As rising U.S. and NATO casualty counts attest, the war in Afghanistan is heating up. It is doing so on Afghan time, which is to say slowly. When you have all the time in the world, why hurry?
An April 7, 2006 study by the London-based Senlis Council, "Insurgency in the Provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Nangahar," paints a somewhat alarming picture. I do not know who or what the Senlis Council represents, or what axes it may grind. The style of the report suggests English is not the first language of those who wrote it. But facts are still facts, and its report tracks with what I’ve seen elsewhere. The study states,
The Insurgency Assessment Report collates notes, evidence and facts gathered during a field visit of the three provinces…during the months of February/March 2006.
The visit was conducted by an independent field team, which met with civil, military and religious leaders in each of the provinces but also gained access to farming communities and other grassroots actors, with whom interviews and group meetings were conducted.
Speaking of all three provinces, the study says in its Executive Summary,
government control over the Pashto Belt, even at a limited level, is rapidly diminishing, with political volatility now reaching urban areas.
Volatility indicators — such as the free movement of insurgent groups in daylight and in the main cities — reveal that increasingly large areas of the South are falling under the influence of non-state actors.
At the core of this failure by the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government is a common and often fatal military phenomenon: conflicting objectives. On the one hand, the U.S. and its allies want to defeat the Taliban and other "terrorists." But at the same time, they also want to stop opium production. If the Senlis Council’s analysis is accurate, attempts to pursue the second objective are pushing us away from attaining the first.
Looking at Helmand province, the report says,
In eliminating the sole survival strategy of many of the farming families, eradication in Helmand is fueling the insurgency. Anti government forces are winning over the dilapidated farmers by offering economic assistance including the cancellation of debts and providing military protection from eradication.
The Coalition forces mandate covers counter insurgency and support to counter narcotics activities. It is being widely reported that eradication activities are being supervised by the US and British military…
Eradication is blunting counter insurgency efforts by pushing the local population toward the extremists…
The local population has now come to identify international troops with eradication activities rather than with reconstruction efforts.
The situation in the other two provinces is similar. Speaking of Kandahar province, the report states,
The majority of the Kandahar population are farmers living in rural areas. The farming communities of Kandahar are very actively involved in the cultivation and production of opium. The soil, weather patterns and limited water supply make opium one of the few viable crops in the region, and Kandahar farmers admitted that (they) would rather die than forgo their families’ only means of survival…
According to many farmers, the US and Canadian alternative livelihoods plans are farcical…
Determining strategic objectives, and ensuring that those objectives are not contradictory, is the job of the most senior level of command, in this case the White House. By demanding that U.S. and allied troops pursue two conflicting objectives simultaneously, the Bush administration has created a no-win situation. Efforts to defeat the Taliban only work if they can gain the support of the rural population, but poppy eradication pushes the rural population toward the Taliban and its allies. (One could add a third incompatible objective, promoting women’s rights in a conservative Islamic culture.)
President George W. Bush likes to say, "I’m the decider; I decide." The role of being the "decider" includes making sure that decisions are logically consistent. Mr. Bush is, from that perspective, a failed "decider" in Afghanistan. He failed similarly in deciding to invade Iraq as part of a global war against "terrorism," when the destruction of the Iraqi state proved, predictably, to work in favor of the "terrorists." He is failing yet again in picking quarrels with Russia and China when we need an all-states alliance against anti-state forces.
President Harry S. Truman said, "The buck stops here," in the Oval Office. When it comes to deciding on strategic objectives, President George W. Bush has torn the buck into confetti and tossed it to the winds of chance.