIN is doomed in Afghanistan.

Regional Stability Operations teams would engage and influence population groups. Actually, this is already happening in many areas with the Local Police Force initiative (or Village Stability Operations or Platforms, formerly Local Defense Initiative and Community Defense Initiative). The main challenge is that each time these efforts yield success, whether in Shinwari or elsehwere, the Kabul government or its appointees work to undermine or stop it, with the US complying, because they want everything nationalized. Under regional stability operations, these efforts will be allowed to succeed, of course, without becoming a threat to the government in Kabul. The key to that balance, however, is making sure that provincial and district leaders don’t feel threatened by Karzai’s army.

US conventional and special forces are effective at influencing people at the district level. That breaks down, however, when the troops are required to tell the locals to support Karzai's government. Further, the US pours resources into building a national army which actually enables the Taliban to succeed at their influence operations. They simply point out that Karzai is corrupt and the US is leaving sooner than the Taliban. Once the US leaves, they explain, Karzai and his tribal allies will use that Army to dominate groups throughout the country who are accustomed to some independence (as are people who live in remote mountainous areas around the world).

For these reasons, a smaller but more adept force presence is better than a larger presence. Thus, regional stability operations can succeed with a significantly reduced number of forces, which means bringing troops home sooner and spending less on the war, while getting better results.


The US President has just re-emphasized current policy and strategy in Afghanistan by appointing GEN Petraeus. In light of that, the key question is how to drive a shift in policy and strategy?

The same way it happened with Iraq.

In 2006, the White House (WH) sought Iraq War options as the mission was failing because of a faulty strategy. Expect the WH to do the same in mid- to late 2010--as Kandahar (now delayed indefinitely) festers a la Marjah, a small hamlet yet to be stabilized--exploring policy and strategy alternatives in order to meet redeployment goals in mid-2011.

As that process of seeking alternatives occurs, this approach should be seriously considered because it would satisfy concerns about the war on several levels--national security, political, military, economic and domestic--because it:
a) brings most troops home soon (meets WH July 2011 redeployment guidelines)
b) lowers costs
c) achieves the key national security objective: denying Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in Afghanistan (according to CIA Director, there are only 50-100 there now, but we need to ensure they can't flood the zone from Pakistan as soon as we depart)

As a nation, we turned around Iraq by changing to an appropriate strategy. Now, we need to do the same in Afghanistan--through a shift in policy and change in strategy.

Your feedback or inquiries are most welcome at, or enter comments below.

Q & A

Q. What about the latest intel report about the Taliban, or General Petraeus describing it as an “industrial strength insurgency?”

A. Indeed, our own sources--even leading advocates of counter-insurgency like General Petraeus--acknowledge that the Taliban is growing in strength succeeding while we are not. In the intelligence report, one telling quote comes from a civil affairs officer in Afghanistan: "Based on the evaluations and interviews in the report, we're not sure we're fighting the right war or fighting the war the right way."

That's the bottom line. We are not fighting for the right outcome (policy) or fighting the right way (strategy).

Q. Afghanistan had a decent government before the Soviets invaded. Isn’t the US policy toward a strong central government just trying to get back to the same place?

A. Getting back to a situation resembling Afghanistan's previous gov't could indeed be a desirable outcome, but that government was much weaker than both a) the gov't we are trying to create and b) pre-Saddam Iraq. Thus, a policy of trying to create a strong central Afghan government implemented by a strategy of COIN that reinforces that national government constitutes over reaching, especially considering Karzai's lack of legitimacy.

Q. The video says that regional stability operations are similar to what US troops are already doing on the ground. Isn’t it inconsistent to then call for a different strategy?

A. While they may sound similar, the strategy recommendations of Regional Stability Operations are different than COIN operations. The former focuses on persuading and enabling provincial / district leaders toward our key objective (deny Taliban/Al Qaeda sanctuary), while the latter goes further by also trying to persuade leaders to embrace Karzai's government (which doesn't work).

Further, when the video says "basically what we're already doing," that reflects the reality on the ground that units are having initial success achieving the former (stability operations that enable local leaders) but then the floor falls out when they try the latter ("support Karzai and his army") as two factors reinforce one another:
a) Karzai's lack of legitimacy and
b) the Taliban's information campaign that warns local leaders that Karzai and his Popalzai tribal alliance will use US-provided force against them once US departs.

So, calling for a new strategy of Regional Stability Operations reflects what units are actually doing since they quickly learn that trying to implement the full COIN strategy of increasing support for Karzai's government is at best a fool's errand and at worst counter-productive because it pushes locals into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

Q. Doesn’t the recent increase in US casualties resemble the unfortunate reality in Iraq, when casualties increased temporarily after the surge COIN strategy was implemented, but many now believe was ultimately worth the sacrifice?

A. No, the situation is different since the conditions for successful COIN are not present. Indeed, attacks against US forces are rapidly increasing in Afghanistan. In fact, casualties from roadside IEDs may well increase due to terrain that offers few if any ways to vary routes and patterns, thereby increasing the predictability of movement that insurgents exploit with effective attacks. Further, the Taliban has gained strength over the last two years--"industrial-strength insurgency" as GEN Petraeus called it--there is no question that increasing US casualties is correlated to the increased US military force presence and resource commitment. The argument here, though, is that the relationship is actually causal, as explained by the factors a) and b) above.

Q. Isn’t a strong central government needed to keep Afghanistan’s neighbors at bay?

A. Since Afghanistan has never previously had a strong central government, there is no US interest in going beyond the levels that worked in the past. As far as dealing with neighbors, Afghanistan would continue along its pre-war foreign policy path:
a) to leverage its location and resources, whether realized or potential, to garner interest from great powers,
b) build regional alliances that suit its interests, and
c) sometimes play neighbors off against each other.

Under the recommended policy shift, though, Karzai is still the President and Afghanistan still stays the same country it is, but the US would slow it's efforts to build the national army and police forces which are undermining our current policy.

Q. Why do you say, “Why build a nation that isn’t?”

This may sound like political science nit-picking, but there is an important difference between a country, which of course Afghanistan is, and a modern nation-state, which it is not. Furthermore, the process of nationalizing can take decades or centuries. Afghanistan’s terrain and history keeps people quite separate, so it will not nationalize quickly. If and when it does, however, then a stronger central government could be an appropriate policy goal. The key is that there is no current US security interest to justify a decades-long investment of the current level of lives and treasure.

Q. Won’t the Taliban just take over if the US force presence is reduced?

A. No. The people of Afghanistan do not naturally embrace the Taliban for several reasons. But if they feel that the government is too corrupt or does not provide justice or represents a security threat, they are more willing to embrace. There are many examples of villages taking responsibility for their own security and successfully defeating or re-integrating the Taliban. Those should be modeled and replicated.

Q. The US is so invested in Hamid Karzai, isn't it impossible to change at this point?

A. Rather than being a major change in policy, this approach is actually a minor shift that would dramatically change the end result of US efforts there. Also, this approach is viable within the current constitutional structure and would maintain the integrity of the country of Afghanistan as well as Karzai's position as President and the rest of the government. The key is changing how the US employs its power and resources, which remain the primary sources of power for Karzai's government.

Q. But still, any policy shift seems tough. How would it actually be implemented?

A. The recommended shifts in policy and strategy could take place quietly to avoid unnecessary political turmoil, if ISAF were directed to...
a. slow down ANA security force pipeline, perhaps attributing the need for a shift to "improving quality," while encouraging security force development that is not controlled by Karzai (thus blunting the Taliban's most effective argument for recruiting support around the provinces)
b. inform deployed coalition units that provincial engagements and partnerships need not involve requiring fealty to Karzai (currently the main obstacle to US success)
c. leverage special forces and inter-agency teams to engage key population groups, whether their influence is derived by tribe, ethnicity or region

Q. What are the implications of this policy/strategy shift (and de-emphasizing a national Army) for Afghanistan's external security, its relations with Pakistan and Iran, and its position amid a new Great Game in the region?

A. This approach will actually bring needed leverage to support US policy interests in the Middle East and Central/South Asia.

- PAKISTAN: Lessening our conventional footprint will lessen the current situation where the large and growing US force presence enhances Al-Qaeda efforts to recruit and gain political power--or at least tolerance--in Pakistan, which is a threat to both regional security because of their weaponized nuclear program and domestic security since Al-Qaeda's attackers almost universally train in Pakistan and some are recruited from there.

- IRAN: Hamid Karzai already maintains positive relations with Ahmadinejad, a reasonable position with one's neighbors whoever they may be. So by shifting to a regional approach within Afghanistan, the US would gain leverage to play one off against the other (Kabul/Karzai vs. regional leaders) if either strays from US interests.

Q. What about Hamid Karzai's recent behavior, such as a state visit by Iran's Ahmadinejad and threatening to join the Taliban?

A. Right now the US has no leverage because it is fully invested in a massively flawed Karzai government. The best way to gain needed leverage is to shift to a regional approach within Afghanistan, giving the US leverage to play one off against the other (Kabul/Karzai vs. regional leaders) if either strays too far from US interests.

Q. How does this approach bring troops home sooner than the current one?

A. Regional stability operations require far fewer troops to implement than counter-insurgency (actually, the US should have at least another 100,000 troops on the ground per COIN doctrinal troop-to-population ratio). Smaller teams of more experienced inter-agency operatives would engage the leaders of the key population groups in the provinces to address the key issues: How will you deal with the Taliban? How will you deal with providing security forces, and what role do you want Kabul to play in that? Some leaders will want Kabul to play a greater role, such as in the south where the Soviets and the drug trafficking networks intentionally shredded the tribal fabric. In the east, where the tribal system is stronger, one could expect a desire for less involvement in Kabul. Either way, it is a listening-based approach that respects Afghan culture, history and diversity.

Q. What about saving US treasure by shrinking war costs?

A. This approach would save money and bring troops home sooner because slowing our efforts to build national security forces run in the tens of billions. Also, regional stability operations require a smaller footprint because they would be conducted by inter-agency teams led by special forces trained in engaging people groups, albeit with some conventional force presence. This approach would bring home all of the additional surge forces along with about one-half of the force presence previously there. Thus, those troops would return, saving the treasure required to deploy and equip them.

Q. Is there a model for this in past governments of Afghanistan?

A. Absolutely. Simply put, the land and people of Afghanistan have never been controlled from Kabul. In contrast, a loosely federalized system of governance has been in place over thousands of years. The driving factors for this are: extremely rugged terrain, tremendous ethnic diversity and a lack of national identity. Other than in Kabul, people of Afghanistan do not self-identify as "Afghan citizen."

Q. Currently the strategy is to transition to Afghan forces/government, so how would a decentralized security plan ensure that Afghanistan has more enduring stability after US and other foreign forces pull out, not just to get them out?

A. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) cannot secure its borders anyway, and regional security forces will do at least as well as the Afghan National Army, which many experts maintain exists more on Powerpoint than on the ground, with the exception of the elite commandos.

Q. But if we stop pushing for a strong national government, won't Afghanistan devolve into a failed state, causing the US even more problems?

A. No, actually the current approach risks bringing about a failed state, once the US and coalition is no longer willing to send troops and treasure. A likely scenario is that Karzai would try to assert the power of the national government through use of force, which would be resisted by the provinces, leading to a bloody ongoing stalemate that could cause a failed state. In contrast, decentralized governance is the only system that has ever worked there, so this approach would return things to what Afghanistan has known throughout its history as a country--a federalized balance of power between Kabul and the major people groups in the provinces.

Q. But if the Taliban is gaining support, wouldn’t that accelerate if the US redeploys the bulk of its forces?

A. Less is more may sound counter-intuitive, but it applies to this situation. The population groups naturally oppose the Taliban just as they would any outside group that seeks control through violence and religious extremism. So, we just need to stop pushing them into the arms of the Taliban by building Karzai’s army and telling locals they must obey Karzai.

Q. So why are many of those same groups currently supporting the Taliban?

A. Because they feel threatened by Karzai and the army the US is building for him. The Taliban persuades the regional population leaders that Karzai will turn that US-built army against them once the US pulls out. Given the historic violence that has taken place anytime the balance of power is upset in Afghanistan, that is a persuasive argument. Were the US to follow this approach, the population group leaders would have no need for the Taliban, which serves well the vital US interest.

Q. What about GEN McChrystal's replacement by GEN Petraeus?

A. Both support current approach so recent events reinforce status quo. The turnover offers a temporary justification for delaying the Kandahar offensive, but those informed know that was delayed before the Rolling Stone article came out. The delay is required because leaders on the ground see that the conditions for success are not present, while Marjah, a hamlet that was supposed to be an easy win for Karzai's government, continues to fester. "A bleeding ulcer," in GEN McChrystal's own words, after saying in February that "we have a government in a box, ready to roll in."

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