Knitting together an Afghan strategy.

Military analysis.
June 20 2006 6:28 PM

Knitting Together an Afghan Strategy

NATO tests the "ink-spot theory."

This is Fred Kaplan's first report from Afghanistan. For the second part, click here.

Recruits at Kabul's Afghan National Army Training Center learn how to load and aim rifles. Click image to expand.
Recruits at Kabul's Afghan National Army Training Center learn how to load and aim rifles

KABUL, Afghanistan—NATO's headquarters in Afghanistan occupy the same plot of land that the British army held in the 19th century during its two attempts to control the country, which both resulted in humiliating routs. "Third time lucky," said Brig. Nick Pope, with a nervous smile.

Fourth time, actually, since the Soviets laid their stakes on this ground too, until their own empire-shattering retreat.

Pope, a British officer who insists that lessons have been learned from the mistakes of the past, is the present-day commandant of the Kabul headquarters, a sprawling, almost uniquely green enclave in the northeast section of the Afghan capital, housing over 1,200 personnel from 27 nations. It's a long way from the area that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to defend in Cold War times. Yet nearly a dozen officers I spoke with, during a NATO-sponsored trip here last week, proclaimed that the future of the alliance rests on this mission's success.

NATO, it turns out, does have a strategy for Afghanistan—an intriguing mix of military force, economic development, and political empowerment that combines classic counterinsurgency theory with high-tech communications and more than a dollop of precision air power.

The big question, though, is whether Afghanistan is too far gone—too corrupt, barren, impoverished, and primitive, too dependent on poppy, too terrorized by the Taliban, too wide open to the Pakistani border—for any strategy to matter.

Either way, the Western campaign here is huge, much bigger than most press accounts indicate.

The air base in Kandahar, an hour's flight south of Kabul and the center of constant clashes with Taliban insurgents, is breathtakingly enormous—a 9-mile perimeter holding 10,000 personnel, a 10,000-foot runway (in the process of being doubled in size), hangars and parking spaces for over 100 jets and helicopters (each of which averages 70 hours of flight time per month, mainly for convoy escorts and medevac but also for the occasional bombing and strafing runs), as well as a handful of Predator drones. The base is, as one British officer puts it, "one of the busiest military airfields in the world"—and it's getting busier and bigger all the time.

(The day after the group I was with left Kandahar, insurgents blew up a bus carrying local workers to the air base. The workers had been, and their survivors still are, building the pieces of the airfield's expansion—the enlarged runway, additional housing, and so forth—a development that the Taliban clearly wants to delay or halt.)

Back in Kabul, an elaborate underground Command Joint Operations Center monitors and coordinates all military activity. Three enormous screens display detailed maps marking the location of U.S., NATO, and insurgent forces. Communications centers receive requests for air support—and transmit the orders to provide it. A bigger center is being constructed to link joint operations to a new joint intelligence command.

The point is, NATO seems here to stay for a long time—or at least it wants to convey this impression to the Afghan government and people, to the Taliban insurgents, and, not least, to itself.

The Afghan operation marks the first time NATO has led a major expeditionary combat force outside Europe, which is why the mission is regarded as a threshold—a test of whether alliances in general have a role in these sorts of conflicts and of whether this alliance in particular has any role in the post-Cold War world.

Problems have surfaced already. Spokesmen boast that 27 NATO nations are taking part in the operation. But, besides the United States, only four—Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, and Romania—have agreed to let their troops be stationed in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where almost all the fighting with insurgents is happening.

When NATO made plans to relieve the United States of command over all operations in Afghanistan (a gradual transfer scheduled to be completed this October), the assumption was that the military mission would shift from "counterterrorism" to "counterinsurgency"—from "going after bad guys for the sake of going after bad guys" (as one British officer snidely put it) to securing areas for the sake of promoting economic development.

Last week, Lt. Gen. David Richards, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, continued to speak of the "ink-spot theory" as the strategy's "central" concept. He was referring to a longstanding metaphor of counterinsurgency theorists. The commanders pick an area, send in troops to clear it of insurgents, and keep it secure—at which point government representatives and foreign aid workers come in and build roads, schools, whatever's needed or wanted. The example of this success spreads to other areas, where the sequence is duplicated, until gradually the country prospers, the insurgents lose favor with the population, and the central government—which has been taking credit for these successes—gains legitimacy.

U.S. and NATO commanders have sent throughout the country 21 Provincial Reconstruction Teams—joint civil-military projects—to do precisely this sort of work.

But then, starting a couple of months ago, the Taliban gummed up the works by going on the rampage after four years of relative calm. European politicians, who thought they'd voted to let their troops join NATO peacekeeping operations, suddenly found themselves in a shooting war. And the NATO commanders' subtle distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency—with its implicit jab at the bomb-happy Americans vs. the civilized road-builders of the alliance—began to blur.

Only a handful of PRTs have managed significant progress, and even their beneficiaries fear reversals if the security forces leave too early. In the PRT at Qalat, a town just north of Kandahar, the two U.S. Army companies are about to be replaced by two Romanian companies. Over the course of a 10-minute talk, the governor of Qalat told a group of foreign visitors three times, "Please don't let the Americans leave."

Even the headiest multilateralists are beginning to wonder if the transfer of authority, from the United States to NATO, might be premature. So, a division of labor is materializing. When the transfer takes place this fall, about 7,000 Americans will join the roughly 11,000 troops now under NATO command. But another 13,000 Americans based here will remain under separate U.S. command.

In other words, troops under NATO command (including those 7,000 Americans) will follow NATO rules of engagement, which allow "pro-active self-defense," a deliberately ambiguous term that permits commanders on the ground to fire when fired upon—and, at their discretion, to go after insurgents if, say, they're spotted on the other side of a hill. But these rules explicitly do not permit the initiation of offensive operations. By contrast, the U.S. rules, now and in the future, will allow offensive operations anytime, anywhere, with a special eye cast toward bombing the Taliban as they cross or gather along the Pakistani border.

NATO officers don't like to spell out this distinction. They want to convey an impression of a coherent and unified command. To a remarkable degree, they're succeeding. It's striking to see German, Dutch, British, and, yes, American officers working in the same room as if they were equals. But on a fundamental level, the Americans are still leading the pack, doing things that European politicians cannot agree among themselves to do. Quietly, many NATO officers prefer it this way. And this may be the best approach from an American standpoint as well. Better this, in any case, than having to pick up the entire burden, in cost, lives, and ill-fated stabs at legitimacy.

Let's say that this mélange coalition has a chance, that the ink-spot theory of counterinsurgency has validity, especially when reinforced by the judicious splatterings of 500-pound bombs. Two big uncertainties remain: Will we have enough "ink"—i.e., will the United States and NATO devote enough troops, money, and, if necessary, blood to the task? The ink-spot theory implies spreading success. Troops can't simply move from one area to the next. They have to stay in one area, to keep it secure—at least to some degree—while more troops join the effort in the next area.

By the fall, the United States and NATO will have, all told, 33,000 troops in Afghanistan—only half of whom are currently permitted to go fight in the south. This is a big country. Just the dangerous southern provinces—Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan—are, together, nearly as big as Germany. We may not have enough troops to control them.

There are three ways to expand troop levels. First, the Afghan national army could hold the lid on secured areas. Well, maybe some day. Judging from a quick tour of the ANA's training center in Kabul, this is as yet a nascent army: inexperienced, ill-equipped, able at best to fight alongside Western armies but not at all on its own. The Western governments have agreed to build up this army to 70,000 troops. (It currently totals 30,000.) But Gen. Mohammad Amin Wardaq, an Afghan army veteran and the commander of the training center, said that 70,000 "is a small number, a very small number." (Pentagon officials have recently said the number might shrink further, to 50,000.)

Second, there are the Afghan police, but they tend to be not just ill-equipped but incompetent and corrupt. One NATO officer notes: "They haven't been paid for three months—some not for six or seven months. How could they not be corrupt?" A reform campaign by President Hamid Karzai is improving things, but only slightly. Terence Jagger, Gen. Richards' political adviser, quoted one international study noting that of Karzai's 86 recent picks for chiefs of police, 13 are "corrupt, depraved, or both."

A third possibility is that the United States, NATO, or both will simply have to pour in more troops as their successes build. Is this likely? Much depends on whether there are successes—and whether they inspire Western nations to build on the achievements or declare victory and go home.

Finally, even if the Western nations perform with unparalleled brilliance and dedication, there is another obstacle—the craggy terrain and miserable history of Afghanistan itself. This is the ultimate question: Can any seedling planted on this forsaken soil bear fruit?

Coming Wednesday: Can freedom and opium mix?