Obama's Afghan challenge

Anita Inder Singh
12 November 2008

Afghanistan presents Barack Obama with one of his toughest foreign policy challenges when he takes over as president in January 2009. The Taliban now control at least one-third of the country; President Karzai's fledging elected government struggles to extend its authority beyond the capital Kabul; and wracked by growing divisions and doubts, NATO seems to be at risk of losing a seven-year old war.

Taliban violence in 2008 has grown at least 30 per cent since 2007. Violent incidents have gone up from 44 a month in 2003 to 573 this year, and more than 4,500 people have been killed since last January. In June and July the US lost more troops in Afghanistan than Iraq.

So it is not surprising that a slew of recently leaked secret reports by western and UN envoys in Kabul - and a leaked forthcoming American intelligence report - have expressed pessimism both about the course of NATO's operations in Afghanistan and the competence of Hamid Karzai's government. While the top priority of the outgoing Bush administration - and possibly of the incoming Obama government - seems to be to bludgeon the Taliban into military submission, many (including Paul Rogers on openDemocracy) have rightly suggested that a serious strategic rethink is in order.

Perhaps Washington assumed - or hoped - that the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 would lead, sooner rather than later, to stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. But early military success unraveled into problems for the country, the US and its NATO allies. Over the last seven years, Taliban insurgents have grown in strength across the country, exploiting the poverty of many Afghans, the weaknesses of undermanned and underfunded NATO operations, Karzai's poor governance, and endemic corruption.

Anita Inder Singh is currently a professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.

It is noteworthy that it was a military man, Lt General David Richards, the British commander of NATO/ISAF in 2006 - and who will take over as British army chief in 2009 - who stressed the importance of winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans. But his advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

One of the deeper causes of the problems facing Karzai and NATO is that both the military and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have been among the most inadequately funded peace-building operations in the world since 1945.

In effect, there are 1.2 NATO soldiers for every thousand Afghans, or four soldiers per thousand if the 85,000-strong Afghan security forces and all NATO personnel - totalling 143,000 - are taken into account. In contrast, there are 20 NATO soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants in Kosovo, and nineteen per thousand in Bosnia. Underfunding has also left most Afghan soldiers and policemen poorly trained and ill-equipped to take on the Taliban.

After winning the war, it is necessary to build the peace. It is outrageous that the US did not have any strategy for rebuilding Afghanistan after ejecting the Taliban government. The Bush White House never committed enough resources to seize the initiative and bolster efforts to reconstruct the country.

To some extent, this shortfall is a consequence of American entanglements in Iraq since 2003. Although Afghanistan is at the forefront of Washington's "global war on terror" - and has a larger population (32 million) than Iraq (28 million) - it is Iraq which has received the lion's share of the money disbursed by the Bush administration to protect national security.

From 2001 to 2009, the US allocated $171.1 billion for Afghanistan - compared to $653.1 billion for Iraq. The average expenditure on Afghanistan per year has been $21.46 billion; $108.9 billion for Iraq.

Insufficient troops and money have resulted in coalition forces being unable to consolidate their gains. Often when American troops win a battle, they are forced to withdraw after victory because they cannot afford to spread themselves too thin, leaving the door open for the Taliban to return. Not surprisingly, locals make deals with the Taliban simply because neither the Karzai government nor NATO can consistently maintain law and order and offer ordinary Afghans sufficient security.

Warnings from Lt-Gen Richards, as early as 2006, that Pakistan-sponsored militants were extending control over parts of Afghanistan went unheeded. The unfortunate result has been the widespread resurgence of extremist militancy in Afghanistan. Recent attacks on aid workers show that even humanitarian activities in Afghanistan are vulnerable to the rising tide of violence. The Taliban now control much of central, northern and western Afghanistan, and threaten Kabul.

It was not until 2007 that American officials recognised how closely development and security were intertwined in Afghanistan. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in his testimony to the House of Representatives Armed Service Committee on 10 September 2008, "We did not get to this point overnight, so some historical context is useful."

The underfunding of security, governance, and development efforts since 2001 has actually increased both the monetary and human cost of the war.

NATO countries have not given enough for reconstruction. Foreign aid to Afghanistan has been a mere $57 per capita per year. This is "peanuts" in comparison to aid to Kosovo and Bosnia, which received annually $526 and $679 per capita respectively.

The EU's economy comprises about one-third of the global economy, while the US makes up 27 percent. But Europe's contributions to Afghanistan are miniscule compared to those of the US.

At the Tokyo Conference in 2002, the European Commission (EC) pledged €1bn in reconstruction aid between 2002 and 2006. Since then, the EC has provided €657m to Afghanistan for reconstruction. Its financial allocation from 2007 to 2010 is a mere €610m. In contrast, the Bush administration asked Congress for an additional €900m for reconstruction, governance, and humanitarian activities for 2008 alone.

But Washington's aid agenda fails to adequately assist the agricultural development which could reduce the popularity of opium growing. Afghanistan's ailing economy does not at the moment offer opium-growing farmers alternative sources of livelihood. Financially ruined by three decades of war, these farmers can rarely be persuaded to give up opium cultivation when one hectare of poppies earns them ten times more than one hectare of wheat. In addition to offering farmers viable options within the agricultural economy, Afghan anti-drugs policing needs to be bolstered. The burgeoning opium market is fuelled by the weakness of the Afghan government's Counter-Narcotics Directorate (CND). The CND's budget is $3 million, while the drug economy alone last year generated $1 billion.

A sound anti-terrorist strategy must support reconstruction as well as improve security. Trafficking and a corrupt administrative and judicial system must be countered through more aid for development and for strengthening the rule of law. And more resources should be devoted to address the lack of aid workers in the country.

Over the next year the US may deploy another 15,000 to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, a strategy reportedly favoured by Obama.

Any increase in troop strength must be accompanied by more money both to fight militants and carry out reconstruction. As Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Congressional Armed Services Committee on 11 September 2008, Afghanistan needs more than just boots on the ground.

"It needs more trucks on the roads, teachers in schools, trained judges and lawyers in courts, foreign investments, alternative crops, sound governance, the rule of law - these are the keys to success in Afghanistan...We cannot kill our way to victory."

In the twilight of its tenure, the Bush administration is unlikely to be a source of strategic rethinking. The challenge facing Obama demands not only renewed commitment, but bold imagination to make military and human security a reality in Afghanistan.

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