The Obama administration is clearly determined to reverse Afghanistan's slide into chaos. Since January 2009 we have seen a new military commander and ambassador in Afghanistan, a re-examination of strategy, and the beginnings of a “surge” in American troops and civilian development workers. America's Afghanistan campaign, however, needs a more fundamental shift in priorities.
Over the past few years, the increased reach and effectiveness of the Taliban insurgency has led the U.S. government to take ever-stronger protection measures for its citizens in Afghanistan, including both soldiers and civilians. These robust measures unquestionably save American lives. Unfortunately, many do so by removing Americans to isolated zones where they can't achieve much. Troops fighting a counterinsurgency and civilian agencies carrying out development projects are alike ineffective unless they get out of the bunker and act in ways that engage rather than alienate the population. If American soldiers and development workers do not start accepting higher levels of risk as a matter of policy, a “surge” in U.S. efforts on either front will be utterly wasted.
Bagram Air Base stretches across the desert fringes of the lush Shamali Plain north of Kabul. In the 1980s, Bagram was the military nerve center for the occupying Soviet army, and countless planes took off from its dusty runways to carpet-bomb villages and shower aerial mines in remote mountain passes. The Soviets sought to break the rural Afghan insurgency by holding the major cities while devastating the countryside. Their strategy failed. At no point in the ten-year occupation did the Afghan mujahidin guerrillas overrun a city or a major fortified base like Bagram. But by sacrificing the countryside, the roads, and any chance at winning over the rural population, the Soviet Union still lost the war.
Today, Bagram is the main base for the American-led NATO force in Afghanistan. In response to the intensifying insurgency, it has sprouted labyrinthine battlements of razor wire, concrete, and HESCO bastions (bulky boxes of wire mesh and thick fabric filled with earth). Getting in is now a daunting odyssey even for visitors who can brandish a U.S. passport, let alone Afghan elders wishing to register a complaint or request. Getting out is harder still. According to defense consultant Joshua Foust, 93 percent of the soldiers at Bagram never leave the base. All movement in or out can be canceled abruptly in response to a perceived increase in risk. The last time I tried to visit Bagram, it was impenetrably locked down due to a Taliban attack earlier that day in Kabul, an hour's drive away.
Around Bagram, as in other areas of the country that were once considered safe, NATO military patrols are increasingly composed of enormous, heavily armored vehicles. They shield their passengers from gunshots and roadside bombs, but also render impossible any positive interactions with the people they pass on the road. Most Afghans consider the lumbering convoys to be more of a threat to civilian traffic than to insurgents or illegal militias. An Afghan colleague highlighted this as one of the regular reminders of occupation: “How would you feel if, when you are traveling in your own country, you have to drive for an hour behind this huge, slow armored vehicle driven by foreigners, and if you try to pass, they will shoot you?”
The fortifications, armor, and movement restrictions are all understandable responses to lethal dangers. But they hamper the ability of foreign troops to make ordinary Afghans feel more secure. The success of the Iraq “surge” stemmed in part from a move out of heavily fortified bases and into more vulnerable posts and patrols among the population. Despite the proliferation of Forward Operating Bases in rural Afghanistan, most foreign soldiers, including U.S. forces, remain pent up behind the ramparts. As the Soviet experience suggests, it is not enough for an army fighting insurgents to hold on to secured positions and major cities. Unless the progovernment forces are able to sustain a security presence in the countryside and improve the lot of ordinary Afghan villagers, they will lose to the insurgency.
At the moment, the foreign military forces in Afghanistan are too preoccupied with protecting themselves to give effective support to the Afghan army and police in this task. Foust, who spent ten weeks working in U.S. military bases in Afghanistan earlier this year, is an ardent critic of the “force protection” mentality and America's “relentless quest to ensure a casualty-free war.” He recalls a February 2009 conversation in Bagram with an intensely frustrated U.S. lieutenant colonel on the institutional incentives that push officers to avoid risking casualties, even when this compromises the overall mission. Whenever a U.S. soldier dies, a court-martial authority must convene a thorough Army Regulation 15-6 investigation, which for the soldier's commanding officer is at best stressful and demanding and at worst a career-ending debacle. “No one has ever gotten a 15-6 for losing a village in Afghanistan,” the American officer told Foust bitterly. “But if he loses a soldier defending that village from the Taliban, he gets investigated.”
While force-protection measures keep Western troops isolated from ordinary Afghans, the steady rate of civilian casualties drives a deep wedge of antagonism between them. The UN estimates that in the first five months of 2009, eight hundred civilians were killed in the fighting in Afghanistan—24 percent more than in the same period the previous year. UN investigations suggest that 55 percent of these civilian deaths were caused by the insurgents (through suicide bombings in urban centers, for example), while 33 percent were caused by foreign and Afghan forces. (The cause of the remaining 12 percent of civilian deaths has not been conclusively determined.) The popularity of the Taliban and other insurgent groups is dismally low in Afghanistan, largely because of their indiscriminate use of terror attacks. But in a fight like this, the government needs popular legitimacy much more than the insurgents do.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of NATO-caused civilian casualties on popular Afghan perceptions of the war. Besides causing tremendous outrage, they feed the widespread conspiracy theory that the United States is deliberately making the Afghan conflict worse in order to justify building permanent military bases in the country. Several months ago, I was trying to convince an old friend from southern Helmand province that the American and British troops in his area genuinely intended to beat the Taliban and rebuild Afghanistan. My Afghan friend, who like many Helmandis had lost relatives in the crossfire, shook his head with tears and appalled conviction in his eyes. “You have not seen what they have done in Helmand. Do you know how many women and children are bombed in Sangin and Garmser [districts]? They are not fighting the Taliban. They are fighting the normal people.”
The UN estimates that most of the civilian casualties on the government side are caused by NATO air strikes. These are particularly potent symbols in Afghanistan, given local memories of the Soviet carpet-bombing campaign. Some of these deaths result from bad intelligence sources, such as Afghan informants who claim that their tribal or political enemies are Taliban commanders. Such fatal mistakes result naturally from the isolation of military intelligence inside fortified Western bases. Many of the deaths, however, result simply from the fact that air strikes save the lives of foreign soldiers that would otherwise be lost in close ground combat. This has been a model for the new, reformed Afghan National Army, whose commanders boast that they can call in U.S. air support if the fighting gets too intense. The civilian casualties that result from these strikes are seen as a regrettable but necessary cost of saving soldiers' lives.
The Western forces have belatedly recognized the importance of their civilian-casualty problem. After years of downplaying the issue, NATO command began formally measuring such casualties in late 2007, and has slowly introduced policies to track and investigate all alleged Afghan civilian deaths. In early July 2009 the new commander of NATO forces, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, publicized a new directive on the issue and insisted that protecting Afghan civilians was a top priority. The new directive makes it clear, however, that air strikes can and will be used in self-defense if troops' lives are at risk.
Like many other means of protecting soldiers' lives in this war, the use of air strikes and artillery to fend off insurgents in rural Afghanistan is understandable but counterproductive. NATO is in far less danger of losing its Afghan war by losing Western troops than by losing the allegiance of people like my Helmandi friend. If we're really going to make Afghan civilian lives a top priority, we'll have to accept the responsibility to protect them even at the cost of NATO soldiers' lives. In the United States, soldiers are rightly honored for their sacrifices to protect and defend American civilians. If they expect the Afghan army to earn a similar level of legitimacy against the insurgents, NATO forces need to show by example that it is more important to shield civilians than to protect troops.
At the same time that the military has been doing its best to fight a casualty-free war, the companies responsible for spending most of U.S. aid dollars have been trying hard to find a path to liability-free development. Four years ago, I worked for an American development contractor in Helmand, the heart of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. With $18 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), our team aimed to create short-term wage labor for fifty thousand people in order to cushion the economic damage of a poppy-eradication campaign. We traveled widely around the province, escorted by small teams of local police, but these thuggish and ill-trained guards could not protect us when Helmand began sliding back into violence. In May 2005, seven of our staff and four other men associated with our work were murdered by the Taliban.
Those murders coincided with the start of the Taliban resurgence, which led to a shift in the security stance of the private-development contractors that carry out most USAID projects. Security measures that had previously been reserved for big infrastructure projects in Afghanistan's most insecure areas became the norm for companies in charge of agricultural programs, micro-loans, and other rural development work, even in relatively calm areas of the country. These contractors spent vast sums of money on armed guards, armored Toyota Landcruisers, and fortified offices and guest houses. To reduce liability, many agencies began requiring their international staff to be under armed guard at all times.
Up to that point, the security company used most widely by USAID contractors had been United States Protection and Investigations (USPI), a slapdash outfit that could offer bargain-basement prices owing to the minimal effort it put into training, equipping, and disciplining its Afghan militiamen. After 2005, development contractors began hiring more professional and far more expensive security companies. USAID approved tens of millions of dollars in additional spending. Yet those kinds of security changes probably would not have saved the lives of my Afghan friends and colleagues who were murdered in Helmand. The new protective restrictions focus almost entirely on international staff, not on Afghan staff. If anything, Afghans who work for development agencies face an increased danger these days, since they are more often sent to risky field locations to make up for constraints on expatriate travel.
They may also suffer by association with a high-profile, heavily armed agency. An Afghan friend working with a USAID contractor said that he tried not to travel with American staff and their armed escorts because he was afraid that he would always be regarded by the local people as an ally of the gunmen. The experienced Afghan “shooters” employed by private security contractors almost always come with their own factional allegiances, local rivalries, and enmities from the past thirty years of war. Ironically, they are often former police or soldiers from the Afghan Communist government of the 1980s. Once the target of American-funded jihadists, they are now paid to protect Americans because they're less likely to have jihadist links. Rural Afghans are more sensitive to this history and its political implications than most security companies acknowledge.
The alienation from local communities that can result from association with local gunmen is particularly crippling for development projects that rely on a change in local attitudes or practices. Take agricultural job creation, for example, which the Obama administration has rightly recognized as a key to development and stability in Afghanistan. Convincing farmers to adopt new crops or improved growing methods requires trust and regular interaction. The ability of a U.S. civilian to contribute to that process is diminished when he or she can only visit infrequently, accompanied by a squad of private militia. Traveling everywhere with armed men also increases the already considerable difficulty of doing meaningful work with Afghan women.
Heavy security restrictions also hamper the ability of the contractors to monitor their work. USAID itself has long struggled to monitor its projects in Afghanistan effectively, thanks to stringent security rules that make it all but impossible for most of its staff to leave the Kabul Embassy compound or the provincial military bases. Nearly all monitoring trips are short and telegraphed long in advance, making it unlikely that the visitors will catch errors and problems. Now many USAID contractors have begun to adopt security restrictions similar to the agency's.
I recently worked for five months as head of monitoring with a development contractor that had increased the security for its international staff. In a mountainous area with many remote villages, I was not allowed to visit any location that was more than five minutes' walk from a drivable road; the security team wanted to keep foreign staff close to the armored Toyota Landcruisers at all times. With too few vehicles and guard teams to go around, it was not always possible to follow up on activities or to check on reported problems in a timely manner. And since I was always accompanied by armed Afghans, it was difficult to arrange a confidential conversation with villagers.
True, when we had to investigate allegations that the rich commander of a local militia had stolen a huge quantity of wheat seed that was to have been distributed to poor farmers, I felt relieved to be traveling in a bulletproof vehicle. Yet the credibility of our investigation—which eventually suggested that the warlord had been unjustly accused—was compromised by the impossibility of visiting many of the sites where the seed had been distributed. The inability of international monitors to follow up properly on fraud complaints can only fuel the conviction, widespread among Afghans, that the international development process is a racket.
Calling for development contractors to accept more risk does not mean calling for more martyrs. In most areas of Afghanistan, it is still possible to manage civilian-development projects at acceptable levels of risk without resorting to heavy security. The Obama administration's promised “civilian surge” should be focused on those areas, and not on the areas where civilians can only venture out with arms and armor.
Afghanistan has a high concentration of development and humanitarian aid agencies, many of which have worked in the country for decades. During that time, these agencies have developed strong local knowledge and experience of what works. Most of them still have “no guns” policies. That is because they understand that the most important condition for security is community acceptance. They've learned that those who work with gunmen often alienate themselves from ordinary Afghans and get themselves embroiled in local conflicts, thus compromising the perception of their impartiality. The presence of gunmen also raises the profile of an aid agency, at a time when low-profile travel is one of the most effective ways to keep reaching communities.
Increasingly, however, these policies are coming into conflict with the heavy security used by USAID and its contractors. Smaller agencies that won't accept armed monitoring visits to their projects or sign on to a common security policy with their fellow subcontractors have come under pressure to change their policy or forfeit funding. In this way, USAID threatens to cut off support for the very agencies that are best equipped to reach communities and bring about tangible improvements in the everyday lives of Afghans.
The real battle in Afghanistan is for legitimacy—the legitimacy of the Afghan state and its allies against the Taliban insurgency. Millions of Afghans, exhausted by decades of war, are longing for a government that will protect them from violence and provide them with jobs. The still-feeble Karzai administration cannot live up to these expectations without support in the field from Western soldiers and development workers. It is in the interest of the United States and other Western countries to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing again into a state-shaped hole that exports heroin and violence around the world. But this goal will not be achieved unless America and its allies change the policies that put the protection of individual American soldiers and development workers above the overall mission in Afghanistan.
Read more of our Afghanistan coverage here.