In the Arena

What’s Happening in Afghanistan?

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Dexter Filkins has a fascinating, if confusing, piece today about the negotiations that have begun between the Karzai government and high-level elements of the Taliban…but not including the highest-level element, Mullah Omar. What is unclear is whether Omar–who has been “cut out” of the negotiations–has authorized his deputies to launch the talks, or whether they’ve gone rogue and are doing this on their own. (There are also talks, apparently, with the two other main Taliban groups, the Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks).

Meanwhile, Fred Kaplan, David Ignatius and I have come under some friendly fire from the estimable and indefagitible Paula Broadwell, who argues that we’ve been wrong about the apparent rebalancing of the Afghanistan effort in a more kinetic, less COINistic, direction. My sense is that she’s right and she’s wrong. She’s right that the amping up of kinetic operations in Kandahar Province was part of the grand plan, laid out by General McChrystal’s staff to Ignatius and me (among others), in Kabul last spring. The operation was supposed to be over by Ramadan; it was delayed, for various reasons, and is well under way now. She’s also undoubtedly right that COIN operations–the effort to provide security and services for the civilian population–may be making progress in some parts of Afghanistan. And she is absolutely right that Petraeus, in his usual fashion, has increased the intensity of all aspects of the mission, especially intelligence (and with General Bill Caldwell in charge, the training of Afghan forces).

But she ignores a significant requirement in the counterinsurgency manual: that a reliable host country partner is an absolute necessity for COIN to succeed. In my experience–and the experience of almost every other human who has studied Hamid Karzai’s government–no such partner exists in Afghanistan, especially in Pashtun areas like Kandahar Province, which is the heart of the Taliban insurgency. My guess is that the real goal of the amped up special ops, airstrikes and conventional sweeps in Kandahar has changed: the immediate purpose is to inflict enough pain on the Taliban that they hurry to the negotiating table and start talking for real. The idea that American troops and aid workers can help the Afghans build a reliable government in Kandahar is a longshot, at best–no less than the 10-year effort that Petraeus and other COIN experts always talk about–and a quixotic waste of lives and money at worst. The more likely, but still improbable, scenario is that Karzai and the Taliban will arrive at some sort of understanding about the governance of the Pashtun lands.

These are differences in nuance, not substance. The fact is, for the last six months, the special ops part of the full-spectrum military equation has been a lot more effective than the community-building–that has, de facto, changed the balance of effective operations. Broadwell is tilting at a windmill that doesn’t exist.