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Afghanistan & The Fallacious Long War
By Terrell E. Arnold
After mulling the issues for almost a year, on Tuesday at the US Military Academy President Obama announced new troops for Afghanistan. In his West Point speech he said he would send 30,000 or so new troops in early 2010. This plan would bring the fielded US force in Afghanistan up to around 100,000. The Obama surge would be less than half of the force that General Stanley McChrystal, the US NATO force commander, has said he needs. With this decision Obama has stuck (sort of) to his statement that Afghanistan is a necessary war; however, what US and limited NATO forces can accomplish in Afghanistan is a growing question.
Advocates of the long war and disciples of victory in Afghanistan assert that McChrystal has a plan for winning in this campaign. Unfortunately no one so far has defined what winning would mean. Obama did not define it either, although he said he would bring our troops home in 2011. In Washington policy level briefings he amended that promise by saying troops would come home if and when conditions permitted. In a statement following the President's speech, Defense Secretary Gates said "There is no deadline" on withdrawal of US forces, but the process may take "two or three years". Even optimistic Washington estimates place that date not sooner than 2013.
Just what will more troops do there, and where will they be deployed? The first cadres are reportedly scheduled for Helmand province in south central Afghanistan. There are now more than 10,000 US troops in the region and the planned augmentation could double the number.
Indicative of the future mission, a force of 1,000 US troops aided by a few hundred Afghan troops launched an operation against a Taliban position on December 4. This operation was a highly asymmetrical assault on an IED minefield protected site containing a reported 100 Taliban. Using helicopters, Osprey aircraft (for the first time in such operations) and steam rollers to clear the minefield the US force inflicted a reported four or five casualties before withdrawing to base.
Withdrawing, of course, left the Taliban to repair their minefield and get on with their business. Such a report reveals just how complex, expensive and limited in outcome counterinsurgency operations can be. Meanwhile, fighting in this part of Helmand appears to have caused the civilian population to flee towns, leaving the area to the Taliban.
The US mission in Helmand, practically speaking, has nothing to do with terrorism or al Qaida. Rather, this region is a targeted stronghold of the Taliban. Of the estimated 1.5 million people in Helmand province, probably more than 1.4 million are Pashtuns, the ethnic clansmen of the Taliban. It is also the source of over 40 percent of the world's heroin supply. Those two facts are closely related because the Taliban-along with wealthy Afghanis in general-derive much of the income to support their operations or lifestyles from heroin trafficking.
The brutal truth is that more people in Afghanistan are engaged in poppy production, opiate/heroin manufacture and export than in any other foreign currency earning activity. Drug trafficking is said to account for a third of the Afghan gross domestic product. In hard money terms, that is probably a gross understatement.
Outsiders may consider heroin traffick a corrupting enterprise, but economic laws of supply and demand have no moral content. In Afghanistan, as well as in Myanmar (Burma) or parts of Mexico and Colombia, growing and selling opium poppy products are what people do. Their thinking is rational; opium poppy production pays better than other agricultural pursuits. The demand driver of this equation lies in the United States and other developed nations. Opium/heroin production is Afghanistan's most profitable business, and bad habits in the western world make it so.
Due to previous USAID work, the 22,000 square mile province of Helmand is a relatively well developed, albeit desert region of Afghanistan. While it has an average altitude of 2,900 feet, the region is at relatively low altitude for Afghanistan (average altitude 4,000 feet and above), and ­perhaps a happy coincidence-this region has the developed infrastructure to support more US troops than the less hospitable-much higher-highlands . Since our troops are trying to the maximum possible extent to live off the local infrastructure, Helmand appears a sensible basing choice.
However, there is no evidence that al Qaida-now reduced, as US military sources estimate , to a few hundred members-or Osama bin Laden-if he is still alive-occupy any part of this region. Rather the zone of bin Laden and al Qaida is to the north and west of Peshawar, Pakistan, the areas from which bin Laden mounted his mujahidin activities during the war against Soviet forces. In effect, with the injection of troops Obama promised at West Point, the largest cluster of US military force will be concentrated in the Helmand region to attack Taliban (Muslim fundamentalist) insurgents and heroin traffickers (maybe one and the same).
That means the current and anticipated war in Afghanistan is not really about terrorism or al Qaida, and it has not been for several years. Rather, our forces are launched on (a) a law enforcement mission to cut back on drug trafficking, (b) a domestic Afghan political mission to quell Islamic extremism, and (c) a probably hopeless task of separating Afghan political leadership from the drug trade. American policymakers have complicated their mission by trying to achieve advances in all three areas at once and quickly.
The US mission, as defined above, is simply military force led state building, and its world-wide track record is not promising. Rather, this prospect casts both Obama's surge and the idea of a long war in a very bad light. The US has now been conducting this "war" for eight years. By congressional estimates, it has spent more than $230 billion on Afghanistan operations that now cost substantially more than the reported $4 billion a month. It is spending an estimated million dollars per man to field US military forces in Afghanistan. After the Obama surge, that would put the base cost of Afghan operations at 100,000 times $1,000,000. That is $100 billion a year just for starters. The US is using resources on that scale against insurgents who fight with hand-held weapons and home-made bombs, and the effort is bogged down.
Time magazine recently reviewed the escalating costs of the Afghanistan mission in scary depth (see: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1942837,00.html#ixzz0YaAXN9R6). Those estimates, including numbers provided by the Office of Management and Budget, suggest that the commonly used numbers for Afghanistan operating costs are far too low. That is heavily due to the costs of fuel. Our forces, which seldom operate on a sustained basis from fielded positions, maneuver between secure military compounds and exposed combat locations. To operate this way, they expend a reported 22 gallons per soldier per day. That would amount to about 1.5 million gallons per day at a reported average delivered cost of $45 per gallon. That means present gasoline costs of $65-70 million per day. But those numbers probably understate costs due to the attritions of people and equipment associated with delivering that fuel over bad roads in hostile territory. The projected 30,000 additional troops would run this daily fuel cost to $95-100 million. These numbers imply that monthly costs of fuel alone would be well over half of presently reported costs of Afghan operations. Maybe that is where the $2.3 trillion the Pentagon reportedly lost might be found.
The proposal fielded by General McChrystal would increase forces by 80,000 men to about 150,000. That, his advocates argue, would be enough to win. How one calculates the force required to lift the US out of a bogged down condition is by itself tricky. But counterinsurgency (COIN) experts use a formula that is at least a benchmark indicator that the US is grossly underpowered for its undertaking in Afghanistan. And McChrystal's plan-even fully implemented-would fall well short of need. Experts say COIN forces should number 20-25 troopers per 1,000 people in the country under attack. For Afghanistan, with a CIA estimated 28 million people, the COIN number would be 560,000-700,000 troops, roughly 4 to 5 times the anticipated US-NATO force. Assuming the Afghani force can be built to the targeted 90,000 or so, and these forces were combat ready, the combined force would still be less than half the desired COIN strength.
However, the whole discussion of troop strengths, targets and missions could be a side trip if the US permitted a positive Afghani response to Taliban overtures. According to an AP report cited in the Los Angeles Times of December 3, the Taliban have offered possible peace terms through the Saudis. Their proposal, which is pretty straightforward, specifies (a) the US sets a deadline for withdrawal, (b) interim peacekeeping forces would be from Muslim countries, (c) the present Afghani government would be replaced with a power-sharing arrangement, (d) insurgent fighters would be brought into a new Afghani security and law enforcement system, and (e) no "foreign" fighters would be allowed to establish training camps or bases in Afghanistan. This proposal, if implemented, would leave the solutions to Afghanistan's internal political and leadership problems to the Afghanis.
Any US refusal to consider this proposal will raise difficult questions about American motives for invading Afghanistan. There are fairly reliable indications that a US plan to invade Afghanistan existed well before the attacks of 9/11. While al Qaida was a convenient excuse, it no longer holds as even minimal reason for a US occupation of Afghanistan. However, the broader US posture in the region suggests a probably enduring rationale. In Baghdad the United States has built an Embassy that is at least ten times as large as needed for a country of Iraq's modest size, population and even oil wealth. The US is now talking about building an equally gross representational facility in Pakistan.
Linking those two diplomatic missions via some robust establishment in or near Kabul would position the US astride all feasible energy exits from Central Asia to blue water except Iran and Black Sea routes through the Bosporus. The pipeline from Azerbaijan via Georgia and through Turkey to the Mediterranean has already established the western leg of this system. US-sponsored plans for oil and gas pipelines across Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean were at last partially under contract with the Taliban before the US invasion (See the February 1998 statement of Unocal VP John Maresca to Congress--in the Congressional Record).
Given such US ambitions for the region, it is simply going about it in the wrong way. Concede that a limited campaign to decimate al Qaida was legitimate. However, a broader campaign to decimate or eliminate the Taliban was probably doomed from the beginning. The Pashtuns, who include the Taliban, are the dominant tribal element of the Afghanistan population. As such, they have the right even to lead a majority government in Afghanistan. That the Taliban gained control after the Russians departed was a product of the country's lack of political infrastructure and spotty leadership history.
Knocking off the Taliban may have suited US interests at the time, but it was not necessarily in Afghanistan interest. Giving the country a narrowly US-supported leadership, as represented by Hamid Karzai, was predictably unlikely to achieve stability. The possibility that US forces can now achieve political stability-that is convert the Taliban and the Pashtuns into something the US likes-is remote. Leaving them to sort out their own political and religious conflicts is more likely to succeed over time.
The central US policy issue is how to proceed from here. Left to their own devices the Afghani people seem most likely to resolve their internal political differences without outside help. A so-called US military victory is unlikely to make much difference on that front. In fact, such a victory is more likely to leave an Afghani basket case in need of long term help and human redevelopment just to survive. Meanwhile, any effort to contain the residual al Qaida in either Afghanistan or Pakistan appears to have become a modest law enforcement operation, certainly with US law enforcement encouragement. This counsels early departure of US forces from the region and no surge moves to introduce additional US or NATO troops.
On the drug trade, any economist or informed politician would counsel a deliberate developmental approach. Unless the US goal is to undermine Afghanistan's national income and impoverish both its farmers and elites, the drug problem needs patient treatment. The key to the solution lies with making drug trade unprofitable. If that can't be done, killing traffickers and burning poppy fields will not fix the problem. Demand for heroin worldwide keeps the business profitable. Something deliberate and extensive must be done about drug demand in the wealthy countries. The situation is now in a state similar to where alcohol was before prohibition was ended. Buyers are ignoring laws against drug use. Sellers are supplying willing markets under the table.
Feeding the lives and limbs of more young Americans to this intractable problem appears somewhere between imprudent and insane. At the same time, no American politician who wishes to survive would tell the American people that the losses of their sons and daughters as well as growing expenditures of American taxpayer dollars have been about oil and gas or some intangible American geopolitical footprint ambition.
President Obama inherited a war that allegedly was started to avenge the attacks of 9/11. It was not a war to transform Afghanistan or modernize its people and politics. It is not a necessary war today. He will do himself and the American people a great service by terminating it at the earliest possible date. He can do that simply by saying that al Qaida has been defanged and reduced to dimensions that are now best manageable by law enforcement means. He can facilitate the political transition by encouraging Islamic countries to take on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. And he can accept-as indicated by the Taliban peace proposal-that the long term interests of Afghanistan lie with the peaceful reintegration of its people.
Over time the people of Afghanistan, with some resource support, can solve their internal political problems. Our involvement does not help this process. It only increases the tensions among groups in the Afghan population. On the other hand, unless the United States does something constructive about demand for heroin in our country, shutting down Afghan production will only stimulate the poppy fields of Myanmar, Mexico and Colombia. In the meantime, recognizing when it is time to silence the guns and bring out the peacemakers is a victory of good sense over chaos. We did that nearly a century and a half ago at Appomattox.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at
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