War in Afghanistan

The Security for a New Century Study Group was honored to host Dr. Catherine Dale,
specialist in International Security at the Congressional Research
Service (CRS), for a discussion of her recent report on strategic and
military operations in Afghanistan. The terrain in Afghanistan is
forbidding and its troubled history leaves it unequipped to handle the
array of coalition forces present there. Some 40 countries, each with
their own domestic political considerations, operate under NATO’s
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Although NATO faces a
challenge coordinating these groups, the United States has the most at
stake because it contributes troops to both ISAF and its own unilateral
operations for a total of 37,000 troops.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is fragmented. The U.S. military
along with NATO are entangled in a counterinsurgency (COIN) operation
where the questions “Are we winning?” and “Who is the enemy” are often
hard to answer. The enemy is not a monolithic threat. Rather,
understanding the diverse nature of the insurgency is essential to
effectively combating it. The insurgency is a loose network of native
insurgents and foreign fighters who find safe haven in Pakistan and
receive their funding from narcotrafficking. The Taliban, while
unlikely to consolidate authority, has an increased de facto power that
threatens to draw in already increased numbers of fence-sitters.
Despite these very real difficulties, Dr. Dale was confident that
quelling the insurgency was an achievable aim. However, her prognosis
for long-term stability in Afghanistan was less optimistic. She
suggested that the deeply entrenched problems of poor governance and
lack of economic growth would take a great deal of time to solve.

Regional players including Russia, China, India, and especially
Iran and Pakistan have a complex role in Afghanistan. Iranians seek to
halt the flow of narcotics into their country and therefore shares an
interest in the stability of Afghanistan. But this common aim is
confounded by the lethal aid it gives to insurgents near their border
region. The real concern, however, lies with Pakistan. COIN operations
entail smothering the insurgency, which is impossible given the free
escape hatch provided by the border areas. Dr. Dale raised an important
question that scholars, policymakers, and military strategists are all
considering right now: “How much of Pakistan do you need to fix in
order to solve Afghanistan?”

In addition to the complex insurgency and troubling regional
neighbors, another issue that is less prominent but possibly more
significant in the Afghanistan theater: logistics. The destruction of a
US supply line could ruin an entire operation. One caveat toward a
troop increase is that more troops mean more supplies, so the US should
seriously seek to diversify its supply lines.

The most arduous challenge, however, is the issue of
civil-military partnership and the establishment of governance. The
primary role for any new troops should be to secure the population in
unstable areas, most notably in the eastern and southern regions, as
well to train Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). Moreover, while
there is already a significant civilian presence in the country,
matters outside of Kabul are still dealt with largely by the military
and do not always reflect a “bottom-up” approach that utilizes the
societal structure of the Afghan people. Since the most difficult long
term challenge in Afghanistan is, indeed, governance, an influx of
civilian capability should undoubtedly accompany any increased military

The situation on the ground in Afghanistan calls for the
coordination of clear and achievable objectives by the US and its NATO
allies. Fundamental questions remain about the nature of the conflict,
the national interests at stake, and the necessity of a non-military
presence in Afghanistan to move toward a successful reconciliation of
the conflict.

“Security for a New Century” is a bipartisan study group for
Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy
professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security
environment. All discussions are off-the-record. It is not an advocacy
venue. Please call (202) 223-5956 for more information.

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